The fresh-faced actress who exploded onto our cinema screens in The Commitments
Back in 1991, a fresh-faced young actress from Derry exploded onto our cinema screens in Alan Parker’s movie The Commitments.
Parker could scarcely have made a better choice than Bronagh Gallagher to play Bernie, the tiny, feisty girl, whose scalding wit and angelic singing voice could reduce grown men to jelly.
Over the years, Gallagher has lost none of that cheeky, snub-nosed charm, which has seen her through a long succession of challenging roles on stage, television and the big screen.
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino cast her alongside John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson as Trudi in the groundbreaking, generational film, Pulp Fiction. This was swiftly followed by a string of high profile character roles in, amongst others, George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode 1, Stephen Frears’s Mary Reilly, David Caffrey’s Divorcing Jack, Thunderpants, Painted Angels and The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, directed by Co Down writer and director Dudi Appleton.
Gallagher has appeared on stage in both Dublin and London. She was a memorable Stacia in Garry Hines’s production of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and the Royal Court, London. She was a raunchy Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show at Dublin’s SFX Centre. She was also in Simon McBurney’s much lauded The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National Theatre in London and played the role of Pearl in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, again at the Abbey. Gallagher has, however, never been cast in a theatre production in her native Northern Ireland.
One of her earliest roles in television was in the BBC Northern Ireland youth drama Flash McVeigh, in which she played Belle Donna opposite young Belfast actress Kathy Ciara Clarke’s Flash. The director was Michael Winterbottom, who also directed her in Island of Strangers for Thames Television.
Gallagher also appeared as Frances in Graham Reid’s You, Me and Marley for the BBC, and was Anne Conlon in the RTE/Thames production, Dear Sarah, alongside distinguished Belfast actress Stella McCusker. She played the sharp-tongued Minnie Powell in BBC’s The Shadow of a Gunman, which also starred Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Rea.
Now in her thirties, it is difficult to imagine the perennially youthful Gallagher as an adult. Yet her last television role—in the highly acclaimed BBC drama Holy Cross—was as a Protestant single parent caught up in the bitter sectarianism of the feud surrounding the north Belfast primary school. For this role, she was awarded Best Actress in a Drama at Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels in Biarritz, shared with fellow Northern Irish actress, Zara Turner, who played the Catholic mother on the other side of the dispute.
For all her work in the international arena, Gallagher has always been drawn to roles that reflect issues closer to home. She grew up in what she describes as ‘a very aggressive, army-controlled environment’, but had no qualms about taking on the role of Sarah Norton: ‘It’s not an issue that I’m playing a loyalist—it’s as important to tell another story as my own.'
In 2002, Gallagher was cast as a pregnant schoolteacher in BBC1’s Sinners. The drama examined what life was like for young single mothers forced to work in the notorious Magdalen laundries by the Catholic Church. The story left a deep mark on the actress.
‘At that time, young pregnant girls were powerless because of the control of the Church. When I was growing up in Derry, the Church went completely unchallenged. We all have a role to play in discussing what went on behind closed doors and acknowledging it for what it was.'
By Jane Coyle