Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Roma Downey: Losing mum at 11 was awful, I'll never get over it

Exclusive star's bogside-to-Hollywood story

By Julian Brouwer

Roma Downey lifts the lid on the pain of losing her beloved mother in her eagerly-awaited new memoir.

The Derry-born Touched by an Angel actress also tells how mum Maureen's finest china was smashed to bits during a gun battle between the IRA and the Army.

The actress recalls how Maureen kept her china hidden in a room she called 'the good room' - and refused to let anyone use it.

The star still wonders what special event Maureen, who died of a heart attack when Roma was 11, had been saving the china for.

The 56-year-old writes: "Back in the early 70s, at the height of the Troubles, the British Army had taken to the streets and they had brought with them enormous armoured vehicles."

During a gun battle, one of the trucks drove down Roma's Bogside street, causing her house to shake. "We heard a crash come from the good room," she writes. "My mum cried out and gasped when she saw what had happened.

"With her young life over too soon, I often wondered what special occasion was she saving that china for. Her silver wedding anniversary, my wedding day, my daughter's christening? All celebrations that she wouldn't live to see."

In Box of Butterflies, Roma says her mum's death left a huge hole in her life and reflects on how her sorrow prepared her for Touched by an Angel.

"Losing my mother when I was young was awful," she explains. "Her death was the most profound incident to happen to me. I'll never get over losing her.

"Her death created a void and I grew up around that. It wasn't until the birth of my daughter that I started to recover."

She also recalls how her career changed dramatically after landing a role in a Broadway show with Sir Rex Harrison.

"I was classically trained in London and had moved to New York with my heart set on Broadway," Roma says.

"Much to my surprise, some television producers saw my performance and called me in to read for a mini-series called A Woman Named Jackie - a six-hour film about the life of Jackie Kennedy.

"My agency sent me the script and I read the first of six episodes. The material was compelling, but I didn't know what character they were thinking of for me. I called my agent to ask. He said with a laugh, 'Well, the title role, of course'.

"My jaw dropped. It was hard to imagine me, an Irish woman, playing this iconic American beauty. And yet I booked the role and the series went on to win the Emmy for best mini-series that year (1991).

"On the heels of its success, I decided to pack my bags again and move to Hollywood to see what other TV or film opportunities might arise.

"I read through a number of scripts that my agent wanted me to consider, but none was terribly appealing.

"Then I picked up one with the working title Angel's Attic (later to be retitled Touched by an Angel). I felt a fluttering in my stomach.

"I knew immediately this was something different. As I opened the packet and began to read, tears came to my eyes.

"The series told the story of angels who show up at crossroads in people's lives with a message of faith and love. The angels come to earth to remind people that God loves them and hasn't forgotten them."

A few days later, Roma auditioned for the role of Monica, one of the lead angels.

"As I began preparing for the audition I couldn't believe this script presented me with an opportunity to play an angel and bring to life so many elements of the faith I hold dear," she writes.

"As I prepared for my audition, I realised that playing the role of Monica would require a compassionate heart. And I felt deep in my soul that I had been prepared for this role by the loss I had experienced in my own life.

"I knew that I could relate to the very people Monica was coming to visit, that I could meet those people in their places of loss and hurt because I had felt loss and hurt so intensely myself at such a young age.

"I understood then that God had been preparing me and I'd now been given the chance to turn my pain into purpose."

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