Brendan O’Carroll might seem to have led a charmed life. Growing up, the youngest of 11 children in a north Dublin council house – “my dad built beds on the walls, like a submarine” – he left school aged 12 to work as a waiter. Stints as a pub owner, a stand-up comedian, a novelist and a playwright all followed. Today he’s a hugely successful comedy star, though it’s his alter ego you’ll know – Mrs Agnes Brown, a shuffling calamity in a cardie who’s made him a multimillionaire and a hit on both stage and screen: more than 10 million people watched each of last year’s BBC1 Christmas specials.
So who was the inspiration for the tea- making matriarch who’s Ma Walton one minute and Ma Baker the next? “She’s a little bit Old Mother Riley,” he reveals. “Or perhaps she was inspired by the tough, feisty women I helped out as a kid in the fruit-and-veg market in Dublin’s Moore Street.”
Inspiration was closer to home. Brendan’s mother Maureen was as tough and feisty as they come. Born in 1913, the daughter of a schoolteacher from Galway, the then Maureen McHugh followed two Irish female traditions. One, she was sent away from home – she attended University College, Galway, on a scholarship; and two, she became a novice nun.
It’s not known why she renounced her vows – perhaps her future husband Gerard O’Carroll played a part – but Maureen went on to become a languages teacher.
The turning point in her life arrived on her wedding day in 1936. Married women in Ireland weren’t allowed to be civil servants. So Maureen walked out of teaching and into a life of protest, becoming an activist who fought successfully to have this iniquitous law changed.
In 1954, this council house woman became the first female to be elected an Irish Labour Party TD (MP). And she proved herself a forceful politician. In spite of massive opposition from vested interests, she had already set up the Lower Prices Council to fight price-fixing cartels.
Maureen O’Carroll marched into the Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament, on a mission to protect the ordinary Irish shopper from postwar black- marketeering. She went on to become the Irish Labour Party’s Chief Whip.
“And she also tackled social issues,” said Brendan, offering a proud smile. “Ireland at the time was in the Middle Ages and it was actually legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, so long as the stick wasn’t longer than his fore- arm. My mother helped change all that.”
Along the way, Maureen not only gave birth to nine children, she also adopted one more, a little boy trapped in a reform school as Ireland then had no care homes. Maureen also made sure no abandoned child would ever be condemned to reform school again, enlisting the help of the head of government, Éamon deValera, to change policy.
But she didn’t stop there. As an MP, Maureen introduced Ireland’s “Short Birth Certificate”, which allowed “Illegitimate” to be replaced by the less judgemental “Father Undeclared”.
There’s no doubting that Maureen adored her brood. At the age of 42, however, Maureen became ill with “a growth”. On 15 September 1955 the growth arrived, weighing 9lb 3oz. She called it Brendan.
Maureen was an unconventional mother. Her kids would hear their mammy on the radio railing against rates of child illiteracy in Ireland, yet they couldn’t get her to help them with their reading. She wouldn’t take Brendan to task about not doing his homework, but she took him to see Mary Poppins at the local cinema 22 times.
Maureen lost her seat in the Dáil in 1957. It’s claimed she had tackled one too many companies (going to court claiming price fixing), and was sacrificed by her party. Meantime, she lost her husband to cancer. But that didn’t stop her. This force of nature set up a women’s refuge and became a top trade union official.
Indeed, when 12-year-old Brendan left school in the summer of 1968, Maureen was away on union business in Canada. It was months before she realised her youngest was working as a hotel waiter. But she accepted Brendan’s choice.
“She thought we’d find our own way in life, regardless,” said Brendan. “And she taught us to believe we could fly.”
But also like Agnes, Maureen could bring her children crashing back to earth. “Ah, darling,” she once said to her second-youngest, Eilish, who stars as neighbour Winnie McGoogan in Mrs Brown’s Boys. “God didn’t make you very beautiful, but he made you ever so lovable.”
What Maureen gave out, however, she got back. Once, she annoyed the teenage Brendan so much he pulled the false teeth from her gums, and left her toothless for the night.
One day she dallied too long in a supermarket while he waited in the car, and Brendan got her thrown out by telling the security man that the lady in the blue coat was a shoplifter who was slightly deranged.
Yet he adored her – so much so that when he brought his new wife into the home and both women insisted on cooking, Brendan would eat both dinners so as not to offend his mammy.
Like Agnes, Maureen could be pretentious. She’d take on a Hyacinth Bouquet voice when answering the phone and play the sophisticate, only ever drinking gin, and using a cigarette holder. Yet when she was given a new fridge, it functioned for a full year as a cupboard because Maureen didn’t realise it had to be plugged in.
Since Maureen died in 1984, Brendan maintains she has contacted him in dreams, helped him to deal with financial disasters, the loss of a baby and the end of his marriage.
Surely this colourful, complex creature had to be the inspiration when he stepped into Agnes Brown’s shoes, in a 1992 Dublin radio sitcom?
“I only played her because the actress booked didn’t turn up,” he retorts. But he wrote a series of Agnes Brown books.
And when he needed a character for a stage play in 1997, Brendan sat down at a dressing-room mirror, put on a wobbly wig, pencilled in a Nanny McPhee mole – then looked up astonished and declared, “Feck me, it’s me mammy!” However, it was almost seven years and 80,000 words later before Brendan fully realised that Agnes is almost every inch Maureen O’Carroll.
The final confirmation? The storyline for his new Mrs Brown’s Boys film sees Agnes battle the forces of corporate evil trying to crush the Moore Street markets – just as Maureen once fought the multinationals controlling Dublin’s factories.
“When I’m writing I think, ‘What will Agnes do?’ and then wonder what my mother would do. She gives me the answers. My mother still speaks to me every day.” He adds, grinning: “I suppose I was in denial about becoming my mother, about dressing up as her on stage and TV. You don’t want to be seen as Norman Bates.”
So there are three people when you’re on stage or screen? You, Agnes – and your mammy?
“Yes, the unholy trinity,” he says, with a Woody Woodpecker laugh, remarkably like that of Agnes. And Maureen O’Carroll.