er who drummed the importance
of learning into us on a daily basis. Plus, of course, I grew up in Ireland
where education is a powerful motivating force. Perhaps, historically, the
Irish have always seen it as a way up and out.
My mum taught, with amazing results, at the local state school. Her pupils were
often underprivileged kids who came from families of 12 and more. But my two
sisters and I went to Loreto Beaufort, a private convent school in Rathfarnham,
near Dublin. Maybe my mum thought she would compromise us if we went to her
school; maybe there was a little bit of middle-class snobbery in it.
Either way, Loreto Beaufort was a pretty academic place. There was a sense that
everyone there was probably being trained as a future lawyer or doctor. Acting
certainly wasn't on the list of desirable professions. It was seen as something
a bit loose and depraved, so when I started acting professionally at 15, I
think the view of most teachers was that I had somehow "gone to the dark
Some, but not all. I did have a particular rapport with Sister Mary Rose
O'Kane, who was always incredibly encouraging and interested in the double life
that I was living outside school. Surprisingly perhaps, she didn't teach drama
or even English. In fact, she taught maths.
Now, I was not a stupid child. I was good at foreign languages. I was good at
English. I was even good at science. But maths completely foxed me. I could
learn and recite the telephone directory if need be, but Pythagoras was lost on
me, and this despite the fact that both my elder sisters were brilliant
Sister Mary Rose seemed to understand how painful comparisons with my siblings
must be and she constantly resisted the temptation to ask: "What the hell
happened to you when they were dishing out the maths gene?" Plus, at a time
when maths was a key subject and people thought: "What's the good of someone
who can't add up?" Sister Mary Rose didn't make those judgments at all. So I
was lousy at logarithms. Big deal. She treated me with huge respect and
understanding that my strengths lay elsewhere.
There are certain teachers, I suppose, who just "get" you and Sister Mary Rose
"got" me. Although I hide it well, like a lot of actors, I'm probably barking
mad. And maybe she related to that rather eccentric part of me because she
herself was not what you would call a conventional nun. She was quirky and
dynamic and she oozed this anti-authoritarian streak. I used to wonder how she
had ended up as a nun, whether she'd had a choice in the matter, because at
that time in Ireland a lot of girls just found themselves sent to convents at
the age of 16.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying she wasn't devoted to God. She was a deeply
religious woman. But at the same time, I had this feeling there was something
very much bigger going on inside Sister Mary Rose and that she was making the
best of the situation she was in.
Sadly, I lost touch with her after I left Loreto Beaufort. Actually, I was
asked to go before taking the Leaving Certs (the Irish equivalent to A levels).
By that time, the acting had become such a big part of my life that I was
considered beyond redemption, I think. I was deemed to be "an unsuitable
influence on the girls".
I could be bitter, but actually I still have plenty of positive things to say
about my education. Thanks to my mum's guidance and help I still did well in
those exams and I think that the high standard of the Catholic education I
received equipped me for life in many ways. Now, I'm even trying to get my own
kids into the Catholic school around the corner.
With hindsight, you tend to focus on the good things and the good people.
Sister Mary Rose was definitely one of them.
Dublin-born actress Dervla Kirwan, 35, has appeared in TV dramas including
Ballykissangel, 55 Degrees North and True Dare Kiss. She lives with her
partner, Spooks star Rupert Penry-Jones, and their two children. She was
talking to Daphne Lockyer.