Actress with Irish upbringing works to bring female perspectives to film

Deirdre Brennan

Deirdre Brennan
Who she is:
Actress, writer
Lives in: New York City

Sr. Camille: The first I learned of you came from your request to connect with Siobhan Byrne O'Connor, whom I featured in a conversation here some time ago. (Reminder to readers: Siobhan is the supervising producer and occasional writer for my favorite television drama, "Blue Bloods.")

Deirdre, what is it about this series that appeals to you?

Brennan: Initially, a variety of reasons. Len Cariou, whom I know from Friars Club, plays the dad in the series, and its executive producer is a fellow Quaker and University of Pennsylvania alumnus, Leonard Goldberg. I was drawn in the by the story of a family "on the job"; like many Irish families, our extended one has many members in law enforcement. The personal issues and dynamics between them distinguish the series from the ordinary procedural on TV.

Our initial conversation revealed a delicate Irish brogue.  Did you grow up in Ireland? If so, where?

I was not born there but was already visiting at a few months old. Like Siobhan, I spent my summers growing up in Ireland.

What was life like there?

Ireland is a magical place. I still remember as a kid, upon arriving for the summer, the sweet smell of grass and the enduring dewiness in the air. I have vivid memories of helping Grandpa milk the cows and fill up the drum to be picked up by the creamery via horse and carriage; of climbing up the haystacks in the barn with my cousins and burying ourselves in the delicious smell of dried grass; of watching a calf being born, a rope tied to its hooves as it was pulled out of its mother by a line of men in a tug-of-war; of looking out over the cliffs not far from my uncle's door in Westport, Mayo, and into the sea, where on a sunny day it shimmers like a blanket of jewels as far as you can see; of walking up old Grafton Street in Dublin and around the old Dickensian streets lining the Quays, which have since become gentrified; of listening to the tinkers hawk their wares on old Henrietta Street, another vestige of days gone by.

Along with these images and memories is the faint trace of melancholy, of a country that had been invaded, occupied, sucked dry for hundreds of years and almost exterminated during the Irish Holocaust. The euphemism is the "Potato Famine," but realistically, no one would have died from the blight of one crop. It was the forced export and theft of all other native Irish crops and goods by the English and their refusal to leave some back for the people that led to the systematic genocide, as people literally fell dead in the streets from hunger, tuberculosis and exposure. That is the history that Americans do not read about.  

Can you name strong influences? Any heroes?

My parents are my real heroes. My mom is a tough Irishwoman who has taught us to be stubborn in the face of adversity. She beat back cancer with a stick years ago. It's afraid to come back. My dad was a gentleman who had an air of effortless cool about him. He also had a deep, abiding faith, and my brothers and I grew up under the protective shade of that tree. Together, they showed by example that everything is possible if you have faith and work hard.

What was your education like?

I went to St. Bartholomew School in Queens. It was before they went co-ed, so girls had the chance to develop a strong, healthy sense of identity outside of the boy-girl dynamic. When I grew up, gender roles were more entrenched, and male aggressiveness sometimes pushed the female perspective on the periphery, particularly in the classroom. (I watch my nieces now and see that things are changing.) There was also something comforting about the community of faith that surrounded Catholic school, and our school activities tied to the adjacent church. Preparing for holy days, the Lenten wreath, getting ready for first holy Communion and confirmation. I believe ritual is organically part of the mind-body connection and helps to fortify faith.  

I also went to University of Pennsylvania, which was a full-on growth experience, as college always is. Philadelphia is, in a way, like a small town with big-city issues. You have an exclusive, privileged Ivy League school plopped in the middle of a multicultural city. Those four years I watched as a large institution accumulated property and values rose, pushing the minority population further and further out. This caused enmity and clashes between the races. One semester, the young man who showed me my grad student apartment earlier that year was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Another semester, an elderly African-American man who was having an asthma attack in a Korean grocery in West Philly was thrown to the curb because the proprietor thought he was a drunk. The man died. Rodney King's appeal resonated with a lot of people back then: "Can we all get along?"

Are you married?

Not married, but have two gorgeous nieces and two gorgeous nephews. I love them to bits and could play with them all day.

Do you work outside your home?

I am an actress and writer and come from a theater and indie film background. But I have always had people encourage me to pursue writing. So after my first submission was named as a finalist in the New York Screenplay Contest last year, I have been throwing myself into script work. There is more content needed in film from a woman's perspective, anyway.

Can you name differences in the way Americans and Irish live their lives and their faith?

Well, the Republic of Ireland is Catholic, so there is an understood ethnic homogeneity. Outside of that, we worship the same way.

Have you gone back to Ireland for visits or business?

Many times. Every time I return, I say I am going to stay -- at least for a year. The lifestyle is seductive -- it is more laid-back and civilized. There is an art to conversation there that is not appreciated or practiced the same way in America. The pub culture is really about connecting face-to-face, with wit and words, over a pint.

Would you please describe your family?

I have two brothers, both lawyers who have somewhat tailored their careers to their passions. My brother is a legal attaché for the FBI, and my other brother does legal in new media and produces film.

Where do you worship?

For many years, I went to St. Hugh's on Long Island. Now, I visit a church in NYC where my father used to volunteer at when he first moved to New York. There was a priest there with whom he went to St. Pat's back in Ireland growing up. I go there about three to four times a week. I feel my dad there in every part of the church. I talk to him and my sister. It may take just a few minutes, but it's a peaceful addition to the day. And my requests are always answered.

What is your favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?

James 1:2-3: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I saw that with Mom as she beat cancer, and I feel it when confronted with obstacles. There's joy in overcoming the odds.

Does it make in difference in your life?

Yes. Growing up, if I started whining over stupid stuff, Mom would say, "Snap out of it already!" As an adult, perseverance is critical to success. I would like to think I have cultivated the self-discipline to shake the nonsense off and forge ahead.

What is your image of God?

When I was a kid, I saw God as a chubby man in a white robe with a huge head, shiny black hair side-parted with hair crème, Coke-bottle glasses and a perpetual grin. A very approachable fellow.

Has it changed?

Oh yes. Now, God is Love -- a constant, powerful vibration. I believe we are all composed of the same fundamental substance, which is why everything we do cannot fail to have an impact on others. We are all connected, and he lives in us. That is an awesome responsibility: If we do bad, we hurt ourselves and those we love and everything around us. But this connectedness is also a huge comfort: a reminder that the power of the Universal Love of God is there always for us to tap into and, ideally, to stay in tune with.

Can you say why?

We are flesh and blood. Our meditations can only ascend so far without our physical needs and prejudices getting in the way. I researched and read a lot about traditional and pagan religions and how God existed in everything: the moon, the earth, the sun, the sky. And I see nothing unusual about how my Catholic faith incorporates this. There is, for me, nothing more faith-affirming than knowing I am a part of it all, and like the earth, will continue on long after my physical body and its molecules take another form.

What about your faith is most meaningful to you? Do you see it in action?

My faith makes me a good person. I am by nature an empathetic person, but when I stray through selfishness or ego, I am reminded of how I am connected to it all. The Universal God is in all of us. There's comfort in that responsibility.

Who most influenced your belief system? Please explain.

My comfort in the church was from my upbringing in a churchgoing family and a parochial school. My belief in the presence of God in everything and our interconnectivity is a perspective that for me personally is in perfect harmony with the teachings of the church and came from my own search and reading.

Did you follow the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome? If so, have you any reactions to their decisions?

This third synod and its decision to focus on family come at the right time and with the right pontiff. Pope Francis understands the world has changed, and like all things, the church will adapt. What some think are completely radical concepts in Catholicism, like acknowledging evolution and embracing the LGBT community into the fold, are just signs of a forward-thinking leader. The family is a critical concept to deal with; it is the church's future. After all the challenges it has dealt with from the actions of a group of errant servants and the pain they have caused, it is right that the church redefines its commitment to the family unit and supporting it.

How do you pray?

Everywhere and anywhere. It is my meditation.

What does Christianity ask of you?

To be the best of me that I can be.

What do you want from it?

I get out of it (strength) what I put into it (strength).

What in contemporary Catholicism comforts or distresses you?

The slow response from some in the church to deal with those that blighted its name through their own degenerate actions.

Is there anything you would change?

I have faith in the endurance of Catholicism. It serves humanity and the spiritual needs of its flock. As long as it evolves along with these needs, it is necessary and pertinent.

What causes you sorrow?

Ignorance, which encourages intolerance. Once again, it is a lack of understanding that we are all in this together. There is no need to chop someone's head off over anything. Similarly, a supposed civilized nation like ours should not allow powerful money-hoarding entities to cast blame for financial distress on the poor and minorities. The universe has enough for us all. It is our prejudices that create human suffering.

What causes you joy?

Dancing. I used to teach hustle, Latin and ballroom dancing, and I go to hustle and salsa dancing regularly.

What gives you hope?

My dreams to create and inspire. I am working on a script about a badass female character in Irish history. Stay tuned.

How do you relax?

Among other things, watching vintage film noir.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

It is yet to come. I am a late bloomer. Stay tuned.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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