Tara Lynne O’Neill: 'I knew Derry Girls was something special'

The actor best known as Ma Mary talks about hideous jumpers, being married to Tommy Tiernan on screen, and her new play about women footballers

When Tara Lynne O’Neill first auditioned for Derry Girls, she didn’t get the part because she looked too young. The gas thing is, her character – Ma Mary – was actually around about her own age, early 40s. Ma somehow seems older, more dowdy. It’s amazing what an awful hairdo can do, especially paired with a lumpy jumper.

O'Neill is unrecognisable on screen as mouthy Mary Quinn, mother of Erin in the hit sitcom Derry Girls, the ferocious, no-nonsense mammy with a terrifically acidic tongue.

In Derry Girls "I look so much like my mother. I brought in a photograph of my mam and said, 'that's what I'd like to look like'. And Kathy Pryor, who does the costumes, we just have such fun finding really hideous jumpers.

There was a generation that had their children and then dressed like mammies. They had elasticated waistbands that were fabulous. There were no skinny jeans

“Being a woman, you’re used to spending so much of your life as an actress being made to look beautiful, and suddenly you just get to be really frumpy and have bad hair. It’s really wonderful, so freeing, to be suddenly in my 40s and not have to be on a diet. I can have my fry in the morning and don’t worry because there’s so much jumper to hide it.”

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And that hair. “When I was 14, 15 in the ’90s I had the same perm as my mam and my granny. At my sister’s wedding all of us had the same perm. It was like you got seven perms for the price of one!

“There was a generation that had their children and then dressed like mammies. They had elasticated waistbands that were fabulous. There were no skinny jeans. Now mammies don’t dress like mammies.”

Derry Girls is set during the late 1990s, but the world it portrays seems like even longer ago. "We were always slightly behind [the Republic]," says O'Neill of her own childhood in Belfast, "always playing catch up. Even in the decor. Obviously we all thought we were very up with the times."

O'Neill is vivacious, warm, glamorous, funny, a lot of craic – and very chatty. When her mother died she came across some old school reports "which mostly said I'd do so much better if I stopped talking. And I thought, isn't it funny that I got a job where talking is my main thing."

She could indeed talk for Ireland; certainly she could talk for Northern Ireland, which she is passionate about. She grew up in Andersonstown in west Belfast, the youngest of seven, and adores her large, close family, including 18 nieces and nephews, some of whom now have children of their own.

“There was always talking in our house. If there was silence there was something wrong.”

She’s lived in London and Dublin (in Ranelagh), and works all over, but “I’ve always come home no matter where I lived or worked”.

She "dragged" her partner, lighting designer Paul Keogan, from Dublin to live in Belfast too. She hastens to add she's well on for travelling for a job. "If I got six months in Australia – I could still come home. And six months in Barbados would be fantastic," she laughs.

As a child she and her brother spent every summer in Derry, staying with their older sister, who lived there with her own kids. “My mam used to send us to Derry with £10 for the summer, and we had the best of times.”

After school O'Neill landed a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but "obviously, being the youngest of seven, it was not a chance" financially. She basically learned on the job, starting in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's film Nothing Personal, learning from him, and later from John Hewitt at the Lyric, and many other colleagues along the way. Her first big break was playing Phil Mitchell's nanny in EastEnders, and she's done film, stage and TV.

"I became an actor because I wanted to work with people. I found another family outside of my family. Even with one-woman shows [she's back in Shirley Valentine at the Lyric in Belfast at the end of February] it's a team. It's just like Derry Girls – it's a family. Everyone relies on everyone else."

Because they’ve filmed two seasons of Derry Girls so far, “we’ve got to know each other. And these friendships are for life.” The third series is shooting from May to July this year, and there are rumours of a film (“I know nothing!”).

The first scene O'Neill filmed for Derry Girls was the "punt purse", where the family drives south to escape the 12th of July parades in Derry. She describes being in the car with Tommy Tiernan (her husband Gerry), Nicola Coughlan (Clare) and Dylan Llewellyn (James) – with baby Anna (played mostly by a doll) in the back.

“We drove around the mountains all day, stopping when we couldn’t film in the rain. It was Tommy and I getting to know each other for eight hours. It was then I knew that this was going to be something special. Because obviously the lines are brilliant. But I knew, this is really special.”

Another favourite filming experience was from series two, with Eleanor Methven as Aunt Bridie in the coffin and Ma and Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) trying to steal her earrings. "I'm a huge admirer of Eleanor Methven, not just as an actress but just a human being. She had to lie in the coffin for five hours. And in between scenes you were just leaning over, asking, are you all right? And asking her questions. I'm getting to do a scene with Eleanor Methven, even if she's dead – and I'm delighted! And Kathy Kiera Clarke – just the three of us, it was joyous."

Clarke is a friend since they filmed The Most Fertile Man in Ireland together. Ian McElhinney (Granda Joe) has directed her, and his wife is a friend. But Derry Girls was the first time O’Neill met Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle) and Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin) and the other members of the cast.

“And they’re amazing young women. They’re a different generation to me. They’re fearless in a way, and they teach you an awful lot... they’re not afraid to make a mistake. I grew up in a time where fear of failure was everything. They’re like, if you fail, you just get up and do it again. I’m very fond of Saoirse, obviously, because she’s my daughter. And I’m very close to Siobhan [McSweeney], who plays Sister Michael. And Ardal O’Hanlon, to watch him work, he’s wickedly funny.”

What’s it like being married to Tommy Tiernan? “Well, what woman wouldn’t want to be married to Tommy Tiernan?” she jokes. “He’s a joy. Tommy’s TV show is a real show of who Tommy is. He’s really interested in people, curious. I’ve learned a lot from him as an actor, as a comedian, and as a person. He’s so giving. And he has the patience of a saint, to be fair now.” Why so? “Ah but, sure we all talk him to death!”

The humour of the sitcom is very much of Derry, of the North. But it’s been a global hit, “so there’s a dynamic people all over the world can understand. It’s a family dynamic.” And also, “when you’re 15, you think the world revolves around you.”

I love the North. I love the vibrancy it has now. I love the people. The culture is ever-changing, but the people are still the people. They are fab

She talks about the last scene of the first series, which ends with news of the Omagh bomb. "I find it deeply moving because I was a child of the '90s. My mam would say, you have to be in by this time. And I pushed that boundary and came a little bit later, not really aware: it was a dangerous time. It wasn't about control. It was about knowing you were safe. And that beautiful moment at the end, where they're dancing, carefree. And the parents at home, worrying about the bomb. It made me think how hard it must have been for my parents."

She recognises that age, when “what mattered to me was your little group of friends, where we were going to go on a Friday, and you were totally unaware . . . and that’s where Lisa [McGee]’s written it so beautifully. And at the same time, you’ve got Aunt Sarah worried about getting to the sunbed, and there’s a bomb on the bridge. It’s the normalcy of the conflict.”

When we meet, she's in Dublin for Embrace a Giant Spirit, a Seamus Heaney evening in Christ Church, organised by Tourism Northern Ireland and curated by the Seamus Heaney HomePlace literary centre in Bellaghy, Co Derry.

“I love the North. I love the vibrancy it has now. I love the people. The culture is ever-changing, but the people are still the people. They are fab.”

The evening is showcasing Northern food and literature, and promoting the HomePlace’s new trail of locations which inspired the Derry poet.

She loves Seamus Heaney's poetry, and got a kick out of reading his poem Markings (which is about playing football on a summer evening) at the event, which has resonances for her. She's written a play, Rough Girls, which will be staged at the Lyric during the Belfast International Arts Festival in October. The title is from Oscar Wilde's quote, "Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but is hardly suitable for delicate boys", and is set in 1917 before the Football Association in England banned women from playing on affiliated grounds as "it wasn't suitable for girls".

There will be 11 women on stage. “When I go to the theatre I want to see women like me, my own life reflected,” O’Neill says. A play can be set anywhere, “but I want to be able to see women of my generation who aren’t just on the outskirts or, as I say in the play, that we’re not standing on the sidelines applauding – we’re actually in the game.

“When I was younger,” she continues, “I would have taken every job that came along. Now I want to do the stuff I want to do, because then you can give your all.”