As RTÉ celebrates its 60th birthday, author Colm Keane profiles unforgettable character Minnie Brennan, the intrusive busybody of Telefís Éireann’s long-running soap The Riordans.
No character in Irish TV history was as gossipy, interfering or downright nosey as Minnie Brennan of The Riordans. She was the scourge of the fictional Leestown, with an unnatural ability to gather intelligence concerning her neighbours, and to know about their financial and amorous affairs.
Dressed in her tea-cosy hat and fully-buttoned heavy coat, while wearing unfashionable glasses and a scarf, she looked every inch the village busybody. True to her sartorial style, she knew everyone’s business, soaked up information like a sponge, and stored the details in her ever-vigilant brain.
Played by Carlow-born actress Annie D’Alton, Minnie became famous for lines like ‘Mary dear,’ normally used before interrogating her friend Mary Riordan. She was also well known for the line ‘Do you know what I’m going to tell you, Batty Brennan,’ which she would deliver to her browbeaten husband whose self-confidence had long been stultified by life in her company.
Her part was central to the soap. Viewers might enjoy watching Tom Riordan or his son Benjy doing the ploughing, or Eamon doing the milking, or ‘Mary dear’ doing the housework, but there was nothing they relished more than observing Minnie gathering news. Everyone could sympathise with her victims gallantly trying to keep their secrets from her, knowing the exercise was fruitless.
‘Minnie was the archetypal old local busybody, who was beautifully positioned in the post office and who knew everything that was going on in the town,’ Wesley Burrowes, chief scriptwriter of The Riordans, explained. She also ran Minnie Brennan’s Home Bakery. No one was better placed to sniff out the smallest signs of something unfamiliar in a place like Leestown.
As with many Irish towns and villages, Leestown’s residents had become intimately known to each other over the years. People were so unchanged in their ways that even the slightest deviation from the norm would be noticed. ‘A pair of new curtains in a front room, a coat of fresh lime on a gable, a car from Dublin, a strange priest, none of these can hope to pass unnoticed,’ Burrowes remarked. Minnie would be on to these nuances in a flash.
Getting the phone installed added to Minnie’s information-gathering resources. ‘There’ll be none of us safe now,’ one of the soap’s characters said on hearing the news. ‘What does she want with a phone? Hasn’t she radar already?’ said another. Even the doctor was worried, since Minnie could now describe her symptoms to him at any time of day or night.
Her first attempted phone call had explosive results. She located the new directory and found the Riordans’ number. On dialling the phone, something strange happened. She heard a click. Then she heard the voice of Benjy Riordan, who was married to Maggie. Surprisingly, he was talking to Delia, the sister of Eamon Maher, a settled Traveller, who was also a popular character in the soap.
She thought of putting the phone down but something deep in her nature stopped her from doing so. She heard Benjy saying, ‘…..will you be able to steal out tonight?’ Delia replied: ‘If I can, but if I don’t come at the time, don’t wait.’ ‘I’ll wait till the crack of dawn anyway,’ said Benjy.
Minnie was shocked. It was as if she had somehow been caught listening. She assumed the worst, not realising that Benjy and Delia had been rehearsing lines for a play, Sive by John B. Keane. She decided to take action and was soon spreading rumours in the hope of discouraging what she thought to be a flourishing affair.