Analysis: the Irish comedian's appearance in Tyler Perry's new film suggests how much Ireland and Black America have in common

By Mary Burke, University of Connecticut

Brendan O'Carroll's character Agnes "Mammy" Brown, the heart of the long-running RTÉ-BBC series, Mrs. Brown's Boys, now features in A Madea Homecoming. This is the new film from African-American powerhouse comedian, writer, producer, and director, Tyler Perry, which is currently streaming globally on Netflix.

The title character of the highly-successful Madea comedy franchise is a resilient and sharp-tongued African-American matriarch played - not always uncontroversially - by the male Perry. His name may be unfamiliar to most Irish people, but Perry is - and there is no better way to put this - the Brendan O'Carroll of America.

Although the Madea franchise is routinely dismissed as being lowbrow (a criticism that its fans, like those of Mrs. Brown's Boys, ignore), it mixes its sensational family comedy drama with topical socio-political storylines. In the latest film, in which the Black Lives Matter movement is addressed, a further plotline is that Madea's great-grandson, Tim, comes out of the closet, making him the franchise’s first openly gay character. For all of the retrograde aspects of a brand of humour that relies upon crude references to an elderly woman’s bodily functions, O’Carroll has likewise gravitated to progressive issues lending his Mrs Brown creation to the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland, for instance.

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Trailer for Tyler Perry's A Madea Homecoming

Agnes's pronunciation of "knickers" is initially heard as a racial slur by Madea’s shocked clan, suggesting how the film’s heavy-handed humour draws from America’s far-from-funny history of racism. But Irish criticism about O’Carroll’s star turn appears, at least initially, to have nothing to do with hard-hitting issues. Instead, it's a complaint that Netflix’s English captions have rendered Agnes’s daughter’s pronunciation of "mammy" as "mummy." (In fact, it is not always clear which word Jennifer Gibney is using in her Cathy Brown role.)

To an Irish commentator, this replacement may seem merely irritating, but America’s racial history explains any deliberate decision to make a substitution. 'Mammy' is a historical stereotype of Black women who took care of white children that emerged from pro-slavery literature in the early 19th century. The unfailingly loyal "mammy" was depicted as a sunny, overweight, motherly woman, content with being enslaved or with her servant role.

Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939), adapted from Irish-American author Margaret Mitchell's novel of that title, is the most familiar example of the stereotype to Irish audiences. Although it concentrates on daughter Scarlett O’Hara, Mitchell’s 1936 novel begins with Scarlett’s Irish-born slave plantation-owner father, Gerald, who sees no connection between the oppression in Ireland he had fled and the South’s slave system.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline in October 2021, Brendan O'Carroll talks about 10 years of Mrs Brown's Boys

Gerald’s Catholic landowner ancestors had been vanquished by Cromwell, and he vows that the "fortunes of the O’Haras would rise again." However, Black bodies pay for the sins of Cromwell, and Gerald shakes off any instinctive empathy he might have felt for those he enslaves. Mitchell’s genealogy, too, reflects the fact that the oppressed Irish could become oppressors when the opportunity arose: her Tipperary-born great-grandfather, whose family fled the 1798 Uprising, owned a slave plantation in Georgia.

Even if the switch from 'mammy' to 'mummy' was merely the inadvertent result of a caption algorithm, it does not detract from the commendable fact that the Perry-O'Carroll crossover generated a storyline that takes on Black Irish identity. Much noise is being made about Tim’s coming out, but a quietly ground-breaking plot point has gone unnoticed.

Tim brings his college roommate along to the family gathering to celebrate his graduation from college, and this friend, the mixed-race Davi O’Malley (played by Isha Blaaker), is the son of an Irish mother and had lived with his great-aunt in Ireland. This is the pretext by which Brendan O'Carroll joins the action since Davi’s great-aunt turns up for the graduation shindig and is revealed to be Agnes Brown.

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From RTÉ Podcasts, first episode of The Black & Irish podcast with Leon Diop, Femi Bankole, Amanda Ade and Boni Odoemene

"I'm Irish," Davi announces to Madea’s clan, and no one bats an eyelid. The impossibility of the category of Black Irish in the strictly segregated universe of Gone with the Wind is mocked in Alice Randall’s 2001 parody novel, The Wind Done Gone, in which almost everyone, Scarlett included, turns out to be mixed-race. (The latter novel is more historically accurate in this regard.)

The election in 2009 of a Black president descended from a Famine-era Co Offaly emigrant challenged the belief that to be Irish American is invariably to be white, though it surfaces when Madea's African-American family connection, Mr. Brown, laughs uproariously at the joke that he and Mrs. Brown must be related. However, Perry’s creation of Davi ultimately implies that Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown could be related. Agnes invites Madea to Ireland at the film’s close, so we may eventually find out.

A Madea Homecoming suggests how much Ireland and Black America share - not least a love of straight middle-aged male comedians dressed in women's clothes

The theme of the returned emigrant seeking roots in the "auld sod" – exemplified by The Quiet Man – was knowingly reversed by Roddy Doyle's short story Home to Harlem in The Deportees and Other Stories. This 2007 story is about a mixed-race Irish student who travels to New York to track down his African-American GI grandfather.

This underlines how recognition of the complex history of Black-Irish relations in America is also emerging in Irish culture. As Mitchell's genealogy and novel intimate, it is not always a pretty history, but it is, nonetheless, one that is increasingly being acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. Altogether, A Madea Homecoming suggests how much Ireland and Black America share - not least their love of straight middle-aged male comedians dressed in women’s clothes.

Prof Mary Burke directs the Irish Literature Concentration at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of Race, Politics, and Irish America (OUP) and of the Afterword to Tramp’s reissue of Juanita Casey’s Horse of Selene, both forthcoming.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ