For a certain generation or three of the Irish, attending Catholic school taught us remarkable survival skills.
And we’re not talking about all that hellfire and brimstone nonsense.
We’re talking Mother Superiors who could levitate three inches off a child’s terror-stricken face. Priests who could administer a slap of a leather strap so hard it would send you reeling into decades of decadent basements dressed as a gimp.
Yep, there’s always been something blatantly sinister and faintly fatalistic about your classic Irish Catholic school, as God’s stormtroopers only made it halfway through their battle-cry of tough love.
For Jean Farrell, the experience of not only surviving Catholic school in Ballygobackwards, but later becoming a teacher there [left], gave her more than enough material to have fun with when the divine calling to be a comedian finally took a hold. Just a few months short of Jean’s 67th birthday.
With The Six Marys, Farrell charts growing up in 1950s, ’60s and ’70s Ireland, before love, marriage and babies brought the lives of Mary Black, Mary Brown, Mary Green, Mary White, Mary Grey and Mary Golden full circle.
Returning to The Whale on Thursday, May 3rd after sell-out November and February appearances – info and tickets here – we asked Jean to reveal her comic heroes, and to tell us just how a nice Catholic girl like her ended up in this ridiculous line of work.
I first discovered I could make people laugh back in the 1980s. I was the mother of three children aged six, eight and ten, also a teacher. I was asked to give a talk to the parents about how sharing a meal as a family was akin to a child’s First Holy Communion. The Bread Of Life, and all that.
I decided to tell them the sad tale of family dinner that evening in my own home. It was supposed to make the parents cry. I told them the following true story. “Not mutton stew again!” moaned the eldest. “No,” I replied. “It’s a lovely lamb casserole.” BIG, BIG MISTAKE. “Is it lamb, like we saw in the pet farm?,” the youngest asked. “Yes,” her brother informed her. “They caught the cuddly baby lamb, slit his throat with a long knife, and killed him – just so as you can eat him now.”
My youngest daughter began to cry, as her older sister announced that she was becoming a vegetarian for life. “Ye are total dickheads,” their brother informed them. They both hit him viciously and said he was a mega gobshite. “Why can’t ye be nice to eat other,” I implored. “Why would I be nice to them?” my son asked. “They’re the people I hate most in the whole world.” My husband hadn’t arrived home from work yet, as usual.
I told my audience of young parents (mostly mothers) that some evening I would prefer to take my dinner outside the back door and eat it on top of the dust bin, all by myself, rather than sit down with my family. I assured them that I loved my children very much, and that they were not awful nor bold. They were normal. And I made the important point that we have to put our own feelings to one side and try, try, and try again, to make meal-times happy.
Well, the parents roared laughing during the entire talk. They laughed and laughed because they identified so well with what I said.
Throughout the next thirty years, I secretly yearned to be a stand-up comedienne. It was only when I retired that I wrote my one-woman-show, The Six Marys. To date, 7,000 people have enjoyed it. Into six diaries, spanning six decades, I tell about the lives of Mary Black, Mary Brown, Mary Green, Mary White, Mary Grey and Mary Golden.
These six different personalities represent us all. I think the humour connects because it’s very true to life.
The Cosby Show This is the sitcom I loved best, because the family weren’t perfect. I loved their father’s viewpoint on life.
Joan Rivers The comedian who inspired me to get up and make people laugh was Joan Rivers. Not long before she died my daughter and I went to see her in Vicker Street. With no props, only herself on stage, she had her audience laughing all night long. I wanted to do that too.
Keeping Up Appearances My very favourite line from Keeping Up Appearances is Rose saying “I’m going back to being a virgin’.
The Golden Girls I liked the The Golden Girls sitcom also. Three independent ‘old’ women living their life together was a new concept to me, long ago. And the ancient mother had the best one-liners of all.
Fawlty Towers This one always makes us all laugh because Basil is so very funny and cracked!!
You can catch Jean Farrell’s The Six Marys at The Whale on Thursday, May 3rd, at 8pm (doors 7pm), with tickets €15 and €18. Catch ’em here.