Ask Donna O’Connor (47), star of A Night with George and nominee for Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Arts, which women she most admires and the answer is immediate.
“I don’t have to look far, I’ve got four sisters — I had five but one passed away a few years ago — who are amazing, inspirational women and my mother Kathleen is incredible. She raised 11 children, worked barefoot in the mills from the age of 14, often in three inches of water, and still managed to survive and look after her family.”
Donna is modestly surprised to have been nominated for the BT Women of the Year Awards — “when you rang and told me, I thought it was one of my friends having a laugh”, she says, but feels women deserve special recognition.
It’s Donna’s background that has made her feminist. She has other memories too, of her mother making clothes for her growing family in their home in west Belfast.
She recalls, with humour: “Every Christmas and Easter, she’d get this great bolt of material and make us all clothes. We were just like the Sound of Music ... one year, the material was dusky pink Paisley, which wasn’t very good for the boys.”
The narrative that has brought Donna O’Connor, who co-wrote the sell-out show with Brenda Murphy, to her position in the arts community begins with a tragedy. Twenty years ago, Donna and her husband Jack lost their second child and first daughter, Caitlin, at three months. It was a classic cot death.
“She died 20 years ago and was our first girl. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already pregnant with our second daughter, Grace,” Donna recalls in a voice that’s suddenly lost its bounce.
What reawakened this loss, ratcheting up the pain for the family, was a recent experience with Grace.
“Our second daughter gave birth in August last year, and the baby girl was born with a rare heart condition. It was diagnosed after 12 days and it’s only thanks to the expertise of the team at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and open heart surgery, that she survived.”
Poignantly, Grace had already named her baby girl Caitlin, in memory of her sister. Donna says that psychologically she found herself in a terrible position. “I had to try and be strong for Grace but inside I was unravelling.” Unsurprisingly, it took Donna some months to recover and regard the incident with equanimity.
Anybody who enjoyed Donna’s sublime, comic performance knows her Northern Irish black humour.
She says the character takes fate’s punches in the face and just magics them into some craic.
“Yes, Bridie Murphy, the character I portray, is hit with such body blows, that writing and performing her was like asylum seeking for me.
“She’s not exactly a Shirley Valentine — although I admire Willy Russell’s work — because she’s much more gutsy. This character doesn’t stay at home, she’s got a career.”
Asked why they chose George Clooney as Bridie’s fantasy man, Donna says with a laugh — “Well, my co-writer chose him and she’s a lesbian, but I guess he ticks all the boxes.”
Human beings often seem to manage to transform tragedy into something positive, by adapting and melding the experience — and Donna illustrates this trait perfectly.
After the death of her second baby, she became depressed.
“After Grace was born, I had young children and simply had no time to deal with the grief. There wasn’t much grief counselling then.
“My GP called at the door with a script for tranquillisers, but I ripped it up. I knew I was on the brink and didn’t want to take that route.”
Donna knew she would have to deal with her grief one day, but in the interim she started work and returned to studying. As Donna tells it, her move into the humanities happened almost by chance.
“I stumbled into the arts, partly because I’d always loved reading. Reading helped me through, and then I got into arts administration.”
A gifted student, Donna went to St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road, Belfast, when she was 38 and gained first class honours in English, then took a Master’s degree.
“I only finished my Master’s two years ago at the age of 45. Then came A Night with George, a “no holds barred kind of Belfast way of confronting things”, as the star puts it.
“She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, since as Bridie says where’s the craic in that? So although she’s abandoned by her husband, her son leaves to go to uni, her caravan blows away in a storm and her daughter dies, she makes a joke, saying ‘Even the one inanimate object has left me...’”
In terms of how art has affected her life, Donna feels that the arts retain the power of solace. “Yes, I think the arts can console you. (In theatre) you can convey feelings via characters that aren’t you. It’s often easier to say difficult things as someone else. In a way, my character became Everywoman.”
Astonishingly, given the rave reviews that Donna received for her evocation of Bridie Murphy (“Under Tony Devlin’s direction, O’Connor is great as the 48-year old Bridie, bringing huge amounts of energy to the role and delivering each line with gusto.” Irish Theatre Magazine), she hasn’t had any formal training.
“I haven’t any drama training and really cut my teeth doing this role. Fortunately, I can learn lines very easily, but you can tell from my voice (which sounded like a heavy smoker’s voice the day we talked) that I am not used to this job.
“So I do and don’t have the acting bug...”
What Donna unquestionably has is the writing and creative bug. Her day job may be in the mental health sector, but she’s on the board of Brassneck Productions, has worked enthusiastically for the West Belfast Festival and loves bringing characters such as Bridie Murphy to life. “Bridie’s alive now, everyone knows a Bridie, she could be the tea lady or the woman next door...”
Behind many women are supportive men and Donna’s husband Jack is no exception, even acting as stage manager for A Night With George’s run at the Grand Opera House and earlier in the year at the Waterfront.
“Our son’s called Jack too. Well I was unconscious at the time I gave birth, and the dog’s also called Jack. Anyhow, my husband’s getting his Victoria Cross any day now.”
Does Donna think that she will use the alchemy of art to make her first daughter’s death into a play or piece of writing? “If it hadn’t been for the events of the last year, which made me relive the whole process, I would have done that by now. I will write about my loss but not yet.”
A Night with George is returning to the Waterfront in the New Year ( www.waterfront.co.uk)