Memories of the past, ideas for the future

At home on the farm

Mary McEvoy played the role of Biddy Byrne in ‘Glenroe’ from 1983 to 2000, exiting the show in a dramatic car crash a year before it was taken off air. Since then she has been in plays such as ‘Big Maggie’, ‘Sive’ and ‘Shirley Valentine’; has written a memoir, ‘How the Light Gets In – My Journey with Depression’; and become an agony aunt on Newstalk, all while running a farm in Co Westmeath. Her first job was in the Department of Agriculture.

“I was testing blood for tuberculosis and brucellosis. I was 18. It was long before I became an actress. I didn’t turn professional until I was 26. I was a late conversion. I didn’t know how to do it because I came from the country. When I was a kid I didn’t even realise there were Irish actors. I always wanted to be an actress but I didn’t think you could be an actor in Ireland.

“I didn’t really take it seriously until the Oscar Theatre School opened when I was in my mid twenties. [The acting course] was every weekend for a year. Then I got a part in the Gate [Theatre] and about five months later was the audition for the part in ‘Glenroe’.

“They’d offered [the role of Biddy] to two actresses and they’d both turned it down. I’d done a pretty reasonable audition but I was a complete unknown and almost straight from drama school. I think they needed something else to swing it in my direction and once they heard I could drive a tractor I think that was what swung it.

“Wesley Burrowes (author and lead scriptwriter of ‘Glenroe’) wrote such magic stuff for us. It was so well written that you just opened your mouth and let the words come out. Everything just tripped off the tongue.

“Joe and Mick had worked together through ‘Bracken’ and they were seasoned professionals. I was the newbie but they were very easy, there was no actor-y stuff or diva carry-on. They were very practical, normal men with lives outside the show. I got a good grounding in how to be an actress and stay real at the same time.

“Joe would come and do his scenes and then go home, very much like Mick. It was more the girls that had a social life together outside the programme. Mick was such a family man – it’s still really weird to talk about him in the past tense – he would just go home to his family. That’s where he wanted to be.

“What stands out for me was the constant fun we had and the happiness in each other’s company. It was very much like a family. The Toners, who owned the farm where we shot, were like part of the family as well. Over 16 years you go through births, deaths and marriages with everyone. You see people through troubles and they see you through troubles. We all know how special it was and that we were very lucky, not just because of the quality of the work but the quality of the people, and the friendships.

“The day I went back to work after my father died was terrible. I drove from home (Delvin, Co Westmeath) down to Newtownmountkennedy (Co Wicklow) and I was in bits. I went up to Mrs Toner - who’s also left us – a lovely, motherly kind of woman. I was just in bits and we were filming around the house and she brought me in a cup of tea and a slice of apple cake and put me together. Everybody was very kind. It does you good to get back to work, to normalise life, because it was the first big loss of my life. The scenes were hard too because Biddy and Miley had been broken into and Biddy was very upset about it. It was hard but everybody was so good and so kind.

“Joe and Mick were completely different from their characters. Joe was a sophisticated man, knew his wines, had a Formula 3 racing driver’s licence and could fly a plane. He’d go off to Spain to his place there and he lived in Weybridge in England when he wasn’t here. He had a very different life but he understood Dinny because everyone in Ireland is probably only one generation away from the land anyway. Mick and Joe had lived a lot longer with their characters than anyone else because they’d come from ‘Bracken’ with them.

“Mick was absolutely the opposite to Miley. There were no flies on Mick and he didn’t suffer fools gladly and he wasn’t behind the door about saying it. He was a very nice man, a very kind man but sharp and very intelligent.

“I don’t think RTÉ realise how huge it is still. I would say at least once a week – and I mean it’s 11 years later – if I’m out at all anywhere and people recognise me, the question they ask is: ‘Why was it taken off?’ They still don’t understand it. And I say: ‘Well you should have written in at the time!’

“I definitely think a spin-off would work now. I don’t see any reason why Dick and Mary couldn’t have a B&B. People want it and now that Ireland’s changed back we’re not as embarrassed about our country cousins anymore like we were during the Celtic Tiger. They’re a lot more interested in the land and the people who run it than they were before. I think a charming little comedy drama would go down very well. I’m dead anyway so I can’t come back but I don’t see any reason why my co-workers can’t.

“The only thing I was worried about [when filming Biddy’s death] was we were out in the middle of nowhere and there was no loo. I didn’t want to see the stunt because it looked dangerous so as soon as they did my bits of looking horrified at the oncoming car I scampered and went home. The last scene I had wasn’t actually [Biddy’s] last scene. It was with Isobel Mahon (who played Michelle) which had a kind of poetry to it because we are such pals.

“I went straight out on tour with a play and I deliberately didn’t listen to any radio or read any newspapers for about six weeks afterwards, because I kind of knew there was a bit of a kerfuffle about me leaving. I think I was out somewhere having an Indian meal the night she was killed off. Then I went off to Wales and New York with the play ‘The Ginger Man’ by JP Donleavy. So it was great to be out of the country for all the nonsense that was going on.

“I’m doing a tour in May with a play called ‘Fruitcake’, written by a woman called Alice Barry. I’d like to do more writing, if the sheep would stop lambing! I’d love to do more film and television because I enjoy the medium, I enjoy the rhythm and working with a crew. But so far that hasn’t happened. Show-business is light relief away from the farm.

“It’s only as time has gone by that people – or even myself – realise that Biddy was quite a strong cultural figure. I always knew the power of [‘Glenroe’], how popular it was, but it still has an enduring power which is extraordinary. People still hanker after it. There’s a real nostalgia for it now among the twenty-somethings because that’s what they remember - doing their homework before ‘Glenroe’. I think people are hankering after it for that reason, it’s a symbol of simpler, carefree times.”

Mary McEvoy was in conversation with Jan Battles.

Watch the opening scenes of the first ever episode of ‘Glenroe’ on our Clip of the Week page.