‘Like the Brontes, I have strong Irish ties’, says Aoife Hinds
Aoife Hinds has a vivid childhood memory of seeing her actor father Ciarán on the small screen, asleep on a blazing four-poster bed.
She was only six when she crept into the living room where her parents were watching a film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and couldn’t quite understand what she was seeing on the television.
In a famous scene from the novel, Ciarán’s Edward Fairfax Rochester is awoken from his deep slumber by the diminutive governess Miss Eyre (Samantha Morton), who has just discovered that his bed is on fire.
The image of her father surrounded by flames upset and confused the young Aoife but also introduced her to the works of the Bronte sisters, the world’s most famous literary siblings.
“I was six when that happened and the image is still inked on my brain,” says Aoife, star of Normal People, Anne Boleyn and the recent ITV drama, The Long Call.
“I couldn’t sleep one night, and I went into my parents who were watching Jane Eyre on the television.
“It was just at that moment in the story when Jane Eyre is trying to wake Mr Rochester up because his bed is on fire.
“I couldn’t understand how my dad was in the room with me but on the TV at the same time, on a bed that was engulfed in flames, and I was so upset.
“That image had a lasting impression on me. In a way, Jane Eyre has always been looming in the background, like a spectre, until I returned to it properly.”
Growing up in Paris, where she lived with her father and her French-Vietnamese actress mother Helene Patarot, Aoife was educated through the French school system and the Brontes weren’t on the curriculum. But when she was approached to present a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary on the three sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their strong Irish connections, she jumped at the chance.
She admits she had no idea the novelists’ father, Rev Patrick Bronte, hailed from Rathfriland, Co Down, or that Charlotte married a Co Antrim man, Arthur Bell Nicholls, until she took the presenting task on. But she was struck by the similarity with her own background.
“Like the Brontes, I have strong Irish ties. I didn’t grow up in Belfast, but my dad comes from the city, and I’ve visited often so I can relate to that aspect of it,” she says.
“My Irish roots are important to me, and I have such pride in the fact that Ireland is a place of poets and literary geniuses.”
To prepare for the documentary, Aoife read three of the Brontes’ most famous novels, the aforementioned Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
“I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall might just be my favourite,” she says.
“Anne was the more discreet of the three sisters, the lesser known. Her writing is less romantic. But she has truth and honesty at the heart of her story and she had a lot of criticism for telling such a dark tale.
“I read the preface in the book’s second edition in which she said the motive was entertainment but also, if one girl reading the book managed to avoid getting into an abusive relationship, her work wouldn’t have been in vain.
“I find that extraordinary, especially given the time when the book was written.”
In the documentary, The Brontes: An Irish Tale, Aoife visits Patrick Bronte’s birthplace and discovers how this rural schoolteacher ended up studying in Cambridge.
She travels to the West Yorkshire village of Haworth and the moors, which inspired much of the sisters’ works.
Aoife also explores the romance between Charlotte Bronte and Ulsterman Arthur Bell Nicholls and visits Banagher, Co Offaly, where Nicholls lived after Charlotte’s death.
And she learns that it is thanks to Nicholls that much of the iconic Bronte memorabilia survives to this day.
For Aoife, who came to her career relatively late, the books’ famous monologues gave her a chance to flex a few skills and she says that she would love to play Anne Bronte’s creation Helen Huntingdon, if the chance to act in a Bronte adaptation came along.
“I’d love to do one of the Bronte stories; the material is an absolute gift for an actor,” she says.
“I found their whole story extremely moving.
“There was something quite mystical about being on the Yorkshire moors and reading their books and poetry.
“It was almost as if I could hear their voices in the wind.
“And for their father to have been born to an illiterate farmer to then go off to Cambridge to educate himself and produce these three amazing daughters, is fascinating.
“I’m really proud that the story began in Ireland.”
Storytelling has been part and parcel of Aoife’s life for as long as she can remember. From an early age, she went to the theatre a lot to see her mum on the stage and often went touring with her parents.
There were always actors around, sharing stories. Indeed, her dad Ciarán’s best friend is fellow Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson.
The 31-year-old, who divides her time between London and Paris, says she always had an ‘inkling’ of what she wanted to do with her life, but her parents tried to steer her in another direction. Her dad, though a hugely successful actor who has starred in Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Rome and The Terror, was all too aware of the pitfalls of the job and wanted to protect her.
Aoife went off to university to study international relations instead, with great hopes of saving the world. But after three years, she decided it wasn’t for her and that she did want to do acting after all.
“I came to it fairly late, when I was about 23/24,” she says.
“Some people go straight to drama school after school but for me, I was just lucky to get quality work over the past few years and once I’d set my mind to it.”
In the hit Channel 4 coming-of-age comedy Derry Girls, Aoife appeared as cocky newcomer Mae Cheung, whom the gang are anxious to befriend. She has a few iconic one-liners in the show, including ‘I’m from Donegal and we speak English there’. Derry girls was one of Aoife’s first roles and being part of the sitcom was ‘great craic’.
She then went on to star in the award-winning TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, playing Helen, girlfriend of Connell (Paul Mescal). The drama was aired during the pandemic, which meant the promotion around it and chat-show tour was a muted affair. Still, it became the BBC’s most streamed series of the year, with 62.7 million views and brought Aoife to the public’s attention.
Aoife next popped up in Anne Boleyn, playing Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s daughter and a future queen of England. Much like the Netflix hit Bridgerton, it celebrated diversity, casting actors on skill and not appearance, which Aoife described as ‘brilliant’ and a ‘long time coming’.
Growing up, Aoife watched a lot of Irish theatre and film and was always keen to work here. But she thought her English accent might hold her back. Landing parts in such successful series as Derry Girls and Normal People was a ‘dream come true’ and reinforced for her that she had made the right choice about her career.
“I absolutely loved working in Ireland,” she says.
“To be honest, I think it’s when I’ve been at my happiest.
“When I was doing Normal People, I remember thinking ‘maybe this is where I’m meant to be after all’.”
Her next role sees a complete genre switch, as she stars in a reboot of the 1987 horror film Hellraiser. She also stars alongside her dad for the first time in the upcoming film Cottontail, a ‘lovely’ flick about a widower and his son who travel from Japan to the Lake District to scatter his wife’s ashes there.
Aoife says she was initially nervous about working with her father but that it was hugely enjoyable, and she would love to do it again.
“It was my first time being in something with him and I thought it might be a bit nerve-wracking, but it wasn’t. It was a really lovely experience,” she says.
“We probably will work together again. I hope so anyway.”
A frequent visitor to Belfast to see her father’s family, Aoife was back in the city last November to attend the premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast at the Waterfront Hall.
Ciarán plays the grandfather in the film, a role for which he’s won widespread praise and talk of an Oscar nod.
Aoife says the Hinds family watched it together and thought it a ‘gorgeous’ film.
She loves Belfast itself, feels at home here and is keen to work in the city again.
“I’ve never lived in Belfast, but I’ve been visiting a few times a year since my childhood and it’s somewhere I’ve always felt welcome,” she says.
“I think I can relate to the spirit of the city.”
Having a famous father can sometimes be a hindrance for young people hoping to carve out a similar career, but for Aoife, that’s not the case. She relies on her dad to help guide her, to advise her and to be a support and considers herself blessed. In fact, she says, being the daughter of the north Belfast man is a ‘privilege’.
“I’m so lucky to have someone who can guide me through the ups and downs of acting,” she says. “It’s important to have that support.
“I know some people feel it can be a hindrance; that there are certain expectations on them if their parents are successful, but that’s not how I see it. I have someone who can help me understand the industry, who I can depend on for advice, and that’s a very strong basis to start from.
“I count myself very privileged to be Ciarán Hinds’ daughter.”
The Brontes: An Irish Tale will air on Tuesday, February 1 at 10.35pm on BBC One NI and also on iPlayer