“IF I COULD take your legs, I would gladly give you mine,” promises the mother of Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (1989), just one of several heart-rending lines in Shane Connaughton’s celebrated screenplay.
The performer who uttered these words on-screen was Brenda Fricker, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.
Of course, My Left Foot famously brought Daniel Day-Lewis his first Academy Award as well, for his captivating and sometimes unnerving portrayal of the seriously palsied Brown.
Yet the movie belongs equally to Fricker, whose understated acting beautifully counterpoints Day-Lewis’ bravura performance. While he is a compendium of violent body spasms and nasally-distorted vocals, she is the embodiment of soothing emollience who tries to maintain calm within a turbulent world.
Although the character of Mrs Brown (known throughout only as either “Mrs” or “Ma”, no-one uses her first name) was based on a specific real-life woman living in 1940s Dublin, she seemed to symbolise the experience of so many Irish women across time.
Often struggling with chronic money worries, striving to share her love equally among several children and deal with a drunken and bullying husband, Fricker might have been an icon for the courageous Irish mother figure we all recognise.
When she worked with Sheridan again on The Field (1990), playing the silent but steadfast wife opposite Richard Harris’ volcanically-volatile Bull McCabe, Fricker carved her own pedestal as the exemplar for the enduring, domestically-enslaved Irish home-keeper.
It’s no coincidence that Brendan O’Carroll’s comic turn in Mrs Brown’s Boys sees him don a wig in ironic pastiche of Fricker’s characteristic curly-headed tresses. One suspects that O’Carroll knows how to push the right evocative buttons in our cultural memory.
But the precursor to Fricker’s famous portrayals of burdened but brave Irish women comes not from Irish cinema but from British TV. The popular long-running hospital drama series Casualty first appeared on British screens in 1986.
It was deeply controversial in its 1980s heyday, conveying storylines covering topics that effected the NHS directly (reform, budget cuts, staff shortages) and broader social issues indirectly (family strife, gay rights, AIDS). Margaret Thatcher was not an avid fan.
Casualty was also ground-breaking in having a multi-ethnic cast portraying the cosmopolitan workforce in Britain’s medical health services. There were Caribbean, Asian and East-European characters and, in Fricker’s Megan Roach, an Irish nurse with vast compassion and deep wells of native wisdom.
It’s arguable that Megan Roach is the strongest Irish character that’s ever been conceived to represent Irish experience in Britain. She symbolised the lives of many Irish women who’d done the dirty work in the NHS over so many decades (see photographer Paddy Fahey or painter Bernard Canavan for visual reflections).
Casualty also included a second-gen nurse who was nick-named “Duffy” (Cathy Shipton), an indication of how the tradition was handed down through the generations and how the series’ creators thoughtfully conceived of the narrative’s cultural texture.
All the while, Fricker played Megan Roach with quiet aplomb, giving her moral ambiguity and personal complexity, often on troubled terms with her religion, her marriage, her family, her country of residence and her country of birth.
Once, when suddenly lost in a fog of homesickness, Megan declared that she missed Ireland but was ironically aware that Ireland didn’t miss her — a common condition.
Intriguingly, Fricker makes no secret of the gulf between her screen persona and her actual personality. She has no children herself and disavows any personal matronly tendencies, and is unapologetically prickly on things that rouse her annoyance.
In 2012 she dismissed the IFTA awards ceremony as “cringeworthy”, saying that the “young presenters” were unprofessional and that the event was “mind-numbingly boring”. Whether on or off screen, it seems, Fricker is clearly a woman worth watching.