Described by Miriam O'Callaghan as "the busiest woman in Ireland," Imelda May, not content with being one of our finest singers and poets, has now set her sights on becoming one of our finest actors. The Dubliner is taking on the role of Kathleen Behan, mother of Brendan, in Peter Sheridan’s play, Mother of All the Behans. Miriam asked Imelda to tell her what Kathleen was like:
"She was a wealth of knowledge within her songs. She knew every song in that people would study her. The Dubliners would learn songs from her. She kept a wealth of our history, you know, all our songs that would have been lost otherwise. And she did everything with a huge sense of humour. She was witty and she was sharp."
Kathleen was widowed by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, when she had one young son and another one on the way. She was forced to take whatever work she could to support her young family and one of the more interesting jobs she had for a while, Imelda highlights, was working as a receptionist for none other than Maude Gonne:
"She listened. She took in everything with Maude Gonne and Countess Markievicz and James Joyce and she knew Michael Collins well. And she has all these amazing stories about all of these people that she knew."
Although Kathleen wasn’t a big drinker, she and her second husband, Stephen (Brendan’s father) would go down to the pub and she would sing:
"She’d go down to the pub and she’d sing all night long. Every song. And the two of them would sing together."
Taking on the job of portraying the formidable Kathleen is thrilling for Imelda – but it has its scary aspects as well:
"I’m absolutely terrified to – not to get it right. If I was reading it, I’d be flying, but just to get it all into my head. To get, you know, a full – it's a one-woman play, it’s just meself on the stage and it’s just to try it, I’m just working away every single day to try and get the whole thing to stay in my mind, you know, all of the dialogue. That’s what’s terrifying. Dear God, please let me remember!"
Learning all those lines aside, Imelda is feeling good about telling Kathleen’s story because she believes it’s an important story that needs to be told:
"There’s such a wealth of our history within her words, and how life was and how she and people around her shaped the way we’re living now."
Imelda is, of course, no stranger to the stage, but this will be her first time acting in front of an audience and Miriam wonders if it’s very different to what she’s done to date. Yes and no is the answer – in the end, it all comes down to storytelling:
"I just love telling stories. I love getting people’s stories out there, whether they’re mine or somebody else’s, you know, I just love storytelling. I’m an old seanchaí at heart."
You can hear Miriam’s full chat with Imelda by going here.
Mother of All the Behans by Peter Sheridan will run at the 3Olympia, Dublin in August.