It’s Caroline Morahan’s first week back at work after taking time off to have her two children – Rowan, who’s nearly three, and Ava, who is a year-and-a-half – and, as with many new mothers, this has brought with it a welter of mixed emotions.
childcare situation fell through, which provoked anxiety. It would have been her late brother James’s 40th birthday the weekend before we meet – she felt him looking down on her when she eventually found a person to help with child-minding. And this marks the first period when either of her children have been away from her for more than a few hours.
“I kind of feel like it was another life from the one I had before,” she says. “I feel like I’m now emerging from a cave.”
Also, like many new mums she is feeling a sense of joy at getting back to her old life. When we meet she is taking a break from rehearsals for a new play, which will be staged at Dublin’s Smock Alley and The Civic Tallaght this month and next.
Written by Emily Bohannon, Looking at the Sun is an intergenerational comedy set at a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard where two families come together to holiday. Caroline plays a woman, Tabitha, who is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis “which she thinks a threesome might fix”.
Into the mix comes a recently divorced, deeply depressed friend of the family who Tabitha sets her sights on – inappropriately – and the drama unfolds like “a rip-roaringly funny Fawlty Towers level
of farcical comedy”.
It’s been utter fun to make, she says, and nice to be in adult company during the day again, and back where she belongs – on the stage.
“It’s going to be electrifying to be in front of a live audience again,” she smiles.
It’s been 13 years since Caroline moved to LA with her boyfriend, now husband, Daithi O’Caoimh. “There was something in the air,” she told the Sunday Independent in 2009. “A magnetic quality and a positivity.”
Smart, savvy and beautiful, she tired of being a big fish – a household name with a slew of presenting and acting credits to her name – in the small pond of Ireland.
But though there have been some decent screen roles since the move – most notably in 2015’s ABC TV series Once Upon a Time – and occasional forays back onto the Irish stage, including her Abbey debut in 2014 in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, she’s honest enough to acknowledge that, career-wise, it hasn’t been anything like plain sailing.
“I don’t,” she responds firmly, when I ask her if she thinks it has all worked out in LA. “I’ve done things that I’m really proud of, but the other side is that I’m like, ‘I should have done more’. And I have to have a firm word with myself because I go to a dark place [thinking], ‘I should have done this, this and this’, and I look at the things that I didn’t get.”
Her mother consoled her recently when she was having one of her career anxiety “meltdowns.”
“I was saying ‘I should be doing this and I should be on that show’ and she said, ‘well, if you were doing that and if you were back up on set in Canada now, you wouldn’t have your children’, and it might sound hackneyed – and I do hope to achieve other things professionally as well – but that [having children] is the greatest thing I’ve ever achieved.”
Getting there was its own struggle.
“You spend half your life trying to prevent pregnancy, and then when you want it to happen and it’s not happening, someone tells you, ‘you’re barren’.
“This is the sort of language one doctor used. He was wrong, but there’s so much anxiety all through it until you know everything’s safe and OK.”
Caroline went through several rounds of IVF before finally getting pregnant.
She had recently finished directing a production of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority in LA three years ago when her waters broke, indicating baby Rowan was on his way.
“I was very calm. The whole thing was like the movies, because generally water doesn’t break like that. Every birth I’ve ever seen depicted in film is completely, totally inauthentic, but my water did break like in a film, like a big gush and I’m like, ‘OK, this is what it is’.
“Then my husband just ran up and down the house about 50 times going: ‘What can I get? What can I do?’ And I was like: ‘Get yourself a hoodie. The AC in the hospital might be cold.’”
Daithi drove her to the hospital, where she was told the deluge was not, in fact, amniotic fluid. “I was going, ‘what, are you trying to tell me I peed myself?’ I knew it was amniotic. But they sent me home.”
Back in her own bed she fell into a fitful sleep. “I was having nightmares. So I went, ‘I just want to be at the hospital and to be safe.’”
In fact, she was right – it was amniotic fluid. Back at hospital, the medics were keen to induce her and she was aware of statistics in the US which suggest a huge amount of births happen by Caesarean section “because it fits the schedule of the doctor on that day, not because that’s how it should happen”.
She had a doula – a kind of non-medical support person – who is there during the late stages of pregnancy and at the birth and who was “a barrier and an advocate” during this whole process.
Caroline had decided she wanted a “natural” birth, with no epidural, and relied only on homeopathic remedies for pain relief. In the end it was “a wonderful birth” and baby Rowan was healthy. And, by the time she became pregnant again in 2020, she felt confident she could put into practice what she had learned.
“We had tried everything to get [labour] started with Rowan. I was frustrated then, because I knew the potential power of acupuncture to start labour, and I was like, ‘if only I had organised to have a mobile acupuncturist come, we wouldn’t have needed to do any of that.’” Meaning the back-and-forth with medics.
And so, the day after her due date with Ava she went for acupuncture: “To gently tell the baby, ‘we’re ready if you are.’ It’s not going to force a scenario that’s not right. But I started contracting while I was still there [with the acupuncturist].”
Even after giving birth, when she was going through “a big emotional swing”, she took homeopathic medication and found the tears went away.
It’s ironic, given the New Age associations many us would have with LA, that there was tension between her own alternative medicine approach, and the approach of American doctors, “who act like they are turning tables in a restaurant”.
There are parts of Caroline that seem to fit the culture in the City of Angels – she’s wearing an Invisalign mouthguard to perfect that Hollywood smile – and all the acupuncture and herbal remedies, which she’s used for everything from anxiety to dental pain, would be at home there. But, to be fair, she was into alternative medicine long before she went to LA and there are other aspects of her character that make it seem like she never left Dublin.
Despite her years stateside there isn’t a hint of a twang – “I’m very conscious about that. Certain things creep in, certain words, like ‘awesome’.” Nothing on her appears pulled or pinched, her natural beauty is still intact. And she still has a kind of saltiness which is distinctly not-LA.
For instance, when asked to describe herself growing up in Glasnevin, she recalls a “lippy little upstart”.
She was a mixture of shyness and the kind of girl who would “belt the house down” with a song, if the audience was large enough. She started out doing drama lessons with Betty Ann Norton as a kid.
During her college years she acted in a number of short films, but her first notable role was playing feisty schoolgirl Barbara Cleary on Fair City. On the street she would be abused by passers by who conflated her with the character she was playing.
“People who don’t know me shouting things at me, and mostly abusive because the character was such a little weapon. So they thought that’s who I was because this is in a time where that show was, and still is, beamed into people’s living rooms. A lot of the people that watch it almost think it’s real life.”
She left Fair City to finish her degree in communications, and in her early twenties she began presenting Off the Rails, RTE’s flagship fashion programme. She became a household name, was regularly profiled in the press, and seemed like one of the bright young things of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
In some ways it was like you might imagine. “I was flown in helicopters. Well, I mean, I was the Horse Racing Ireland ambassador person. You’d have to get in and out.”
But in other ways the image didn’t exactly tally with reality. “I remember I was named party person of the year for Social & Personal. I was in my pyjamas when they called me to tell me. Do you know what I mean? I wasn’t crazy.”
And behind the scenes there was a young woman who had survived a lot, including grief at the loss of her younger brother James. He had been born with serious kidney issues and Caroline’s mother, Tina, once went on The Late Late Show to appeal for a donor for him.
Eventually a donor was found in England and James had the transplant surgery in 1986, when he was four. Tragically he would pass away two years later from organ failure.
“I think our parents were wonderful in how they managed and handled the whole thing. There was normalcy in our house. James didn’t tip-toe around. He was part of everything as much as he could be, and he had a very full life, although it was very short.
“I think that was another reason why I was very nervous about having children, the idea of someone being sick.”
She met Daithi, who comes from north Dublin, at a wedding. They were “kind of eyeing each other up from the beginning” but it took a while before it became a serious relationship. It was she who asked him to move to America with her.
“I knew I was finishing up doing Off the Rails. That final year, I didn’t really enjoy it the way I had. It was changing in such a way that I didn’t feel fulfilled and it was getting repetitive for me, as things do. So
I knew I needed a change and I really didn’t know what that change was.”
She toyed with the idea of moving to Paris to write but when she was cast in a production of Peter Sheridan’s play I, Keano, the acting bug bit again and, when Daithi was invited over to LA to see a friend’s premiere, she went with him and had a thought.
“I felt I could fall on my face there and do everything on my own terms, and not be struggling with people that are kind of going, ‘oh, here’s your one…’ and all that. So it was like that. We met, went to Los Angeles and six months later we were living there.”
They married in 2012 and live in Studio City in a house built in the 1950s. Daithi works in tech, while Caroline has been a full-time mother the last few years.
“Our long-term plan? We don’t really have a long-term plan. We love it there. Our goal at the moment is kind of the model we have now, which is extended chunks here [in Ireland] and the rest of the time at home [in LA] for as long as we can. I want the children to have a real sense of their Irishness and to have their sense of humour moulded properly.”
Since we’re meeting at the IFI cinema, where Caroline celebrated her 21st birthday, I wonder what her overriding feelings are about the intervening years.
“I feel happy,” she replies. “I’ve had the opportunity to play some incredible characters. I helped people allow the best of themselves to shine through with Off the Rails. But there is so much more to do. And I’m looking forward to it.”
‘Looking at the Sun’ runs at Smock Alley from August 24 to September 3, tickets from smockalley.com. It moves to the Civic Theatre Tallaght from Sept 6-10, tickets from civictheatre.ie
What the Off the Rails stars did next…
After winning the Miss Ireland crown in 1993, Tallaght woman Pamela went on to work as a continuity officer with RTÉ for much of the remainder of the 1990s. In the 2000s she became a presenter and worked on a number of shows, including Off the Rails.
She also appeared in the genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are?. In latter years Flood and her husband, restaurateur Ronan Ryan, had a long-running legal battle with their mortgage provider. In 2018 she was back on screens with a food show, Healthy Appetite.
Bonnin spent her childhood between France and Ireland. After a degree in biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin she joined a girl band called Chill, who were managed by nightclub impresario Valerie Roe.
The band didn’t last but Bonnin moved into presenting at RTÉ, including a stint with Off the Rails, before moving to the UK and guest presenting on Top of the Pops during its final years. In latter years, Bonnin has presented numerous flagship nature programmes for the BBC and has become a noted environmentalist.
Lennon teamed up with Brendan Courtney in 2008 to present Off the Rails. Their partnership would transcend the show: after it ended they launched their own range with Dunnes Stores.
Sonya also founded the Dress for Success initiative in Ireland (now WorkEqual) which provides guidance and resources for women to return to the workforce. In April, they both graduated with a Masters of Business in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
https://www.independent.ie/life/caroline-morahan-on-her-return-to-the-irish-stage-i-feel-like-im-emerging-from-a-cave-41907802.html Caroline Morahan on her return to the Irish stage: ‘I feel like I’m emerging from a cave’