INTERVIEW: Siobhán McSweeney on Derry Girls, writing, and kindness during bereavement
Life & Style

INTERVIEW: Siobhán McSweeney on Derry Girls, writing, and kindness during bereavement

To say that Siobhán McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael in Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’, is down to earth is an understatement—she’d be better described as being in the molten core of the planet.

We meet in a café in Russell Square Gardens, where Siobhán breezily tells me a bird has just moments ago taken a shite all down her black jumper.

After a back-and-forth of swapping embarrassing bird shite tales, she regales me with a story of how, when working on a show with Olivia Coleman, the Oscar winner had to discreetly fix Siobhán’s skirt—which had been tucked into her underwear for God knows how long.

The stories set the informal tone for our interview, with Siobhán speaking in a manner that is insightful, positive, often tender and usually hilarious.

 

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Derry Girls is arguably the biggest Irish-driven comedy since Father Ted—how is Siobhán coping with the newfound fame?

“I always say it feels great, but d’you know what, it feels very separate to me because it’s gotten so big now—after a while the numbers make no sense.

You get messages from people in Brazil and you’re like ‘Well that’s nice, whoever that message is meant for—because it can’t be me!’

It feels like a thing I did with my mates, and I’m always taken aback when people say they’ve watched it before I remember ‘Oh yeah, of course, because it was on the telly’!

But it’s lovely. People have taken it into their hearts so completely that people think Lisa [McGee, Derry Girls creator] has written about their lives or that I must have known their headmistress or something.

It belongs completely to the fans now, I think.”

Would that be like a form of imposter syndrome?

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“I try to kick the imposter syndrome firmly in the ass.

As a woman it’s better to seem confident and recognise that we do deserve these things—but I’ve recently started dabbling a bit in writing and I must admit that imposter syndrome is very much creeping up there.

But I’d call it more of ‘Sure fuck it, it’s grand’ syndrome-- like why not?

I used to be scared of trying things and now I’m like ‘Sure fuck it, why not’?

Siobhán’s first piece of published writing will appear in ‘Winter Papers’, an annual anthology for the arts published by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, and from which she will read an excerpt at the Dublin Book Festival next week— but how did that come about?

 “They asked me to do an actor’s diary.

And I said No—because I hate actors’ diaries. They’re always written by pompous people who take themselves very seriously.

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And I don’t take myself seriously. I take what I do seriously but I don’t want the Irish people thinking I’m taking myself too seriously!

But Kevin kept on at me and I said I’d write something, but it wouldn’t be a diary—and lo and behold it’s ended up being a diary.

They sent me a copy of it and it’s such a beautiful book.

It’s the feeling of having your own stuff in there… It’s such a cliché to feel like that, and I even told myself ‘Don’t feel like that Siobhán! Don’t be such a cliché! Don’t be such a cliché like your writing!’

But having your name in print, it changes something.

“I’ve also been working on a television comedy. I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring.

The great successes of the likes of Lisa McGee, Róisín Conaty, Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan—all their successes only serves to make blaggards like myself have a go. They make it look so easy that fools like myself think they can do it.

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It’s at a very early stage. I won’t say anything else.

Siobhán McSweeney (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Speaking of being inspired by Irish women—which Irish women inspire Siobhán? The Together For Yes Co-Founder Ailbhe Smyth gets an immediate mention, as does 1960’s – 70’s Northern Irish politician Bernadette Devlin, particularly due to her book ‘The Price Of My Soul’, which was gifted to Siobhán by her mother at a young age and which Siobhán describes as being “very special” to her—“Especially now that mam’s gone.”

“And my aunt, who was my surrogate mother and who passed away a few weeks ago. She was a very large figure in my life and she was a very large character and she always inspired me. Betsy Ní Shuibhne was her name.

There are countless others. Women who keep their integrity and their humour in spite of the interference from the state and from the church-- especially their humour!

Mam was hilarious. My mam was so, so funny. And look at the humour in all the political movements—look at the humour in the North; the cartoons,  the signs at the protest.

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You can’t tell me that humour is a flippant thing now. The way it’s utilised now, it’s sharp.

“The women of Ireland are so inspirational. How we have repeatedly stood by ourselves in the fight for our bodily autonomy and in such uniquely female fights.

The work that was done in the Together For Yes campaign is extraordinary. All of those non-hierarchical grassroots-led movements who worked tirelessly. That’s really extraordinary. The structure of it is extraordinary.

There wasn’t one leader, and that’s really rare in this binary and hierarchical time. And it worked so successfully, and it worked because of intelligence and compassion and hard work, and that’s sort of what I think Irish women are.

 

“I think always at a time of crisis you only act from moment to moment,” Siobhán says of the campaign to bring bodily autonomy to Northern Ireland, which was written into law in October this year.

“I knew the energy created by the referendum passing in the Republic was too big to ignore. It had such momentum to it, it was powerful enough to keep going, for people not to get fatigued by it all.

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It was shocking in a way, that when it did finally happen it was signed off by a civil servant in a bureaucratic manner. It was done quietly, probably in a small beige room.

But in a way I feel that was almost correct. There’s poetry in that irony.

“There’s something right about the fact that after all that, it went out with a little whimper. And you’re suddenly free.

“[The night it was signed into law] I was in the back room of a pub in Camden with a lot of the London Irish Abortion Campaign crowd.

We were quite boisterous. We were so happy, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

“And this fella was like ‘Calm down girls, it hasn’t been signed in yet!’

And we all just roared with laughter at him, and I just thought—what we couldn’t do in that moment.

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(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

 

What can Siobhán tell us about season 3 of Derry Girls? Absolutely nothing, unfortunately.

“First of all, I don’t know anything. Second of all, Channel 4 would stab me and then find my lovely doggy in Cork and stab the doggy. They’re terrifying.

But no, they’re rightly very protective of their beautiful show.

It’s down to Lisa. This is her story, literally. I can’t imagine how vulnerable she must have felt when it first aired.

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“But I imagine the 3rd series might include the aftermath of the Clinton visit, the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement.

Maybe we could do something where can say something snarky about Westminster’s fucking ignorance of the history of Northern Ireland. ‘The documentary of Derry Girls’ or something. Something where we can make it even easier for them to understand.

“Maybe the third series should be done with sock puppets supplied by Jim Henson and we could go a bit slower, because when it comes to Westminster it’s obvious that the first two series is still a bit over their heads, so we’ll go a bit slower again.

But she’s eager to clarify her comments before anyone misconstrues what she means.

“For the sake of any confusion, I mean this with the utmost contempt.”

"Christ." (Channel 4 / Derry Girls )
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What would Siobhán think about a Sister Michael spin-off?

“I think both me and my bank manager would be very pleased with that!

I don’t know how it would work, my imagination isn’t strong enough to see where she’d end up. It would be quite funny, but the thing with spin-offs is that they’re very rarely done well. 'Frasier' is the exception, obviously.

But I love playing her. In many ways I want to be her. My gait gets a bit wider, or I stick out my chest a bit more or look down a bit more—it’s a very powerful stance to have. So to feel that powerful isn’t a bad thing either.

But one of the things I love about my job is the variety. Sister Michael is a lovely suit to put on, but I have a whole wardrobe to fill.

But when asked about the possibility of a ‘Derry Girls’ movie, it seems Siobhán is almost as eager for it to happen as the show’s legion of fans.

“I’d love it to happen!

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I think it could work. I mean I don’t know, it’s got nothing to do with me unfortunately.

It would have to be done with Lisa—I don’t think anybody else could write it—this could come around and bite me in the arse now and it’ll be done by a whole writers room! But that’s down to Lisa. She’s been living with this for such a long time.

But I’d love to do one. I’d love to see what adventures they get up to.

And because it’s a film you’d get quite an extravagant budget! We’ve done the first two series on the same small budget. Essentially-- and it was grand for our needs-- but it was essentially a regional budget for a regional programme, not a mainstream one.

It’d be great to be able to stretch your wings and say ‘Let’s put them on the pyramids!’ or something. ‘Set it in space!’

I suppose it would have to be a school trip or something wouldn’t it?

Who knows. Anything that gets my bank manager off my back.

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What is Siobhán’s favourite Sister Michael moment within the show?

“It’s the moment during the talent show in the first series where she comes out and says something like 'Every year I hear the songs from our school and it makes me think of how talented the recording artists are'.

When we were filming I had to do a few takes. I kept giggling—I kept making myself laugh.

It’s something about the microphone and it whistling slightly, and her utter, utter despair. I felt like Seinfeld!

That makes me laugh—the idea of a woman caught in her own hell.

There’s moments when I feel like all this confusion and hatred for the world has just left her agog. Where she’s not indignant or angry or bored, she’s just like 'Why is it all so shit?!'

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The 'Derry Girls' family (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

But a certain moment outside of the show encompasses what life is like being a part of ‘Derry Girls’.

“I say this because I mention it in what I’ve written for ‘Winter Papers’.

My dad died during the last series.

His first anniversary was last week, and almost to this very day last year was my first day back at filming after we buried him.

I arrived back up to Belfast and I was shook. Shell shocked. And I was just about to walk into the flat, and I was feeling sick because the last time I was at that flat I had to rush away to get to the hospice. And I was thinking ‘I don’t even have a pint of milk. I just want a cup of tea and to go to bed and I don’t even have a pint of milk’.

And it was this time of year and it was awful weather and the shop was a good five minute walk away, and I had my little wheelie suitcase, and I said I’d just go inside and see how I feel.

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And I opened the door and the entire flat was warm and I couldn’t figure it out—I was pretty sure I’d even broken the heating before I left.

The flat was warm and the lights were on. And—now, when I say ‘the girls’ I always include Dylan (James) in that as well-- the girls had gotten the keys and they’d filled the flat.

They’d filled the fridge, they’d arranged the bedroom. They had dusted everything down.

They bought teabags. There was wine. They had bought fluffy socks. One of them had bought me a really nice mug.

All those sort of things. Microwaved dinners. Loads of crisps, loads of chocolate.

That was my favourite moment. That was beyond kind.

A whole production company had to figure that out—they had to sort out the keys and everything.

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The production team had such a harsh schedule to keep to, and they took the time to do that.

They rescheduled stuff, they worked so hard. People with small kids were working extra-long so I could have more time with dad.

They had cards from people, from everyone on the production team.

It was indicative of the people involved and of what we had created.

They’re really lovely. Not just the girls but everyone involved. Just really lovely.

There were loads of really gentle kindnesses. People are so lovely.

I hope people read this and realise that there’s a whole life outside the blackboard scene, or outside beautiful Peter with the lovely hair.

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And that’s my favourite moment."

 

What should people should be watching if they enjoy ‘Derry Girls’?  

Siobhán is currently revisiting Channel 4’s ‘Flowers’ and recommends Lisa McGee’s previous show ‘London Irish’, Aisling Bea’s ‘This Way Up’, Netflix’s ‘Working Moms’, upcoming series ‘His Dark Materials’ and American drama ‘Pose’—but according to her “Everyone should watch ‘Murder She Wrote’. That’s what everyone should be watching".

As for music, Siobhán sings the praises of Junior Brother, Pillowqueens and Richard Dawson.