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Why my life's a juggling act

By Ciara Dwyer

Belfast actress Andrea Irvine is set to star in a prestigious new play. She tells Ciara Dwyer about the theatre, toddlers and having it all

Andrea Irvine, mother of two young boys, declares: “When your child is born, you have the profoundest joy. Spending time with them is great. I'm so thrilled that I had children, thrilled that I did it. But equally, you want to go off and do your own thing.”

And that is exactly what she has done. The actress is in rehearsals for Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, which opens at Dublin’s Gate Theatre on Tuesday. She tells me that the play is about love.

“It follows a relationship. It's complex, not always easy but ultimately it is a very optimistic look at what love is,” she says.

She could just as easily be describing life, her own in particular, for it too has had peaks and lulls. Irvine has come a long way from Seymour Hill, her birthplace five miles outside Belfast. The acting seed was planted by Miss McLean, an inspirational English teacher in her grammar school who showed that Shakespeare could be fun.

After university, Andrea told her parents that she was going to act. She was the first in the family to go to university, and with her degree in languages they had high hopes for her career. An actor's life, with all the instability it entails, was not what they had envisaged. But they needn't have worried.

Irvine has become one of Northern Ireland’s best-known actresses. Many know her from the RTE series Making the Cut. Her performance in Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Abbey in Dublin some years back was breathtaking. She can turn her hand equally to classics (Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Poor Beast in the Rain) and comedy (Love and a Bottle.)

She juggles motherhood with a career but appreciates the opportunity to combine both.

“This is what I do. This is what I did for a long time before I had children. Just because I had kids doesn't mean I want to stop acting but suddenly the environment and the space to do it has shrunk, time-wise and energy-wise. You're still ultimately yourself, there's no escape.”

I ask if motherhood changed her.

“Not essentially,” she says. “Your day to day life changes, but I don't think you change. At the beginning, motherhood was a big shock. I was very glad to be pregnant but there was another part of me which had this actor's anxiety: ‘I can do both, of course I can do both.'

“Then, once I found out that I was pregnant I didn't work for the best part of two years, but it wasn't by choice. I just thought I'd been forgotten. That was unexpected.”

The professionally fallow period was not without its advantages.

“When the kids are that young it feels interminable but you can't know at the time that it only lasts a short while. I'm not dewy-eyed about motherhood and it's not all-consuming but in another very fundamental way it is. Having children doesn't mean that I am not able to do other things, but it is unfortunate that as an actor you always feel anxious about work. Other women probably experience it in different ways. As an actor you don't take maternity leave or a career break.”

Eventually the acting world summoned her once more.

“Then I got pregnant again. I had already auditioned for Joe Dowling's production of Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at the Gate. When they cast me I told them that I was pregnant. They said they would make it work, which was very generous of them because there was dancing in it. When it was due to be finished I was going to be six months pregnant. Janet the costume designer was ingenious because she made me a fat suit, she put a sponge in a slip and the bump grew into the slip, so my character just looked a bit stocky. It was a great pleasure to be working and to be pregnant.”

Andrea's partner Patrick Leech, who had been an actor, decided to re-train. Now he is studying accountancy by night and working as a financial controller by day.

“Acting is a difficult business to be in, and then when you have children it adds a whole other level to it,” she says. “Patrick was finding it difficult getting acting work and was frustrated. I was out of work for a period of the late pregnancy and we needed the money. Does he miss acting? He says that if you could guarantee that he'd get four plays and two movies a year, he'd love to go back.”

They met when they acted opposite each other in a stage play in Dublin, where her acting career flourished. Although Andrea, who lived in Dunmurry, has done little acting in Northern Ireland, she she witnessed plenty of drama in her daily life.

“I wasn't dodging bullets on my street but there were bomb scares in Belfast,” she says. “You knew what it was like to go through security gates in the Eighties and Nineties. All that was there but I just got on with it. It was terribly naive of me.

“The North only affects your life in that everything gets normalised,” she says. “There was sectarianism and huge bigotry. I grew up in an estate, a working class loyalist estate.

“Everything was painted blue, white and red and there were murals on the wall of King Billy. I say to Patrick, ‘It's a very welcoming place because painted in large letters on one of the murals at the top of the estate is — Welcome to Loyalist Seymour Hill — in case you'd be in any doubt.”

She gives a sardonic laugh.

“Patrick was sweating, driving along with his southern registration on the car. That kind of fear is founded because there's so much bigotry. The hatred is irrational and most people don't do it, but some people are crazy with it. There were quite a few names in my area. My family wasn't involved in anything or friends with anybody who was.”

It was only when Andrea returned home, after five years in university in Scotland, that she looked at her surroundings with fresh eyes. Everything seemed heightened to her.

Although born into a Methodist family, Andrea's family did not go to church. When she was 15 she found God and become a Sunday School teacher for a short spell.

“There are many worthy, interesting things about Methodism,” she says. “I went to the local church and got quite involved. Religion raised its head in a very significant way — that whole born-again thing. You've got to accept Jesus into your heart and He's your one and only saviour. Then you've got to bear witness, which means you've got to go about telling this to everybody. You're trying to spread the message and get other people to open their hearts. I never quite got to that level of it.”

That all changed by the time she hit 17. “Come late teens, you want to go out,” says Andrea. “I started exploring and going over to different parts of Belfast. You're hanging out in a room full of people the same age as you and it's totally normal but you know there are different experiences going on there. It was a lot of fun but mainly it was a buzz.”

The harsher elements of life in Ulster emerged later on. In 1984, her friend's father was shot. He was a Catholic and a prominent, outspoken journalist in Northern Ireland. “That was a huge thing and it was another complexity of the North. It was difficult because you're coming up against another background. I didn't grow up in an environment where I was encouraged to question. That was just the way it was.”

Nowadays, Andrea lives in Inchicore in Dublin with Patrick and their two boys, Joseph (7) and Harry (4). They enjoy life and make it work for them.

“I used to peddle that line to myself that an opening night seems so insignificant compared with looking after your child, but it's still frightening.”

She refers to the “deluge of having young kids” and says that the whole vortex of home, of shopping and cooking and cleaning is “banal beyond belief” and yet it has to be done. Theirs is a world of creches and childminders when she is heading for the theatre.

“One would want to take time out beforehand, but because they're young they don't understand. You can't say, ‘Let's give Mum her space,' because they'll go, ‘Me, me, me.' It's tea-time. You do the cooking and then you go in smelling of sausages. It's kind of mad but part of me is amazed that it can happen. There's a practicality to it. The quality of my work doesn't suffer. In fact, since having children I feel far more confident and optimistic about everything.”

When she's not in rehearsals she meets other young mothers at the school gates in the mornings.

“They're very nice and we socialise. The common denominator is women and their own identity once they've had a kid. You can get very isolated as an adult with kids, so I'm very fortunate that I've gotten to know these women. They're at the same stage as I am. They are so refreshing and honest.

“One way or another you're immersed in this world of small children, and sometimes we're sitting in a group and we're talking about nothing but our kids for half an hour but you need this. There's no point in sitting with a good friend you knew from before who doesn't have kids as she will get tired of this talk. Some of these women have had full careers and are right out of it and miss it and yet they want to rear their kids.”

And on the great dilemma goes. I ask if motherhood has blunted her ambition. Far from it, she tells me.

“It's more alive than ever,” she says.

It is 10 hours since she was in rehearsals and her face still glows. And who knows? Juggling may be good for your health after all.

The Real Thing opens at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, (003531 874 4045; on Tuesday

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