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New show Actress Dervla Kirwan opens up about turning 50, lockdown life and bulimia battle

From the landlady in Ballykissangel to the bossy mum in RTÉ show Smother, Dervla Kirwan tells us why she got lonely filming in lockdown and how she hopes to act for years to come

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Dervla Kirwan

Dervla Kirwan

Dervla Kirwan

Back in the 1990s, TV viewers fell in love with Dervla Kirwan when her feisty character Assumpta Fitzgerald and her doomed relationship with Father Peter Clifford in Ballykissangel became a Sunday evening mainstay - not just in Ireland but in the UK.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Dubliner Dervla is again set to take centre stage for must-see Sunday night TV in riveting new RTÉ drama Smother. She stars as domineering Val Ahern, a mother who is estranged from her millionaire husband Denis.

The six-part series is set among beautiful scenery in Co Clare and most of the action in tonight's dramatic opening episode revolves around Val's 50th birthday party in the family's jaw-dropping coastal mansion.

Val and Denis share one daughter from their own marriage, a daughter each from previous relationships, and the storyline revolves around their interactions.

"They are a blended family which is interesting," Dervla, the silky voiceover of M&S for six years, tells us.

"Here was this wonderfully sculpted family dynamic.

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Niamh Walsh (Jenny), Seána Kerslake (Grace), Stuart Graham (Denis) and Gemma-Leah Devereux (Anna) all star in RTÉ’s Smother.

Niamh Walsh (Jenny), Seána Kerslake (Grace), Stuart Graham (Denis) and Gemma-Leah Devereux (Anna) all star in RTÉ’s Smother.

Niamh Walsh (Jenny), Seána Kerslake (Grace), Stuart Graham (Denis) and Gemma-Leah Devereux (Anna) all star in RTÉ’s Smother.

"A really interesting matriarchal, domineering, privileged wealthy family who use that wealth and privilege to basically bend the truth to service their own needs, and we see that throughout the whole story and how that has poisoned the family."

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Dervla Kirwan as Assumpta Fitzgerald in Ballykissangel

Dervla Kirwan as Assumpta Fitzgerald in Ballykissangel

Dervla Kirwan as Assumpta Fitzgerald in Ballykissangel

Smother is a far cry from sweet and sugary BallyK.

"It's a really gritty side of contemporary Ireland that I don't think that people have seen," she adds.

"We have had Love/Hate, RTÉ has made some fantastic shows, but I think this might just burst the bubble on that very outmoded, old-fashioned idea of Ireland.

"We are European and we are Irish, that's very important."

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Dervla Kirwan as Val with Grace played by Seána Kerslake

Dervla Kirwan as Val with Grace played by Seána Kerslake

Dervla Kirwan as Val with Grace played by Seána Kerslake

Dervla began shooting the series in February of last year, just before lockdown began, and had to spend three months in west Clare amid restrictions as the world was turned upside down.

"I had never been to that part of Ireland," she recalls.

"When we arrived, we were shooting in February and it was like shooting in a tumble drier, the storms were coming in night after night, proper climate change, battering the coast and where we were filming.

"I remember thinking, 'how am I going to do this for 12 weeks?' But I loved it. I hope that this show will encourage people to visit the Wild Atlantic Way."

She had to spend much of early last year away from her family home in Hampshire, England, isolated from her husband, actor Rupert Penry-Jones, and their two children, Florence (16) and Peter (14).

"I had gone from extreme family to nothing, to literally being in a little apartment on my own, in the middle of nowhere in west Clare, Lahinch, which is great, but it was a bit of a shock," she says.

"Then of course there was no night-life, no restaurants, no bars, no hanging out, no camaraderie, as you couldn't.

"Everyone was in a bubble. Everyone was very caring and nurturing about that.

"We were very observant about the rules, it was very grown up. Everyone was in it together."

It's ironic that viewers will see Val celebrate her 50th birthday tonight as Dervla herself reaches that milestone later this year.

"I was beginning to think that as I reached my 50s, 'oh so it's kind of over now, is it?'

"But no, not until I go completely grey haired and pop up as the granny in a decade's time," she jokes of her return to TV screens, having also recently won over a new army of fans in The Stranger, where she starred as a mother who fakes pregnancy to gain friends and sympathy.

"I had always dreamed about having a very long-running career, but that wasn't the case 30 or 40 years ago when I started. It certainly is the case now and that's really exciting," she adds.

Dervla is also vocal in admitting she has suffered in the past from bulimia for 16 long years, starting during her Ballykissangel days.

"I can't get to the root of it and it's very private, possibly why I exhibited my fear or went down that road," she reflects, revealing she got help for her eating disorder.

"There's a wonderful book I read, Letting It Go, which is all about really trying to identify the problems and to release them.

"It could have been alcoholism, it could have gambling, it could have been sex addiction. All of us throughout our lives, if you have to find something which is a form of pain relief.

"There is help and there are so many great charities out there for people to get help, and there are so many books on the subject. I just felt compelled.

"It is good to talk about these things and not to be so hypocritical. It's just being in the public eye. I don't know, I just hope people will be compassionate towards themselves and to everyone."

Dervla can still laugh about the lockdown look though.

"In real life now, I haven't been to a hairdresser in the last six months," she says. "I was talking to the hubby the other day, 'my god, just look at us, what happened?' And everyone must be feeling it, the pandemic, elasticated band, sweat suit.

"He said to me, 'you know Dervla, it's lovely to see you getting into your training gear, but you do know you have to take some exercise?' So that's how we are."

• Smother starts tonight on RTÉ One at 9.30pm

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