‘The homeless crisis is outrageous. We’re not a third world country’
‘Dancing with the Stars’, a new stand-up show, life is hectic for comedian and actor Deirdre O’Kane – but that doesn’t stop her working tirelessly for homeless charities. What motivates her? Anger
Deirdre O'Kane: "I’m in an industry where 99 per cent of people in it are unemployed at any given time"
It’s been two days since the Dancing with the Stars final and Deirdre O’Kane is already onto the next thing because Deirdre O’Kane never stops. For the last 20 years, O’Kane has been a household name and following a seven-year break from stand-up comedy, she makes her grand return with A Line of O’Kane.
“Do you like me title?!” she faux pleads in a dramatic fashion. Still on a high from making it to the final of Dancing with the Stars and having her 50th birthday broadcast across the nation – “Having lied about my age for so long it’s just gas. It’s like ‘go on, Dee, announce it to the bloody whole country, why don’t you’.”
O’Kane’s life is hectic but that’s how she appears to thrive. When she danced for Ireland every Sunday for three months, she didn’t press pause on the rest of her work. She hosted the IFTAs in February, wearing all black in support of the Time’s Up movement, and she was one of the driving forces behind the Paddy’s Night Comic Relief event that was held in the 3Arena. No matter what happened every Sunday in Ardmore Studios, she says, she was up making sandwiches for her kids Holly and Daniel, on Monday morning before the school run. “That expression, if you want something done, ask a busy person, is a truism. We can all do so much more than we think.”
She hasn’t had the time to process the dancin’ just yet but it’s bound to be dissected in A Line of O’Kane. “Please God there’s half an hour in it. It will all come out then!” she hoots. “I thought that I would write – this is my naivety with Dancing with the Stars – I thought that I would write for four hours in the first half of the day and dance for the second half of the day. I was so green . . . That didn’t happen.”
From Paths to Freedom to Intermission, from representing the strong Irish mammies who sported the Mary Robinson ‘do’ in Moone Boy to playing the children’s rights campaigner Christina Noble in the 2014 movie Noble, which her husband Stephen Bradley wrote and directed, it would seem that strong roles find their way to O’Kane. She’s quick to point out that it’s not that simple.
‘It’s just luck’
“If it was about choice and it was that easy, I’d say yeah but I’m in an industry where 99 per cent of people in it are unemployed at any given time so . . . A lot of it isn’t choice, it’s just luck and if you happen to be right for a particular role,” she says. “If you get to play strong, funny women, that’s as good as it gets in my opinion. If you can be strong and humorous at the same time, that’s the gold.”
With the Time’s Up movement in full swing, she’s hopeful things will improve for women in her industry. She commends the Irish Film Board’s equality strategy to increase diversity in film and TV but she adds that across the board, women are routinely overlooked for their achievements. She names Noble as one of those women.
“One of my bugbears is the Freedom of the City. I have a real bugbear about that. I think it’s three Irish women that have received the Freedom of the City out of 100,” she says with the exasperation of someone who’s had this conversation dozens of time.
“She has fed and educated a million children and donated her life to it – 30 years at the coalface. I mean, at the coalface, like in the gutters, in the ground and she hasn’t been given Freedom of the City. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. In the credits [of the movie Noble], she had an OBE from the Queen and that’s the credit we put at the end of the movie. When’s that going to stop?”
In 142 years, five women in total have received Freedom of the City of Dublin and it’s just one Irish woman, Maureen Potter, who has received the honour. “It’s outrageous. I am a great fan of both Bono and Bob Geldof because they are humanitarians when they don’t have to be. So anyone that does it, I admire hugely, but they’ve got nice rock-star lives,” she lets that fact hang for a second. “Christina takes a minuscule salary, enough to get by on, and has committed her life to it. So, for the love of God, I think time is up.”
O’Kane is impassioned about correcting the wrongs around us so her involvement with Focus Ireland on Ireland’s Great Get Together is a perfect fit. With sponsorship from Bord Gáis Energy, the Great Get Together encourages people to ‘get together’ –whether it’s a walk or a coffee morning or just a few pals sitting around drinking vino of a Friday – and raise money to prevent family homelessness. O’Kane has a sense of responsibility when it comes to doing something – anything – to help. When she moved home to Dublin from London about three years ago, she saw the crisis – as plain as day – out on the streets and paired up with the Syrian refugee crisis, it was an “absolute” turning point for her and she took action.
Pairing up with Kite Entertainment’s Darren Smith, who produces Gogglebox Ireland and Ireland’s Got Talent, they brought Comic Relief to Ireland. This year’s Paddy’s Night Comic Relief event had Tommy Tiernan, Panti Bliss, Jason Byrne, Dara Ó Briain and Alison Spittle on the bill and they hope to surpass the €212,000 raised at last year’s gig.
‘Avoided at all costs’
Where O’Kane is modest in her involvement in the event, Smith fills in the blanks. “Deirdre O’Kane is to be avoided at all costs. Answering a call from Dee can result in finding yourself knee-deep in conference calls with lawyers, accountants, people who regulate charities and various other very smart people who make you wonder why you didn’t just have a cake sale,” he says in an email. “Only she could assemble the line-up we’ve had for the last two years on our Paddy’s Night Comic Relief gigs and – to be fair – it’s not just because she bullies the comics into submission but mainly because she is actually a very thoughtful person who wants to do something for those who are in real need.”
John Nolan, her dancing partner for 13 weeks, describes her as “a grafter to the bone”. Backing up Smith’s sentiments, he says that while there’s a hard touch to her, she’s the softest and most caring person he’s met. “She’s actually going to take on the nation, like, to change everything,” he says. “Dee doesn’t want any credit, no nothing. She just wants to get in and get the work done. She isn’t into any of the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ shite.”
There’s an immediate no-nonsense approach in how O’Kane carries herself. She sees her work with Focus Ireland as a necessity and doesn’t understand how more people aren’t up in arms about the fact there’s close to 9,000 homeless people in Ireland. “Surely after 10 years of recession, we all know we’re only one step away from it. Like, one step away. You know, a bit of bad luck, a bit of ill health. You get a fright like that and you are one tiny, little step away from it,” she says. “And I think that everybody who went through the recession kind of experienced that. I don’t know a person that wasn’t affected by it. It’s the feckin’ vulture funds. Get them out of our country. Get them out.
“I don’t think we’re proud of the fact that we have a homeless crisis. It’s absolutely outrageous in my opinion. We are not a third-world country. It just shouldn’t be happening. I do think everyone is trying to stop it. I think if these guys, the homeless charities weren’t containing it, it would be a catastrophe. I don’t think people realise how much the charities are containing the problem. That’s why I’m so happy to support them. They need all the support they can get. They’re unbelievable. I do actually think that the politicians are trying. I just wish that they’d be faster.”
Alison Spittle once described O’Kane as unflappable, another sentiment that Nolan agrees with, but this is the kind of praise that O’Kane can’t entertain. “It’s not true. Anyone that works hard knows that . . . It’s probably the small things are the things that . . . It’s when the washing machine breaks,” she says. “You could be in crisis and you’re handling huge things and then your feckin’ washing machine breaks. My hairdryer exploded in the middle of Dancing with the Stars and I nearly lost my mind. I just didn’t have time to go to the shops to buy a new hairdryer and it was one of the things where you just go ‘I’m gonna f***in’ lose it now. It’s the f***ing hairdryer that’s going to kill me in the end’.”
Funny, sharp, kind and almost completely unflappable, O’Kane puts her ability to handle the big stuff down to experience. “Age is a good thing too, isn’t it? You know that you’re lucky to be around,” she says. “And I think about the things that happened during Dancing with the Stars. Emma Hannigan passed away and I was f***ing devastated about it and then you just go: ‘Get on with the dancing show, like. Get your shit together, like. It’s a dancing show. Try and entertain the people. Try not to take yourself too seriously. Work hard. Plaster a smile on your face and get on with it like.’”
Ireland’s Great Get Together is a funding initiative by Focus Ireland to raise vital funds and combat family homelessness. Taking place from April 20th to 22nd, the event is supported by Bord Gáis Energy as part of its ongoing partnership with Focus Ireland. To register an event for Ireland’s Great Get Together, log on to focusireland.ie to request a registration pack