- Film & TV
- 06 Sep 21
Clare Dunne discusses her memorable starring performance in Herself, a gripping exploration of the Irish housing crisis.
One of the most highly anticipated Irish films in years is finally being released, and its exploration of trauma, the housing crisis and the importance of community feels incredibly prescient.
Clare Dunne co-wrote and stars in the film Herself, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which tells the story of a single mother in Dublin who decides to build her own house. Dunne’s performance in the film has received a Best Actress nomination from the British Independent Film Awards, and also saw Dunne win the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award. Elsewhere, the film has won the ICCL Human Rights Film Award.
In Herself, Dunne’s character, Sandra, has just left an abusive relationship that has left her physically and emotionally scarred. But she battles through her trauma with a sense of determination and resilience. She wants to provide for her children – only to find herself facing shame from the court system, obstacles in the housing system, and the impossibility of being able to ever own her own home.
Dunne says that a lot of the film was inspired by a true story close to her life.
“The genesis was a feeling of injustice for my friend,” she explains, “who was in a situation where she had to go into a form of temporary accommodation with her three kids. She was a very determined, very capable single mother, and really felt a sense of shame and disappointment. She found there’s still some stigma against single mothers, and I always felt really angry on her behalf, because she’s so bloody smart and determined; she did whatever she could to get those kids to school.
“So I suppose it was just my frustration with the system, and my frustration with housing being so wrapped up in this mortgage thing, while the actual unit, the actual cost of the labour and the building, is not that much if you get the right type of design.”
Dunne found Dominic Stevens, an architect who was designing self-build houses for €25,000 that were also environmentally friendly, and became inspired to write a story of a single mother who decides to subvert the system by building her own house.
Dunne also immersed herself in research into people affected by the housing crisis, speaking to spoke to advocates from Women’s Aid, child psychologists, Peter McVerry and protesters at Summer Hill.
“I did all this to try capture the spirit of this thing we’re all battling, which is the housing crisis,” says Dunne. “And also our generation; the intense difficulty of being a person in their twenties or thirties right now. For our generation, just to live is a huge amount of stress, just to survive, to pay rent. It’s so hard for us to pay adults.
“We live in this world where it’s all zero hour contracts, an environmental crisis, no stable jobs – but we’re expected to still fulfil an idea of adulthood that is not possible anymore. One thing about Covid is having some time to reflect over the past few years of my life, and I realised how stunted I felt the whole time.
“I realised I never felt like I was ever getting over that line of being an adult, then thinking about wanting to save money, then thinking do I actually want this now? These are the struggles facing so many people, I think.”
Dunne is acutely aware of how so much of modern Irish society keeps adults stunted, but the film is also aware of how trauma keeps people stunted too. Sandra is suffering from some post-traumatic stress, her daughters are traumatised by the abuse they witnessed their father inflict upon their mother, and Sandra’s husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) is reenacting abuse that he witnessed in his own home growing up.
This awareness of class-based, gendered and generational trauma ripples thoughout the film, and is something that Dunne is very interested in.
“I did research into trauma,” she says, “and read a book about trauma that aligns the trauma you suffer during domestic violence with war and soldiers. It was looking at the commonalities of trauma, and then the small things on a daily basis that can make people feel a bit more empowered and in control, and what helps them connect their mind and body after trauma.
“I did a building course myself which really confirmed something I wanted to look at in the film, which is the act of building a house: you’re out in the fresh air, you’re focusing on one thing at a time, collaborating with others. It’s all very healing, and this is what helps bring Sandra back to herself.
“A lot of people who have trauma disassociate from their body, and in order to come back to your body, you have to process the trauma. You can only do a bit at a time, and what helps are those daily interactions that show you are safe and supported, and there are people out there who don’t want to hurt you. It’s long hard work, healing. It’s not a transformation that happens overnight.
“So I love that the film shows a person going through this isn’t just trying to get their shit together and survive, and do all the stuff they need to do to become independent, but they’re grieving.”
And there’s a lot to process.
“They’re grieving the relationship because they were in love,” Dunne continues. “They’re grieving who they fell in love with once upon a time, they’re grieving who they once were, because they’re now someone different. You have to get to this new space of self-acceptance and love, and be open to new things, and a new life and new relationships. People go through these things on varying levels at different points in their life, so I think there will be something for everyone to empathise with.”
Herself is released on September 10.
- Film & TV
- 07 Sep 21
- Film & TV
- 19 Feb 20