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The story of ‘a forgotten hero’

Pauline McLynn told David Hennessy about joining the cast of Dr Semmelweis- her first West End show- and reuniting with Ardal O’Hanlon so many years after Father Ted.

Pauline McLynn has joined Mark Rylance on the cast of Dr Semmelweis as the story comes to the West End.

Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis discovered how to save many millions of mothers’ lives.

But his discovery, as important as it was, was largely ignored.

In Vienna in the 19th century, thousands of women were dying in childbirth every year.

Only Dr Semmelweis could see the invisible killer but to stop it, he had to convince his colleagues to admit culpability and approve change.

Damned by an establishment that questioned his methods, his motives and even his sanity, Semmelweis was haunted by the women he failed to save.

The show sees Rylance’s Semmelweis struggle to convince the greatest doctors of 19th century Europe to accept his argument.

Having already played a sold out run at Bristol Old Vic, the Mail on Sunday call Dr Semmelweis a “smash hit” while the Telegraph described it as a “compelling new drama”.

Pauline McLynn plays nurse Anna Müller.

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Well known for playing Mrs Doyle in the iconic Father Ted, Pauline’s other television credits include Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything, Holding, The Young Offenders, Gameface, Eastenders and Shameless.

She has done much stage work but this will be her first West End show.

Pauline McLynn told The Irish World: “Some of the company have done it before in Bristol so I think it’s like meeting a very dear old friend for them but also going, ‘You’ve done something to your hair’. And that would be me, I would be the changed hairstyle.

“It’s very exciting.

“When I read it in the first place I thought, ‘Oh my God, what an exciting night of theatre’.

“And now I see exactly what’s on the page happening around me, it’s twice as exciting.

“It will be a similar experience to the wonderful success they had in Bristol but it’s London, it’s the West End. The world will be coming to see it and obviously because the great man is in the role of Dr Semmelweis so people get to see Mark Rylance live on stage which is an awesome thing. And it’s an awesome thing to face into every day as well.

“You just think, ‘I better have my A game in the pocket today because he does’.”

Working in an obstetrics ward in Vienna in the 19th century, Semmelweis made the connection between dirty hands and deadly infection.

Prior to this, physicians regularly went between autopsies and deliveries, rarely washing their hands in between.

It is a prescient story for a post- pandemic audience.

“I didn’t know anything about this doctor.

“If somebody starts a conversation with you and they say, ‘Oh, great story about a 19th century Hungarian obstetrician…’ Already I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no..’

“But as it turns out, that would be very wrong because this very brilliant doctor discovered something amazing.

“A lot of people won’t know the story and as a result, It’s like a thriller.

“It’s like there’s this quest to find out, ‘Why are all of these women dying, it seems needlessly and certainly mysteriously, in a maternity ward in a Vienna hospital in the 19th century?’

“And he goes after the answer.”

Unfortunately, Semmelweis’ work was not readily accepted.

With little recognition during his lifetime, Semmelweis eventually died in a Viennese insane asylum.

“All of the pioneers came up against establishment.

“Any time you want to change something, particularly if the change seems to underline the very people who thought they were saving lives may have been killing people unconsciously, unintentionally- That’s a big thing.

“He’s tough, he’s a tricky character as well, and that didn’t help.

“He wasn’t listened to properly and he also couldn’t communicate what it was, he wasn’t good at that.

“He was Hungarian in Vienna so he didn’t speak their language properly and they make fun of it, the communication that he had was very fractured with the other doctors.

“And obviously in an establishment that was the biggest hospital in the world at the time, they did not want this really negative publicity that one of their practices was killing people.

“For a post pandemic audience, it was almost as simple as one thing. The thing we were all told to do as well.

“It had implications, what he discovered, for all of humankind, not just women, but in the beginning it was, ‘Why are these women, these vulnerable women dying?’”

Mark Rylance plays Dr Semmelweis.

Rylance is a double Olivier Award winner and a triple Tony Award winner.

He has also won three BAFTAs and a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

“They’re gonna have an evening of the most magnificent acting.

“I think we can be sure of that.

“It is a brilliant story, ‘Will he? Can he make people listen? Is he right even about what he’s discovered?’

“I think people are going to be wrung out leaving the theatre, I really do.

“But they will honestly be leaving and going, ‘Wow’.

“You know when you finish a book that you really love, and you’re just wrung out afterwards? I don’t know about everyone else but I was like,” Pauline gasps to illustrate the feeling. “’I have to have a little lie down’, and then immediately missing it.

“And I think that’s the way people are gonna feel about this story, and they will leave going, ‘Why did I never hear of this guy before?’

“Because it’s very basic what he discovers.

“People will go, ‘Sure, isn’t it the same now?’

“When change comes and the pioneers try to help us forward in any change, they say it takes about 40 years for any revolutionary idea to settle in so you wouldn’t want to be impatient because traditionally history says that we move slowly as a race, humanity.

“So there will be some things that people will go, ‘God, I think it’s kind of the same still in some ways’.”

Pauline plays Anna Muller.

Is she a patient? “No, and actually this is how it kind of mirrors life and the health system at the moment.

“I’m a nurse.

“Some of the characters really did exist but there are some fictional characters, and one of them is Anna Muller, and it’s basically to represent all of the nurses and midwives who really did know that there was a big difference between when a doctor treated a patient and when the midwives did.

“Some of the answers are with the women but nobody’s asking them.

“Semmelweis does actually finally ask some questions of them.

“We’ve decided because Vienna was a melting pot, there would have been people from all around the world working in this hospital.

“So we just decided, ‘Why not use the fact that I’m Irish?’

“Let’s face it, you’d be hard pressed to go to a hospital anywhere in the world and not meet an Irish nurse, except maybe in Ireland ironically.

“Irish nurses: One of our greatest exports, sadly for us.

“I say hang on to them. Pay them whatever they want.

“I don’t want people to be put off by the fact that it’s set in the 19th century.

“If people were in modern dress, you would accept that it was happening today, just this quest for a cure or something.”

You say the audience could be ‘wrung out’ afterwards, is it tough for you as a cast?

“It’s such an important story that you have to do it justice.

“And so yeah, it is tough.

“You have to be fit like an athlete.

“That’s one of the great things about acting now.

“I’m not a trained actor. I would have grown up through just learning from my mistakes, the school of hard knocks but these days, there’s a good reason why you warm everything up: Your head, the body, the voice and the whole lot because you have to be ready to do it, sometimes twice a day so to be out there given it socks for sometimes five hours at a stretch, when there’s two shows back to back, you have to be fit.

“And back in the day there was none of that.

“It’s like the old Irish dancing.

The company for Dr Semmelweis in rehearsals.

“The Americans kind of made it into a sport so you have to be fit to do it as well.

“We never even had warm ups when we were doing the dancing  when I was growing up, and you’d be leaping around on concrete and the whole lot.

“It’s no wonder I don’t have a single ounce of fluid left in my knees.

“Every time we’re doing the stretching and the lunging and the whole lot, I’m there going, ‘Ahh, my knee!’

“So we’re out in Peckham rehearsing and I’m across to the wonderful municipal leisure centre.

“I’m doing the aqua aerobics a few times a week just to try to get the knees working properly, or to gently get them into action.

“There’s no just turning it up and thinking, ‘Yeah, I know what we’re doing here’.

“It’ll be a very satisfying kind of wrung out that they’ll be feeling.

“They will leave, I think, delighted to have met this story and this strange, tricky man and just be very grateful to him.

“It’s wonderful in that way.”


In 2025 it will be 30 years since Father Ted first came to the screen.

All these years later Pauline is still reminded all the time of her iconic character Mrs Doyle.

“I’m delighted to say it,” she says.

“I schlepped up the north side to Hendon yesterday for a costume fitting and I couldn’t find where I was looking for, so I knocked on the door of an architect’s and the lad who answered the door and helped me was Irish and his mother’s mad into the amateur dramatics.

“So we took a picture. I said, ‘Tell her you helped Mrs. Doyle today’.

“He says, ‘I will’.

“And it’s not just Irish people.

“When I went across to join the Peckham Leisure Centre, all of the women that I met went, ‘Are you the lady off Father Ted?’

“And we’re talking all shapes, creeds, ages of people.

“In the beginning, it used to be my voice that would tip people off, but now I’m afraid I’m probably Mrs. Doyle’s age, so there’s no surprise anymore.

“Sometimes it can be just the look of me, ‘Ah yeah, that’s her’.

“People love it still and what a wonderful thing to be part of. It’s great.

“And also, every year Ted gets bigger because kids start watching it, so there’s a whole new generation every year coming to it first, it’s their first time to see it and they’ll stay with it forever then.

“So it’s bigger now than it ever was when we started it.

“Sometimes people do shout, ‘Will you have a cup of tea?’ And I would love one but they don’t have one for me!

“Top tip I’ll give people: Don’t be offering tea unless you can fulfil the offer.”

It was only recently that Pauline reunited with her former Father Ted castmate Ardal O’Hanlon in Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything where they played a married couple.

“It was absolutely great,” Pauline says of the experience.

“We were laughing that it would melt people’s heads. We were married to one another and I said, ‘Oh God, it’s like Dougal grew up and married Mrs. Doyle’.

“We got a little kick out of that.

“It was absolutely fantastic because it’s like we just picked up where we left off.

“I’ve seen Ardal from time to time over the years.

“He’s wonderful and of course, there are only two of the fab four left now, which is me and him.

“And weirdly, Dermot (Morgan) died on the 28 February when it was a Sunday.

“And Frank (Kelly) died on 28 February when it was a Sunday.

“So when it’s on a Sunday I’ve said to Ardal, ‘We have to be sitting with one another for the 24 hours because that’s the day we’re more likely to be called’.

“So every 28 of February when it’s on a Sunday, you can think of us- Hopefully the two of us will be around for a long time more- just sitting around maybe having a glass of wine, talking shite and just waiting to see, ‘Is this my Sunday the 28th? Is it my turn?’”

That’s eery about that date, if you do meet up on it make sure you’re not sky diving or rock climbing, won’t you? “Although we are probably, both of us, our own worst enemies.

“Anything could go down, anything.”

Pauline has been working in London since she came to film Father Ted in the 90s.

Are you based here?

“Because we filmed Ted, the indoor bits in a studio here in London, I’ve been here since then really.

“I rent a little place here that I keep on for when I’m here but I do have a cat and a nice garden in Dublin.

“So if I’m unemployed, I’d be back in Dublin talking to myself out in the garden.

“I have the best of both worlds.

“If I’m here, it means I’m working.

“And if I’m beyond I get to do a bit of gardening, or maybe a bit of filming as well so it’s great.

“It’s kind of half and half.

“I’m eternally grateful to London and to Britain.

“To be honest with you, it’s given me a shelter and workwise has been very good to me.

“On the migration issue I’m saying, ‘Thank you, I was let in. Please let other people in’. There’s a reason they want to come here and they will be a valuable member of the community as well.

“Britain is historically a very generous country like that but now we’ve hit different times, and that’s sad.”

Pauline starred in the ITV adaptation of Graham Norton’s Holding last year.

Pauline has written and published several of her own books to acclaim.

Has there ever been talk of bringing one of them to the screen? “Yeah, every so often someone will say, ‘That would make a great TV series’.

“I just say, ‘Off you go. If you want to, it would be lovely’.

“I don’t think that I’d be involved in the writing of it because if I’ve written the book, that was the way I wanted to tell that story.

“This morning I was thinking, ‘Jesus, am I ever going to get back to it?’

“I started a novel about five years ago and I’m stalled on it and it’s not that I don’t know what happens next, I’m just not sitting down and doing it.

“And so once the show is up, I hope I’ll return to that.

“Again, it’s a bit of a mystery as well, a bit of a thriller.

“So I will hopefully be all inspired by having been in something of a thriller on the stage.

“Hopefully, it’ll encourage me.

“I find that all of the different kinds of work that I do as an actor, they all help with the writing.

“It all feeds into each different job and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about this show. It’s the introduction to a whole other world for everyone, and you’ll be so glad that you came along because you’ll know about one of the great forgotten heroes of another century and we are living longer on the back of something that he did.

“People will be discovering him afresh and they will never forget him after this, which is wonderful.

“And I think if you enjoy the show, you’ll be feeling grateful to him so he’s back. He’s back. He’s forgotten no longer.”

Dr Semmelweis is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 7 October.

For more information and to book, click here.

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