On Pain and Love

Many years ago when I lived in London I was fortunate enough to meet the artist Charlie Mackesy and get to know him a little bit. I had the great privilege of spending day with him at his studio in south London while I was nursing a broken heart. He was painting one of his iconic Prodigal Daughter paintings and I could sense a Holy Presence in the room as he worked. 

He’s an extraordinary, slightly feral and big hearted man and I have always loved his work. At the time, I was working in television and earning far too much money for a young woman in her early 20s but one of the things I’m most proud of is that I bought one of his original cartoons. I remember standing in the art gallery and seeing in the distance the simple outline of a naked woman sashaying away from a nerdy, bespectacled man who was complaining ‘Daphne, you can’t take redemption of Eden too literally.’ I walked up close to it and just chuckled to myself. Charlie came to stand beside me.

‘I love this,’ I said.

‘Thanks,’ he shrugged, in his self deprecating style.

‘And I have to have it!’ I declared without even looking how much it cost. He burst out laughing. But it now hangs proudly on my landing near the bathroom. And it tickles me to think that he may have many celebrity collectors (Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Curtis, Sting!) but in a little house in North County Down, there hangs a treasure.

All this to say, Charlie’s recent venture is a series of gorgeous cartoons featuring a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse and such darling nuggets of gentleness and wisdom. They will soon be published in a book by Penguin, and I can’t wait! I can no longer afford an original painting, but I’ll be first in line for a book!

This past two months have been a journey of love and pain, pain and love. I had surgery to remove a tumour in my breast and 14 lymph nodes under my arm. I had a drain in for 5 days, during which the pain was manageable and movement was relatively easy which was a relief because my husband came down with a horrible stomach bug and was knocked flat for the few days after I came out of hospital. 

I returned to have the drain removed and noticed some sensation return which I had thought would be gone for good. Turns out, the drain had been pressing on a nerve which had numbed the area and once gone, all sensation returned and with it all the pain. 

I told my surgeon on a recent visit that I would rather go through 3 more natural births than deal with the consistent soreness that I had in the ensuing weeks. I was ill prepared for it and the fatigue that persistent pain causes. I have known friends who suffer from chronic pain and I have not really appreciated their fortitude in dealing with it. 

So life became a cycle of counting down the hours till I could take more medication that only actually took the edge off and trying to manage my expectations on what I’m capable of. It has also been a time of ugly self pity, impatience and shortness of temper with those closest to me, self comfort over self care and shame that I’m not handling things with more grace. 

I’ve since had a second surgery to remove more breast tissue and have recently been told that I will have now undergo a mastectomy as the cancer is still present in the breast tissue. So I’ll be starting chemotherapy treatment in a few weeks after which I’ll have a further surgery. The treatment plan is necessary but it doesn’t make it any less daunting and in some ways, I feel it’s like sending a SWAT team in to take out a tiny bunny. But the bunny is Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets, so, yeah, the SWAT team might even get their asses kicked.

In the midst of this tumult, I can quite honestly say, though, that I have never been more aware of how loved and cherished I am. I’ve had messages from friends far and near. Neighbours have dropped around food, overseas friends have sent flowers and other gifts. 

Jen Hatmaker, the American writer once told a story of how in elephant herds, which have a matriarchal structure, if one of the herd is vulnerable for some reason, for example when giving birth, her sisters will form a circle around her and kick dust up to deter potential predators who might take advantage of her fraility.

I have seen this triumphant, protective energy in action. I have felt a fierce hedge of love and support from my women friends and family that has lifted my spirits and given me such comfort at times when this feels like the loneliest place in the world. 

While I’m hugely grateful that I have a supportive and practically able husband and father in law, there’s something about the fact that this is a female cancer, that has drawn in a feminine energy that I’ve needed. 

As Charlie Mackesy points out in his lovely cartoon, the greatest freedom we have is how we react to things and I’ll be honest and say that my reaction to my pain levels, my newly restricted arm movement, the restriction to my plans for this year, the prospect of more invasive surgery has not always been pretty.

I do take comfort though that the ‘ugly cry’ way of dealing with hard times has precedent and that the most elevated souls have struggled with pain. And that precedent comes from my own faith tradition.

So much was made of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when I was growing up and how he said ‘Not my will, but Yours, O God’ the night of his betrayal, arrest and trial for blasphemy. But can we just back up for a moment and remember that this man sweated blood in his resistance to what he was facing. Let’s not be naive and forget that Jesus didn’t want to go through with what he knew in all probability would be certain torture and a painful death.

And where were his boys, his twelve male disciples?


And then scarpering when the authorities came for their beloved teacher.

(Where were the women? They hung around till the bitter, ugly end. And were also the first to witness the Risen Christ. Just saying.)

The reaction of the women in my life though has been to get in formation, whether virtually and or practically where they’ve been able. They have used their freedom with compassion, power and grace and I will be eternally grateful. 

How to survive the summer


I’m going to be honest. I’m knackered. It’s that time of year when the countdown is on to the end of term. If I get another reminder in someone’s lunch box for something not handed in or paid for, I think I might scream. Only 5 more mornings hustling three children out the door. Only 5 more afternoons begging them to remember to bring their own stuff in from the car, to put their lunch boxes in the kitchen, to do their homework before they numb out on screens. I CANNOT WAIT.

Always at this point, I rub my hands with glee thinking of lazy mornings drinking coffee in my garden while the children play. I imagine picnics on the beach. I plan crafting games and projects. I essentially create an avatar of the perfect homey mum in my head and determine that this year I’m going to give them a summer to remember.

We’ve never gone in for putting the children in camps or activities for the summer months. For a start it’s expensive trying to pay for three children. The deal has always been that me being at home would mean we’d save money on childcare costs. Also, my three are at the age now where they can play together and generally (generally) they are good pals and enjoy each other’s company.

We’re not getting a holiday away this year. (Again, 3 children = wildly expensive holidays!) Last summer was completely taken over with moving house/country and setting up our new home. Now that we’re more settled, we’re going to stay put and explore our local area because honestly, when the sun’s out, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than on the North Down coast. Give it its due, Northern Ireland has a ton of stuff to enjoy for families in the summer, most of it either free or relatively inexpensive.

But there will come a point (probably about a few days in, if I’m honest) when I will suddenly remember that I really, really love my work and need to work and the eight weeks of uninterrupted child full holidays will look pretty scary!

So here are some tips that I’m going to try to keep myself sane and keep the work ticking over while I have my three maniacs around and no money to pay for child care.

  1. Lower expectations – Look, I know I’ve not ever seen you and WonderWoman in the same room but I’m pretty sure you’re not actually her. There is only so much one woman can do with there are small humans in the mix so expecting to keep the same level of productivity is just not a good idea. So don’t beat yourself up!
  2. Get efficient –  Make lists but be really strict about what is completely neccessary to complete and do those things first. Stream line and weed out of your ‘to do’ list everything that is not a priority because if you leave it in there, believe me, you’ll do it and avoid the stuff that is truly imperative.
  3. Create ‘quiet time’ – no, really, stop laughing. This is where screens can be a godsend. Let there be no judging but my kids are allocated an hour of screen time a day (and usually that bleeds over into more time) but it’s amazing what you can get done in an hour if you’re focussed. Set a timer and together as a family agree that when it goes off, all screens get put away.
  4. Include your children – I know, I was just a little bit sick in my mouth too, but if your work is in any way creative, little people love to ‘help’. Get the pens, paper, crayons, paint, and do your thing while they do their thing. (But yes, that might not be practical at all. I mean, can you really imagine me doing a self-tape audition with my 10 year old reading in for me? Nope, neither can I. She’d freaking photo bomb, upstage and get the gig herself! In which case…)
  5. Rope in help in the shape of family and friends – I am the luckiest woman in the world with my father in law, affectionately known to my kids as Bapoo. He loves nothing more than to hang out with my children and I’m planning on working out a morning or two a week maybe when he gets time with them all by himself. But if you haven’t got family close by, perhaps you could do playdate swaps with another parent. Choose carefully, mind. You don’t want the parent with the kid who loves to burn stuff but I know two mums locally whose children I adore and who get on well with mine and if they’re happy to have my terrors then I’ll mind theirs for a couple of hours once a week, no bother.
  6. Get up super early – with these bright nights we’re getting in the Northern Hemisphere, getting the children to bed has been a real chore. My four year old routinely insists ‘But mumma, is still MORRRRnin!’ and he’s horrified that he’s going to bed before the birds roost in the trees opposite our house. (That was our winter thing, ‘Look sweetheart, all the birds are going to bed now at 4:30 in the afternoon, you’re getting to stay up waaaaay later than them!’) But the plus side is that they tend to stay in bed a bit later. Soooo, if you go to bed when it’s still light too, then you could get up before them and get some stuff done. I know, I know that sounds barbaric of me. What about Netflix and wine and winding down adult time? On that note….
  7. Avoid alcohol – No, wait, don’t scroll on. Keep reading. I know, I know what I’m suggesting is downright MEAN and you can roll your eyes like your own pre-teen at me all you like BUT if you want really good, really deep sleep so that you can handle a summer of creativity and parenting closing the wine fridge door is seriously a good idea. I’m fessing up here; I love a glass of chilled white wine on a summer’s evening or a G & T or a cold beer or a vodka martini with a twist of lemon… Where was I? Oh yes, it doesn’t feel like summer without an alcoholic beverage of some sort or other BUT I know I sleep better, have more energy, wake up more alert and have the COOLEST dreams (hello Chris Hemsworth dear!) when I lose the booze. Even one drink can wreck my sleep which is seriously annoying. I feel amazing when I go tee total. So I’ve got to find other ways of dealing with the inevitable crazy making of small humans than cracking open a bottle of Sauv Blanc.
  8. Create – When I create I feel good. When I feel good I can manage just about anything. I have taken it upon myself to take up knitting, crochet, painting stones, sewing, anything that involves making something from nothing and it’s given me something to keep the creative spark alive even in the driest times professionally. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be shown to anyone but my children who all thing everything I make is amazing anyway. It keeps me going and keeps me sane. Having a sane mother is every child’s dream – so win, win.

I am not the world’s most patient mother. I don’t naturally thrive in the home environment. I’m not a domestic goddess. Mary Poppins, how are ya!? I itch and scratch through every stage of my children’s childhood, dying for them to be bigger and more independent while simultaneously missing their chubby arms and gappy smiles. But here I am, with a 10 year old, a 7 year old and a 4 year old and the days are flying past. I can curse the lego littered living room all I like, but one day, I’ll crave the mad creations of my wee artists.

For me, the most important thing to do is to breathe and stay present and not to wish the time away.

Enjoy the summer! No, seriously, do… enjoy it!

For more creative inspiration, why not subscribe to the Strut and Bellow podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can always listen to an episode while you’re making the dinner or pretending to sleep through the sixth rerun of Wall-E with your earphones in. You can watch my Shout Out Fridays on the Strut and Bellow YouTube Channel. Or sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you my ebook Keeping Creative for free. If you’d like a hardcopy to take with you to the beach, it will soon be available to order from this website. Stay tuned for the latest on Instagram and Facebook.IMG_1026

The why.


Never underestimate the power of women, friends.

At the beginning of this year, I couldn’t have imagined that in a mere 4 months I’d have a sell out show on my hands and a demand for it that right now feels daunting considering the size of the cast. But each of the women in the photo above, as well as our director Jo Egan, (not to mention our male assistant director Colm Gorman and two crew members David Willis and Stephen McVicker) have given their time and energy without compensation for this play. The box office receipts for Friday’s show have yet to come in and hopefully there’ll be a small amount for each of us but it’s nothing near what they all should be paid for the work they’ve done.

Friday night was very special. We arrived at the Black Box in the afternoon and walked through some of the play to get adjusted to the more limited performing area. There was no time for a full dress nor technical rehearsal. We hadn’t all been together in the same room since the show in February. We’d managed ad hoc rehearsals working around people’s full time work, child care and family commitments.

At one point, the twelve of us crammed in the tiny dressing room back stage, moments before we started the show, someone said what we were all thinking,

‘Why do we put ourselves through this?’

There was an outburst of nervous laughter, an admission of nausea, a crampy tummy, an irrepressible need to pee and at least one of us asked quietly ‘Do you actually think I can act?’ Someone’s babysitter was not following the plan at home, someone else’s elder child had been left in charge, someone had had to leave work early, someone else had exams looming. We all had other places we could have been that would not have needed us to go out in front of over 100 people and perform a show about vaginas, that would not have needed us to remember lines, overcome fear, expose ourselves to criticism, risk making a mistake and looking foolish.

But we lined up anyway, and on the word from the stage manager, we marched on stage and began;

TVM APRIL‘I bet you’re worried. 

We were worried.

We were worried about vaginas….’

It turned out to be a great show. The bar was raised high and every actress gave her all. There was laughter and tears and sounds of agreement and affirmation. It was with great relief that we bowed to a standing ovation from the audience who had been engaged and respectful throughout. It was good to leave the stage on a high.

At the interval, before we showed excerpts from Eve Ensler’s documentary film and hosted a post show discussion, a woman came up to me and introduced herself. Her name was Karin and she was my contact from Woman’s Aid, to whom we had donated the proceeds of the last show. This was her first time seeing the show and she loved it.

I want you to know,’ she said ‘that all of the money you raised from the show in February went towards creating Northern Ireland’s first rape crisis helpline.’

There it was. The why.

I was approached by a young guy in his twenties who seemed visibly moved. He talked about his mum and how she had instilled in him a respect for women that he was grateful for but that the show had really touched him and made him realise how important this conversation was for men as well as for women. He said he was going through a transition time in his life and had recently moved back to Belfast. He was questioning the model of masculinity he had grown up with and seeing some of its toxicity.

There it was again. The why.

In the post show discussion, a woman rose her hand to share that having been the victim of a violent attack in the past, she had ‘shut up shop’ but that the show had made her think that perhaps it was time for a ‘refurbishment’.

The why.

In the light of recent swinging cuts to arts organisations here in Northern Ireland, and a patronising attitude towards practitioners where we’re accused of being bad at business and incapable of managing our resources, Friday night proved to me how vital and valuable a show like ours can be.

Right in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, on a Friday night, we packed out a top venue and talked about issues central to women’s experiences; menstruation, birth, body shaming, the male gaze, sexuality, violence and rape. At one point two audience members left after collapsing in giggles during the monologue inspired by the rape of women as a weapon of war during the Balkan conflict in the 90s. We later discovered that each of them had been victims of rape and that the piece in question had triggered a nervous reaction that manifested as laughter, a very common reaction to trauma.

With the #metoo movement highlighting just how prevalent sexual assault is and with numerous women all over the world rising to say enough, there was never a more important time to talk about these things in the public arena. We are proud to be taking the conversation out of the kitchens and behind the closed doors and into the heart of public discourse. Come with us as we continue our journey.

The Vagina Monologues will be returning to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for two nights on the 1st and 2nd of June. Tickets will soon be available from the Lyric box office. Spread the word and sign up for the email to keep updated on news about the show.






Episode One


It’s here. International Women’s day is HERE and to celebrate I’m launching the Strut and Bellow podcast. Each episode will be a conversation with a woman who makes something be it theatre, film, fiction, art, food, crafty things and for whom the making is a big part of her life.

I’m honoured and delighted that Episode One is with my dear friend Noni Stapleton, an actress and writer whose award winning play Charolais is currently touring Ireland. I couldn’t be more excited that my launch conversation is with her; we had more than a little fun chatting together. (Note to self: ease off on the cackling for the next one!)

Noni Headshot Black Top.jpeg

Perfectly marbled and bashed about ‘til tender: Charolais is a surreal comedy of love, longing and one woman’s intense rivalry with a Charolais heifer. This is a muddy place of simmering desire minced with a loneliness that cuts to the bone.

“A fast-paced, witty, and intensely emotional tale filled with laughter, loss and despair” ★★★★ Irish Times

“Stapleton is a joy to watch and she knows her audience. Love, family and loss all combine at the finish to create a charming piece of theatre. Well worth the venture. A truly enjoyable show” ★★★★ The Public Reviews

She’s just back from London where she was at the Susan Smith Blackburn awards ceremony Charolais having been nominated as one of 16 finalists.

You might also recognise Noni from Showtime USA’s Penny Dreadful where she thrilled and terrified audiences as Gladys Murray the wife of Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton.photo 4.jpeg

In Episode One, we talk about what the nomination meant to her as well as discussing bravery, vulnerability, creativity and the importance of community to see you through the highs and lows of the making life.

Charolais can be seen at the following venues

Mar 16 – St. John’s Theatre, Listowel
Mar 18 – Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray
Mar 31 – The Dock, Carrick on Shannon
Apr 1 – Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda
Apr 2 – The Mill Theatre, Dundrum
Apr 8 – Áras Inis Gluaire, Belmullet

It was also adapted as a radio play and can be heard here.

To find out more about this lovely woman check out her website.





A key thing I am learning is the power of presence. You would think, as an actor, I’d be an expert but it’s never been something that has come naturally.

The moments of being completely ‘in the now’ in the rehearsal room, on set or on stage can be fleeting and illusive but I know the power I have when I succeed. It’s an amazing feeling to know you have the attention of each person in the room.There is nothing like watching an accomplished performer hold you in their eyes.

It’s difficult to sustain. I often think that actors must find it the most difficult to stay present when being on show like that often comes with such high stakes. There’s anxiety, fear of rejection, terror of the immense vulnerability it takes to be emotionally available in such a public space.

It’s integral to a great performance. And I’m learning that’s it is integral to life! To parenting especially. Small children have limited attention spans and you aren’t completely ‘there’, they won’t hear a word you say. That’s when I usually resort to bellowing, which never achieves the desired result.

So I am practising presence little by little in the every day. Eckhart Tolle, in his book, The Power of Now, gives a very simple exercise to bring one into the present moment. He suggests simply becoming aware of the palms of your hands.

Try it now. Become aware of the palms of your hands. Here you are. Hello there. There is no past, no future. There is just this moment. It’s rich with possibility. Stay here for a while.