I am the youngest of 11 children, raised in a two-bedroom tenement by the most extraordinary mother who drilled into me from early childhood that I could be anything that I dreamed of as long as I was prepared to work hard and accept the consequences of my decisions. I know that sounds odd to be teaching a young boy, but it has stayed with me and gotten me through many a tough or tragic moment in my life.
My mother began her young life as a nun. Having renounced her vows she married a young cabinet-maker, Gerry O’Carroll, mainly she says because he was a great dancer – and she loved to dance. She was teaching when they married and believe it or not she had to give it up because a married woman could not work in the civil service back then [in 1936]. She joined the Labour Party to fight this and in 1954 and after having 10 children, she became the first woman elected to the Dail for Labour. Indeed she was a TD [Teachta Dála, Irish member of Parliament] when she gave birth to me and named me after the then leader of the Labour Party Brendan Corish.
On my ninth birthday, on September 17 1964, my father, because I wanted to keep pigeons, promised to build me the best pigeon loft in Finglas. I knew he could. He was a skilled cabinet maker and I had seen him at work, at one point making a roll-top desk and bragging that there was not one nail or screw used. I was thrilled. Eight days later he died. The following year again on my birthday I went into a private school, recommended by a judge, after being caught shoplifting. In my 14th year I spent Christmas alone as my mother had gone to South Africa at the invitation of the Black Consciousness Movement founder Steve Biko.
I wasn’t fazed by anything. By 16 I was a confident, energetic young man with just one more year to go before I finished my training in the InterContinental hotel in Ballsbridge in Dublin and became a waiter. I worked long hours but loved my job. I trained for football twice a week and had at least one match every weekend, sometimes two, and seemed to have boundless energy. If I met my 16-year-old self I would like him, a lot.
I would tell this teenager not to take things personally. At that time in my life I truly believed that everything bad that happened in my life was deliberately done by someone to hurt me. I would have to wait many years before I understood it wasn’t. I remember moaning to my mother one day about some supervisor or other that had been nasty to me for no reason. She simply replied, don’t be too hard on him. Everybody has tough days sometimes.
What advice would I give the young Brendan about his love life? Ha ha! What love life? I was a virgin on my wedding day. The only advice I would give him regarding the opposite sex would be to tell him to “For fuck’s sake dress better.” I would also tell him to wait a little longer before getting married. I got married too young [in 1977], but that was the way it was. Everybody on the team were getting married and then it was my turn.
I have had my fair share of tough times like anybody else. The two that affected me most were losses. My mother who was my guiding light, my mentor and my biggest fan. And my son Brendan [who died of spina bifida three days after being born]. I was very young but I would pat my younger self on the back – I think the young man I was coped with both well enough. But they were devastating. The advice I would give my younger self is the same that Mrs Brown offers all her children. “Worrying will change nothing, everything works out just the way it’s supposed to. It always does.” Career advice is easy. STOP TRYING SO HARD. At that time I wanted everything to happen too quickly, I had no sense that ideas needed to be nurtured. I was too young to understand that there’s a process to things. I needed to calm the fuck down!
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
I would tell my younger self he’s on the right track. Nothing done with a true heart and given all you have to give is a waste of time. As for mistakes, I subscribe to the truism that the man who never made a mistake never made anything. I have made more than my share but they were not mistakes when I decided to do them and, believe me, I have learned many lessons from my mistakes and failures. The greatest mistake is not in failing, it’s in not trying and on this score he would get an A+ from me.
The thing young Brendan should look forward to most is family. I could not wait to be a father. There was little to learn from my father as he passed before I was old enough to understand. However my mother filled both roles admirably. I also have four wonderful brothers to learn from, all of whom were great fathers. I also have 24 nephews and nieces – so plenty of experience to draw from.
I thought the birth of all my children would bring me the most happiness. But then I saw them grow to become great people and hard workers and thought that was the most happiness. Nope, there’s more – along came six grandsons and my cup truly runneth over! To see Fiona, obviously the most beautiful baby girl ever born, blossom into a wonderful young woman and mother makes my heart jump for joy. To have seen Danny grow from a pudgy baby through years of making me proud and laugh gives me goose bumps. And to have seen Eric, just 2lb 13oz at birth, become the fine handsome young man that he is. There is my happiness, there is my success. Nothing else matters.
If I could relive any moment I would choose August 1 2005 at 7pm eastern time USA. I stood with the preacher at the top of the steps waiting for my bride to be, Jennifer Gibney, to arrive. With my back to her I heard her arrive and all the oohs and aahs befitting a bride’s arrival. I turned and looked down the aisle at her as she glowingly hung on to her father’s arm. She looked at me and smiled. At that moment I was never more sure of anything in my life than that I wanted to be her husband. And I was right.
Alas with my dad dying so young at 55 and my mother passing in 1983 they never got to see me perform on stage. But my Ma always believed I’d be OK. She used to say that I would either end up as Taoiseach or in prison. So far I have managed to avoid both.
If I could have a conversation with anyone again it would be with my mammy. I would be sitting on the side of her bed. She would talk and talk about family, what book she was reading, The Irish Times crossword that day, world affairs, what the future holds, how much she loves me. I would just sit and listen and if I could get a word in all I would want to say is “Don’t go.”
Two special festive editions of Mrs Brown’s Boys will be shown on BBC1 over Christmas and New Year