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Posted 18 June 2012

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TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY DR EAMONN JORDAN, UCD School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin on 16 June 2012, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on BRENDA FRICKER

President, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentleman.

Today we are here both to celebrate and to honour the extraordinary achievements of Brenda Fricker, who has performed as an actor for well over forty years. From the age of seven, Brenda took acting classes with Ena Burke.  Along with her sister, Brenda also took music and Irish dancing lessons. Indeed, ‘Brenda was a national junior champion three years in a row’.

Brenda began doing radio plays from the age of nine.  At nineteen, she was employed as an assistant to the Arts Editor of the Irish Times and left to take a part in Tolka Row, Ireland’s first soap opera. Brenda Fricker started her film career in 1964 in a small un-credited role in Of Human Bondage. During her career, she has acted on stage, for film and for television. In terms of theatre, she has worked in England with the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court,
and in Ireland with Dublin’s Gate and Abbey Theatres. For many, her stand out performance was as Maggie Polpin in John B. Keane’s Big Maggie, in a production of the play on the Abbey Theatre stage in 1988, directed by Ben Barnes. The play captures the tragic plight of Maggie Poplin, who is caught between two worlds, the old and the new Irelands. Fintan O’Toole suggests that her character was: “born and raised with one set of social values, she now has to cope with another. Brenda Fricker’s superb performance ... showed just how close to the nerve-ends of the nation her struggle remains”.

In terms of television, Brenda is best known for her work on the BBC’s television series, Casualty. She played Irish nurse, Megan Roach for five years and for sixty-five episodes, returning in 1998 and also in 2007 for a single Red Nose Day episode. She made her final appearances in Casualty in 2010 with a really challenging and harrowing story line. In terms of film, she has worked on a vast variety of productions, including the much celebrated Ballroom of Romance (1982), directed by Pat O’Connor. She has acted in acclaimed films like a Man of no Importance (1994) opposite Albert Finney; she played the role of Veronica Guerin’s mother in the film about the life of the journalist in 2003, and she has a powerful role in Damien O’Donnell’s Inside I'm Dancing  (2004). More recently, she starred in the award winning road movie Cloudburst (2011) opposite, Olympia Dukakis and appeared in Albert Nobbs (2011/2), with Glen Close.

In terms of comedy, worth noting is her fine performance opposite Mike Meyers in So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) and she also starred as the Central Park Pigeon Lady in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York . A brilliant sense of compassion, endearment and reassurance shines through in a very highly regarded performance, which is vividly remembered by a generation of cinema goers.  Brenda has also starred in more politically minded work like the Australian Brides of Christ (1991), in the film about the Omagh bombing, [(Omagh) (2004)], in which she played  police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, and  in No Tears  (2002),  a TV docudrama about Hepatitis C and contaminated blood products in which she played Grainne McFadden. This outline is just a small sample from a vast body of work to date.

However, it is for films like The Field (1990) and My Left Foot (1989) that Brenda Fricker is best known.  In The Field, she delivers an exceptional performance as Maggie McCabe opposite Richard Harris’s the Bull McCabe. Maggie McCabe will not forgive her husband’s role in their son’s suicide. In one of the most telling scenes in the movie the couple share a meal. He eats noisily, she stares her defiance at him, her rhythm of eating is purposefully out of sync with his, but what is most telling is the power of her silence.  

As Christy Brown’s mother in My Left Foot, Fricker delivers a most astonishing, Oscar winning performance.  Great actors engage with those they work with and communicate with audiences, through physicality, movement, composure, gesture, language, sounds, silences, and reflexes.

And when people talk about what great actors bring to a performance, they often mention their deliberateness, their timing, their believability, their intensity, their charisma, their presence and their precise, purposeful, energy. Brenda Fricker has all of the above qualities and more. There is a natural stillness to her great performances, incredible focus, a way of performing that fixes on the now, fixes on the immediate moment, with astonishing groundedness,  particular ferocity, considerate generosity, wondrous delicacy and utter conviction.

One of the great things about My Left Foot, and about Fricker’s performance in particular, is that the restraints of poverty are resisted, secondly, there is a defiance of social attitudes in relation to disability, and thirdly, there is a persistent spontaneity in the everyday existence of the characters that has not being erased by disadvantage. In an interview, Brenda Fricker has mentioned how along with Daniel Day-Lewis she agreed that there would be few re-assuring gestures of touch shared between mother and son in the film; that their bond was something beyond affection, beyond sympathy or empathy. That is captured many times in the film, but quiet brilliantly during one particular moment.  This is the scene when Mrs Brown, while heavily pregnant, carries the young Christy over her shoulder, up the stairs to his room,

As Fricker reaches the top of the stairs, sweating and taking a step at a time, she is also holding Christy’s boot in her left hand, and with that hand she also grips the banister to balance herself. This moment reveals the delicacy of Brenda Fricker’s acting skills, how she restrains emotion and checks that the public mask is in place, while yet an inner essence shines through, making this such a powerful moment. Fricker notes in an interview how along with Jim Sheridan they worked on the importance of understatement, so despite the effort, and in order to protect her son, there is a withholding of the endurance involved, a disguise of the discomfort borne. But that physical effort induces labour.

Brenda Fricker’s commitment to the acting profession is both ongoing and astonishing, and is evident in the wide variety of performances that she delivers and in the large volume of work that comes her way. Brenda has been awarded the Maureen O'Hara award, which honours women who have demonstrated leadership and bravery in film. Of course, she has a life beyond acting, and gives back a great deal to the community in which she lives. She is also a patron of the Gaiety School of Acting and she contributes to broader society by opening events like the Táin festival in Louth, an inner city film project or a cinema in Leopardstown hospital. She maintains a high public profile and is unafraid to engage with the issues of the day.

Finally, in an interview with Carole Zucker for a book on acting Brenda suggests that actors require ‘Talent, toughness, [and] stamina.’ It is absolutely certain that she possesses all three traits in wonderful abundance and this is why we honour her today.

Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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