Siobhan McSweeney would be ‘honoured’ to be considered a Derry girl

Siobhan McSweeney
Siobhan McSweeney

Actress Siobhan McSweeney, who is performing at the Guildhall this week, says she ‘jumps at any chance’ to come back to the city.

Ms McSweeney, who also plays fan favourite Sister Michael in ‘Derry Girls’, spoke to the ‘Journal’ during rehearsals for ‘The Freedom of the City,’ which is being presented as part of the ‘Art Over Borders’ 4th Lughnasa FrielFest.

The Brian Friel play is set within the Guildhall and the iconic venue is also where it is being staged this week, directed by ‘London Irish’ director Jonathan Moore and performed by a 12-strong cast.

The accomplished actress plays the role of Lilly, one of three main characters and protestors who mistakingly find themselves in the Mayor’s parlour, but which is interpreted as an ‘occupation.’ The two other central characters are Michael and Skinner, played by Derry actors Stephen Bradley and Conor O’Kane.

Siobhan said the play, which is set in the 1970s during a civil rights demonstration, deals with themes and issues that are still ‘very much relevant’ today.

“This play is set in a specific time but - a bit like Derry Girls - even though it’s set in a specific time there are universal themes that come out.”

Siobhan has been vocal in the campaign to bring equal marriage and abortion rights to Northern Ireland and said the discussion of civil rights in the play is very much what she is interested in.

“Abortion and marriage equality are two huge, oppressive constraints in this country. A bit like the civil rights the three here are marching for, that are so obvious to us now, I think it will take a couple of years before we’re looking back at this time and going: ‘But it was obvious that people should have the choice’ and that’s all it is, to have the right to do it.”

Siobhan is a ‘huge fan’ of the work of the late Brian Friel and has performed in a number of his plays.

She told how she feels ‘even more pressure’ during her performances now that he has passed away. “I feel like I don’t want to mess it up. His dedication and support of the people trying to do service to his work was extraordinary. So, you sort of felt you had a dialogue going on with him. Now that he’s gone there’s no-one really for him to roll his eyes and say: ‘God, that Cork woman is ruining my play again!’ you know? There’s sort of an even greater pressure now.”

She added that, even before she knew the full details, she said yes as soon as she heard the play was to be performed in the Guildhall.

Derry’s ‘so wonderful’

“Any chance to come back to Derry and I’m there. It’s just so wonderful. There’s a sense of pride and ownership and I absolutely adore it. People have been nothing but lovely.”

She added how, when she comes to Derry, people treat her as if she’s ‘already their friend.’

She’d consider it ‘a great honour’ if she was considered an honorary Derry girl through her work on the hit show, the success of which gives her ‘great joy.’

“It’s extraordinary. It’s the best thing ever, because not only do you have all the things - the joy of doing it, as it’s so wonderfully written and incredibly funny, as well as the cast and crew, who are the best craic in the world, you also have the validation of people loving it just as much as you are.”

Siobhan said she ‘loves’ that people from diverse backgrounds ‘get’ Derry Girls and that is due to the quality of the writing and universal themes and issues.

“It shows a different way. It’s a very funny, family comedy but it is political, be under no illusion, it’s an incredibly political piece of work. But, there’s another way of doing it that doesn’t involve men in black jackets and moustaches glaring and mumbling under their breath.”

Filming of series three of Derry Girls has yet to begin and for now, Siobhan is relishing her role as Lilly in ‘The Freedom of the City.’

As well as the Guildhall performance, the audience are also being walked to the historic venue by spirituals singer Tayo Aluko from Ebrington Barracks and Free Derry Museum on alternative nights.

It is also apt that the performance is happening on what is the 50th anniversary year of the Battle of the Bogside.

“It’s incredible. There’ll be something in the air and it’s a great opportunity for us to see how far we’ve come and to honour those who fought and fought peacefully as much as they could. And, to be proud of the distance we’ve come from there - keep their legacy but hopefully never get back to there.”

Tickets are currently on sale for the Lughnasa FrielFest. More information and bookings can be made at www.artsoverborders.com/

For more on the play see Page 23.