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'Sharp as a razor', 'no shrinking violet' and Labour's first female TD: Meet the real Mrs Brown

A documentary describing the life of Maureen O’Carroll, mother of Brendan, airs this morning.

Sometimes people asked me if Mrs Brown was based on my mother, and I used to always say no. Always. My mother’s life was so extraordinary. But you know what? Mrs Brown is my mother… She’s got that same wisdom. There’s a warmth and a fairness about Mrs Brown. A hard fairness and my mam had that.

BRENDAN O’CARROLL has made the name Mrs Brown famous across the world, and the inspiration for the character came from someone very close to home – his mother.

In a documentary produced by Caroline Dalton broadcast this morning on Newstalk, the children of the “real Mrs Brown” talked about the life of the sharp-witted woman who became Labour’s first female TD.

Maureen O’Carroll was elected to the Dáil in the general election of May 1954 and, with other contributions from Labour historian Niamh Puirséil and TD Joan Burton, the story of this trailblazer is told over the hour-long radio documentary.

Maureen and Brendan Brendan O'Carroll with his mother Maureen Source: Caroline Dalton/With permission of O'Carroll family

‘Sharp wit’

Maureen was an elected politician who had 10 children, but her life almost ended up very different.

She had studied to become a nun, and gained an English degree from NUI Galway, before renouncing her vows, becoming a teacher and getting married.

“My mother was very cute,” Brendan O’Carroll said. “At that time it was a very radical thing to do. The only worse thing in the 30s than having a child not go into the priesthood or the convent was to have a child that went in and then came out again.”

Maureen O’Carroll became involved in politics in the years after the Emergency, and became a campaigner and founder of the Lower Prices Council, a group which fought against high and unfair prices being charged in the years following World War II.

“Housewives would come to my mam and say ‘I’ve been ripped off down the shop’,  and that’s why she was instrumental in setting up the prices council,” her children said.

The house was like Paddington Station. Neighbours would come with a problem. Everyone knew my mother was the one to go to. She’d write letters for people… anything they needed an official letter for.

On the day she was elected to the Dáil, Maureen had gone down to the polling station and her husband left work early to go down to see her.

On the way in he was stopped by the usher because he was still wearing his work gear.

“Look I’m only going to see how my missus is doing,” he said, and then explained who his wife was.

The usher replied: “I suggest you go home and put a suit on, sir.”

Brendan said his mother was very well-suited to the Dáil. He described how, during her maiden speech, she was interrupted by the Ceann Comhairle who asked her when the member for Dublin North Central intended to dress appropriately for the Dáil.

She was told that a dress or frock and a hat would be appropriate. Maureen O’Carroll replied that she’d do so when every other member of the Dáil wore a dress or frock and a hat.

Brendan said: “She didn’t take any crap. She really was as sharp as a razor blade.”

He also described going through his mother’s diary at the age of 13 and finding a note from her just before she found out that she was pregnant with him while serving as a TD.

“She had a meeting with someone in the Dáil, and then a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon,” he said. “Her note says the doctor said it was either a growth or she was pregnant. And then she wrote in brackets ‘I hope it’s a fucking growth’.

I was 13 reading that. I said it to her and she said ‘I was right. You a growth and you’re malignant.’

Trailblazer

O’Carroll is very well-known in the Labour party for the actions she took in her three years in the Dáil.

During that time, she acted as the party’s chief whip, and was the first woman to hold that position in any Irish political party.

Joan Burton described as “far-seeing”, proposing policies such as introducing female gardaí, having women on state boards and removing the word “illegitimate” as a classification on the birth certificate.

Puirséil said: “The kind of things she was talking about weren’t very popular. It was a very masculine society. [A lot of things] wouldn’t be on the agenda of male parliamentarians.

She was an independent voice in her own right, with no one telling her what to do… She was ahead of her time.

Brendan recalled an example of her popularity among her constituents as never having to pay the bus fare on the number 40 into town from Finglas.

“I never knew why the bus man never asked us for bus fare,” he said. “She’d shown them how to get a house and how to go about it.

She was born before her time. She did it in a time where women were dictated to play a certain role.

Maureen O’Carroll lost her Dáil seat in 1957, when the coalition she was part of took a hammering at the general election and she was one of the casualties.

Burton: “She emerged as a major campaigner in Ireland of the 1950s. She’s in all our photos of the ‘women who won’. Relatively few women have crossed the plinth into Leinster House.

For the Labour Party, she’ll always be an icon as the first woman.

Legacy

pjimage (46) Source: BBC/BOC/Hungry Bear/Graeme Hunter/O'Carroll Family

Maureen quit political life after the 1957 general election, and died in the 1980s.

Portions of the documentary feature Maureen’s children chatting about what she was like as a person.

A consensus emerges that she always made sure she dressed well, did not suffer fools and more often than not had a smoke in her mouth.

“After a conversation with her you could walk on water, and feel you could be anything you want to be,” they said.

Her children recalled her once being asked the question: “Do you admire women who want to be as good as men?”

Maureen’s reply was: “If I meet any woman who wants to be as good as a man, I’d say they lack ambition.”

They agreed that she doted on Brendan, who could “make [their] mother laugh like she couldn’t believe”.

“What she called him on a daily basis could not be repeated on radio, television or in print,” they said.

Brendan O’Carroll has had phenomenal success with his Mrs Brown character, and he says that he tries to emulate his mother’s sharp wit and her warmth with his creation.

He concluded: “The legacy she’s left me is that every time I sit down to write Mrs Brown, I hear her voice.”

The Real Mrs Brown aired this morning on Newstalk at 7am. It will be repeated next Saturday 3 March at 9pm.

Read: ‘Brendan O’Carroll never asked me why I was leaving… he said okay and that was it’

Read: Mrs Brown is getting her very own Saturday night chat show on BBC One

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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