As the star and creator of Mrs Brown’s Boys, Brendan O’Carroll delights millions of Britons as the formidable matriarch of a fictional Irish clan. But the man behind the laughter has a radical – and lethal – secret to share.
His uncle was an Irish republican who once ordered the killing of a British soldier, and went on to radicalise other young Irishmen in a high-security prison camp.
That’s just one of the dramatic revelations in O’Carroll’s documentary, My Family at War, about his real-life family’s involvement in the Easter Rising, which took place 100 years ago.
O’Carroll comes from a large and colourful working-class Dublin family. His mother, Maureen, was a well-known campaigner, serving as the Irish Labour Party’s first female TD (MP) in the 1950s. “We put my mother on a pedestal,” says O’Carroll, the youngest of 11 children. “Mainly to keep her away from my father.” He honed his brand of bawdy, foul-mouthed humour on the stand-up circuit before immortalising his late mother by claiming her as the inspiration for Agnes Brown.
O’Carroll has already shared some of his family history with BBC viewers. In a 2014 edition of Who Do You Think You Are?, he learnt that his republican grandfather Peter had been assassinated in 1920 by a British undercover agent during the Irish War of Independence. This time, he rewinds to tell the story of his uncles Liam and Peadar, who took part in the rebellion that began on Easter Monday 1916.
“When the 50th anniversary of the Rising was marked in 1966, I was ten,” recalls O’Carroll. “I knew the Proclamation [of Independence, written by the rebels] off by heart, in Irish. We all marched in a memorial parade. But all we knew was the myth, that in 1916 we supposedly beat the British. I had no knowledge of what had actually happened.”
While the Easter Rising to this day has an almost sacred status among some nationalists, the truth is far less glorious than the myth. A shipment of weapons from Germany, intended for the rebels, was intercepted at sea. Then a feud between two factions saw one group, led by Padraig Pearse, mobilising volunteers to take to the streets, while the other, under Eoin MacNeill, issued a countermanding order. In a bizarre twist, MacNeill took out a newspaper ad urging potential rebels to stay at home.
“When it finally happened, it was a complete surprise,” says O’Carroll. “Both the British and the people of Dublin were caught on the hop.”
In this week’s documentary, O’Carroll re-creates what should have been a moment of high drama, when Pearse emerged from the newly occupied General Post Office to read the Proclamation of Independence.
“People were walking past him as he was reading the statement,” says O’Carroll. “They carried on with their business. It was a non-event.”
O’Carroll’s guide to the events of 1916 is a document written by his uncle Liam almost 20 years later. “There was no written record of the Rising,” he says, “so in the 1930s people like Liam who’d been involved were asked for an account of their actions.”
Liam was in command of a rebel outpost, and gave the order for a British soldier to be killed by a sniper. “The soldier was a casualty of war, but remember, this was a surprise war,” says O’Carroll. “What was he doing the day before? Was he in his barracks, maybe going to the shops across the road to get some chocolate to eat on night duty, and counting himself lucky that he wasn’t in the trenches in France? He may even have been an Irishman, like many of the British Army soldiers.”
Liam’s later account of the incident is coldly impersonal, referring to the soldier only as the “body”. For O’Carroll, this is evidence that the rebels were not trained soldiers. “You’ve got to be desensitised [in order to kill in warfare] and I don’t think they went through that kind of training. So I think the language Liam used was his effort not to make the soldier a real person.”
O’Carroll has wrestled with how he might have felt if it had been his sons joining the rebels. “I have friends in Britain who’ve had children serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and every phone call makes the wallpaper peel off the wall. It’s heartbreaking. I think I would have chained them to the banisters and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere till this is over’. Either that or I’d have been on the barricades with them. I think my paternal instinct would have been a lot stronger than any republicanism.”
The Rising was put down within a week, and with brutal efficiency, devastating the centre of Dublin. However, “Instead of blaming the British, most Dubliners blamed the rebels,” says O’Carroll. “As well as the destruction, more civilians [over 250] had been killed than rebels or soldiers. When the rebels were being taken away to prison, people jeered and threw stones.”
What elevated the Easter Rising from unpopular farce to heroic tragedy was a gross political miscalculation. Sixteen of the rebel leaders, including Pearse, were executed, martial law was declared, and suspected sympathisers detained without trial. Public opinion turned against the British authorities.
When rebel prisoners were released a few months later, they were welcomed as heroes. “You’re talking about probably the most nostalgic, romantic people in the world,” says O’Carroll. “The Irish love a martyr, and the British had created plenty of them.”
O’Carroll’s uncles spent several months at a prison camp in Wales. “We talk about radicalisation nowadays. I’ve seen photos of Irish schoolchildren at that time, their feet wrapped in canvas and tied with twine. If you’ve nothing to lose, out you go, grab a gun, why not? And then they put them all into one camp, where they continued their training. It was like the University of Guerrilla Warfare.”
Nearly six years after the failed Rising, Britain signed a disputed treaty giving independence to a large part of the island of Ireland. The legacy has been decades of violence. But O’Carroll believes the attitude in Ireland to the Rising’s 100th anniversary gives cause for optimism.
“I worry sometimes that we have short memories, but there’s no sense of triumphalism now. It’s a commemoration more than a celebration. We have a responsibility to make sure our kids – and their kids – don’t forget it, and don’t let it happen again.”