She may be Derry’s most famous alcoholic but the woman who plays her never touches a drop.
And now Carmel McCafferty is set to give her final performance as ‘Maire, A Woman of Derry’.
After more than a decade and 150 performances Carmel’s decided the show at the Millennium Forum on November 29 will be her last.
“It’s time I gave this part to someone else,” said Carmel.
“I don’t have any emotions about letting her go, I’ve had Maire that long it’s like she’s a part of me.
“But I want to see the play myself, and see how someone else would play Maire.”
Fresh from her most recent role as Shitty Kitty in ‘From the Camp to the Creggan’, Carmel’s been locked in intense rehearsals with writer and director Brian Foster for the past two weeks.
“I think doing ‘The Camp to the Creggan’ helped me an awful lot,” said Carmel.
“It had been a long time since I had been on the stage with other people and I really enjoyed it, I enjoyed the company.
“When I’m on stage as Maire I’m up there on my own wondering if I’m going to remember the next scene. It can be a lonely place.”
Still clutching her original script full of marginal notes and a few dog ears, Carmel recalls how she first landed the role of Maire.
“Brian took the play to Pauline Ross in The Playhouse and because it was still in a very raw state it was decided that a play reading would be better than a performance.
“I came up to read the play for a group of people, after that they brought me back to read the script to an audience.
“At that time the script was over two hours long. When they saw the reaction they got, Brian told me - “the part’s your’s if you want it.”
But Carmel had no idea about the enormity of the task she had just taken on. “I used to sweat blood over that script,” she said.
“And there were nights I would cry at home because there were lines in it that were so alien to me. I hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.
“I suffer from mild dyslexia but my family were brilliant, they would read the script along with me.
“I was listening to them, reading it and learning it at the same time. My family know the script word for word.
“I don’t drink but my friends drink and my husband, Kevin drank so I think I learned from them. I spent a few days in Waterloo Place before the play opened, that was really bad and I was shocked at the number of people that looked at me and walked on but then I probably would have done the same.
“My son Cormac was affronted when he saw the poster of me as Maire drinking up the Walls. I ruined his street cred, and to make matters worse, the following year I did ‘The Vagina Monologues’.
“His friends would say, Cormac’s ma drinks up Derry’s walls and talks about her funny bits. I don’t think he ever got over it.”
It was undoubtedly Carmel’s husband, the late Kevin McCallion, who proved to be the greatest support to her in those early days of Maire.
In fact if it hadn’t been for him, it’s likely the Derry woman would never have joined the acting scene.
“In 1971 I was going steady with Kevin,” said Carmel. “Kevin had been in Manchester and when he came home he finished with me.
“It was always him finishing with me, I never finished with him.
“In those days Kevin danced at the Point Inn and I danced in Borderland so there was never any chance of me bumping into him.”
“Bishop Daly or Father Daly as he was then had just started up the ‘71 Players and the Colmcille Ladies Choir. People came from all over Derry to be in it, we were a real mixed bunch.
“But I only went because I knew Kevin would be at it. I had no more interest in being on the stage than the man in the moon.”
Indeed Kevin went on to become Carmel’s biggest fan, attending Maire on its opening night and every performance until his death four years ago.
“We used to go walking along the Strand and people would point at Kevin and me calling us Packie and Maire. We both became known for the roles we had played.
“They even used to get our names mixed up. They’d call him Kevin McCafferty!”
“We did a play together called Bubbles in the Hot Tub and it was an absolute scream. I wore a bathing suit on stage and everything. “Kevin used to say laughter was the best medicine and he was right.
“About four weeks before he died he had lost his voice and he used to write me notes. One night he wrote me a note and I wrote one back to him. He wrote back saying: “Why are you writing, you can talk?” I fell about laughing and he wrote again saying: “I can still make you laugh.”
Asked whether she believed Kevin would be with her in spirit on November 29, Carmel replies:
“I don’t believe in this feeling of presences. I have never dreamt about Kevin or got a funny feeling about him. I suppose I am always waiting for it to happen. I want it to happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.
“He will be in my head anyway and I do take a photograph out of my coat pocket during the play. It’s supposed to be a picture of Maire and Tommy, but it isn’t, it’s a picture of Kevin and me.
“And it’s been there in my pocket since the first night. So Kevin will be there.”
Carmel’s now in rehearsals and says she’s been surprised by how quickly she’s been able to learn her lines again.
“I thought it might be hard because I’ve just learned the script for ‘From the Camp to the Creggan’,” she said.
“As you get older learning lines becomes harder and harder.
“That play was just fantastic. I was at my old school the other day and a woman called over to me, ‘Shitty Kitty.’
“It was great being on stage with the whole cast. And great having someone to bounce your ideas off.
“During the play I’d have a juke out of the corner of my eye to see what the rest of them were doing when I wasn’t speaking and it was a warm feeling knowing they were all on stage with me.
“In Maire you look to the right and look to the left and the blackness goes on forever.
“The one thing about playing Shitty Kitty was that I didn’t have to say any bad words. I was a good girl. S’Hugo Kelly was the one saying all the bad words.
“I do say some bad words in Maire though.
“The standing ovation we got every night was a buzz I cannot describe. But even to do a play and get to the last word is a fantastic feeling.”
Indeed standing ovations are something that Carmel has become accustomed to.
In all of her more than 150 performances of Maire she has never failed to get a standing ovation.
“Seeing people standing and clapping is the greatest buzz you will ever get,” explained Carmel.
“No artificial stimulant can give you the same buzz. When the curtain comes down, the buzz continues and we’re all talking over each other in excitement.”
Carmel says she’s thrilled to hear the Camp play will return next year.
“They’ll be taking me out of the nursing home for it,” she laughs. “But isn’t it great that a Derry writer like Brian can make so many people laugh and come out to see a play. I don’t think writers in the town are supported enough and more money needs to be put into amateur drama.
“I’m looking forward to my last night as Maire. Canadian Maire Jennifer Cornish who has performed the part of Maire in the first Canadian reading of the play, is coming along that night.
“The last time I did it Michael Doherty came to the front and gave me a rose at the end. I never thought anything like that would happen to me.
“I would love to see another girl up there doing it. This may be my last time but the play goes on, the play lives.”
Writer Brian Foster has high praise for Carmel.
He said: ‘What makes Carmel such a terrific actor is she absorbs direction like a dry sponge. Lesser actors often resent being given direction; not Carmel Mc Cafferty. She positively thrives on it.
“Add to that her ability to deliver the full gamut of power, pathos or comedy on stage, and you’ve got a unique talent.
“Carmel’s a complete one off. A real credit to Derry theatre these past forty years. I just wish the powers that be would have the sense to recognise that officially in some way.”