50 over 50: Deirdre O'Kane
The best is yet to come - Deirdre O’Kane on why she wants her 50s to be her favourite decade
The sun is shining in Dublin when Deirdre O’Kane answers the phone and she takes full advantage of the glorious weather by sitting outside on her front step while we talk. The comedian and actress, who turned 50 last year, is honest about how getting older does take some getting used to and that in the past 12 months, she has had to ‘acknowledge’ that she is ‘absolutely into the second half of’ her life.
“I can’t really pretend I’m not middle age anymore, it says it, there’s a number now. I mean I’m still grafting, that’s the only thing that surprises me, I’d like things to be a bit more plain sailing,” Deirdre jokes before noting the good things that come with each passing year.
“To me, it’s all positive; I like where I am, so it’s very liberating, you know who you are, you’ve really lived, you’ve got a lot of battle scars, a lot of wounds and you’ve survived. That’s really one of the most important things about getting to 50, you go, ‘Right, I’ve got my health, I’ve got two healthy children, what more do you want?’”
Our conversation then turns to the subject of positive affirmations and why saying them and really meaning them are two completely different things. Deirdre says that it’s easy to ‘throw out these platitudes’ but we also have to believe in what they mean which ‘requires work.’ “You know positivity isn’t a gift. I’m not naturally positive, I work at it and if I didn’t I’d very easily slip into a kind of a maudlin, darker place. So yeah, I think it requires work and maybe some people are gifted with a happy, positive disposition but I’m personally think it takes a little bit of effort.”
Making the decision to see the good versus the bad is something Deirdre does each day, although that isn’t always easy ‘especially when things are hard which they so often are.’ Over the years she has discovered some personal rituals that help her to switch off and focus on what she’s most grateful for, one of these is transcendental meditation which Deirdre aims to practice for 20 minutes most days “to close my eyes and stop my brain,” she says. The other is called The Five Minute Journal which she plans to continue doing for the ‘rest of her days.’
“I had it sitting on a shelf for ages and very recently I picked it up and I’m actually loving it! It’s not as big a commitment as a diary, it’s a much shorter couple of lines, things I’m grateful for, daily affirmations and then in the evening [I write down] what was good, how could I have made it better,” Deirdre explains. “It really is simple things and if amazing things happened well fine, you can put that in, but it’s about focusing on the smaller moments.”
Taking some time out of each day for oneself is something Deirdre is a big advocate for, ‘particularly for mums.’ “I think parenting is just so challenging and obviously the happier [you are] your children pick up on that. If you’re happy well then the people around you will be happier,” she says. “It’s actually vital but you can’t teach this, you can’t tell people this. I think you actually have to reach a point where you go, ‘I need something.’ I remember probably 15 years ago somebody mentioned a self-help book to me out of a conversation about something and I read it and it spanned a whole interest in all of this. Before that I was kind of happily unaware.”
A veteran on the Irish comedy scene, Deirdre has an extensive résumé on stage, television and in film but taking her work in a new direction is something she always strives to do. “I like to shake things up and I like change, I get very bored so I’m always trying to expand,” she says, and since turning 50 she has noticed that there is a respect for her ‘staying power in what is a very difficult industry.’
“I think that bodes well in business, you’re still here, you’re still doing it, you’re still bringing it, that means something. I think everybody in this industry knows it is just so easy to fade away and be forgotten, I definitely get a sense that there’s an appreciation for the fact that you’re still around. I still find it terrifying sometimes what I do, but I’m a bit more sure of my ability which makes it bit easier. Fear is kind of part and parcel of what I do, but I guess there’s a difference between real fear and managing fear,” she says.
“I’ve been a little bit of a Jack-of- all-trades, stand-up comic, actress, presenter and now I’m kind of able to harness those things a bit better. I know myself better and I really know now what my strengths are and I think it took me a long time to pin that down so now that I have, I would really love for it all to go my way. That’s the grand plan but obviously the stars need to align as well. I would like my fifties to be my best decade.”
One of Deirdre’s favourite quotes perfectly aligns with her job and putting herself on the front line: ‘To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’ She says that being in the public eye can be a ‘double- edged sword’ which can ‘strike fear’ into many. “You can use it [fame] to highlight something but they can also use it to bring you down so therefore I think that [saying] is really good. You just have to accept not everybody is going to love what you’re doing but if you don’t go ahead and do it then you won’t get up out of your bloody bed.
“It’s the bigger things and usually the crises are the things that you learn the most from. So, much as we would like to avoid them, they are obviously a necessary part of the human condition. It’s not the successes; the successes mark us out differently, but the battle wounds are what shape you, I think. e rising up, the constant picking yourself up, you know that’s really what it’s about.”
Still touring with her show A Line of O’Kane, raising children and particularly a teenager, is one of the topics Deirdre talks about. She made the decision to stay at home with Daniel and Holly when they were small and although she now sees how this impacted her career, it’s not something she would change.
“I don’t do regret but I would do things differently if I could go back, I’m still happy enough with the road. In one way I kind of stopped my career when I had children and I don’t regret that but I certainly paid a heavy price for it, you know? So that’s a difficult one for women, it really is. I probably should have kept going but do I regret having that time with my kids? No of course not but I probably could have done it better, I probably could have done both if I put my mind to it,” she says.
While some parents anticipate the teenage years with dread, Deirdre is the opposite and actually prefers this chapter compared to when her children were toddlers. “They’re chatty and they’re bigger and you can talk to them. It’s a massive job because there are hormones flying all over the place but I think I’m better at this. Dan’s only ten and Holly’s 14 and God knows what’s coming down the track but I like these ages. You can see the people emerging, the personalities emerging. It’s nice to be able to help them to navigate it all.”
Does she see bits of her own personality in her children now that they’re older? “I see snippets but they’re so much their own people, they’re really individual and I think the most important thing is just to completely accept who they are. I don’t have all of this worked out but as you go along you learn. I watch other people parent and I watch what they do and I think you can learn an awful lot from watching other people. Don’t be trying to put them in a box and don’t be trying to push a particular career or anything, just let it all evolve and keep them happy and confident and the rest will come.”
In March Deirdre, along with a host of other Irish comedians, once again took part in Paddy’s Night in Support of Comic Relief - a gig she started out of a want to do something that would help others – and she firmly believes that her ‘deep rooted anger at injustice’ comes from her own parents whom she describes as ‘thoroughly decent people.’ “It wasn’t that they sat me down or said anything, it was just watching it, you know? Watching them be appalled at poverty on the news, they always did their bit.”
This, in turn, is a message that Deirdre does her best to pass on to Daniel and Holly. “I talk about their privilege quite a lot, I talk about Syria and those kids in refugee camps. I prefer them to see it and understand it on a much more human level, but they know that I’m about to go to Gaza in April [to see where the money raised from Comic Relief goes] and I tell them as much about that as possible.
“I’m in a position to do something so I have to acknowledge that, I can’t ignore that. I can access publicity and that’s something that’s become valuable and I treasure it now in a way that I didn’t used to. I feel I can use this for a real benefit and I think that’s important, I think that’s really important.”