“I think it’s a really hard thing to believe until you actually feel it, is that everything you need is inside of you and all the love you need is inside of you. The best friend you need is inside of you”

Joann Ryan-Purcell

Ladies and gentlemen, artist, writer and performer, Joanna Ryan-Purcell was the latest in the line-up of wonderful People Worth Meeting with whom we have managed to have a conversation in our virtual café on The Coffee at Eleven Show and it was a wild, and fun, and at times heartbreaking ride

From unfettered, bareback pony riding in the fields of South Tipperary, to having to let her brother, who is on the autism spectrum, always win, to being bullied by ‘the Mean Girls’, to losing her best friend, to finding herself through deep internal work and artistic expression, with a little help from Madonna, Joanna kept us on the edges of our seats as she ‘remembered out loud’ her journey thus far – the result of an unsupervised imagination – with those of us privileged to hear it live.

You’ll enjoy this – we did.

I invite you to stick on the kettle, grab a coffee and think along with Joanna Ryan-Purcell and Yours Truly on The Coffee at Eleven Show, Season 4, Episode 9 replay in your preferred way…

Joanna Ryan-Purcell Highlights

Yours Truly: Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re more than welcome to this, another episode of The Coffee At Eleven Show. Delighted to have you here. Brought to you by WIG-WAM, and indeed supported by the Limerick Post, #keepinglimerickposted #limerickandproud.

And it’s my very great pleasure to introduce you to our very special guest for this morning, Joanna Ryan-Purcell. Joanna Ryan-Purcell, say hello, cheers us with your coffee mug.

Joanna Ryan-Purcell: Hello. I just have a glass of water this time, but hello. Cheers to everybody.

I was always painting and doing little bits of writing and stuff when I was a child, like I said, always outside. This is something I actually say to a few people, not a lot of people, but I spent a lot of my childhood on my own because we grew up in the countryside. My brother has autism and he was always inside with the computers. And anytime he played with me, he had to win. That was the way it was. Therefore, my dad was working and my mum was, you know, doing her jobs too, so I spent a lot of my time on my own. And so now I am the result of an unsupervised imagination, is what I sometimes say, which can be a good thing and can be a bad thing.

So I suppose I would have always made up stories for myself when I was a child and act them out in the fields and pretended my dog was some characters. One thing I used to do a lot is, my pony would just be out in the field and I’d run up to him, I’d jump up on him, no saddle, no bridle, nothing, just me, and gallop around the field with him.

And I remember there was this branch in my old home in Emly, where … because you see, I had a very good pony, you see? He responded when I asked him to do things. So I was able to, just with my legs and just by pushing his shoulders, I was able to guide him under this particular tree. So I used to gallop, grab the branch and then I would whip off. And that was just my entertainment for the day, seriously, just by doing that.

And I used to stand on his back while he walked and trotted around the place. And there was always another one or two horses there because my dad and my mother rode horses as well, so there was always another horse around. This particular pony I’m talking about is called Cody. I got him when I was 10, and I sold him then when I was 12, because when I moved into junior level, which starts when you’re 13, obviously, he just was too small to do any of the jumps or anything. It was an absolute heartbreak. I had to say goodbye. But anyway, that’s the thing about animals, I think, is that they teach you how to let go and they teach you how to move on and they teach you about grief.

So I had a good friend, Dougie, and he was … It’s a funny story how I met him. I was busking on Grafton Street. I was only a couple of months in Bray. I was busking on Grafton Street. I was dressed as a tiger and I built a cage for myself. There you go. On Grafton Street in Dublin. And then this man in … What do you call it? You know a Harlequin colored suit and a top hat? He was selling balloons, you know, making shapes out of balloons.

And then he came over to me and he started improvising with me and he played the ringmaster. And I just went with it. I was improvising pretending to be the tiger and snapping at him and snapping at the people on the street passing by. A few people were like, “What on earth is going on here?” So a few people stopped. And then he put out his hat and said, “Come on now, give it up for the girl. Come on now.” And then we started talking, and he was just really cool.

He was a little bit older than I was, maybe 10 years or whatever, but he was just really cool and we just hit it off. He was into circus and he asked me, do I want to do something with him? Like performance wise? And so I was like, “Yeah, sure. That’d be cool.” And then he actually, it’s a really nice memory that I have, he actually brought me to a circus so we can just have a look at it and get some ideas. One of his ideas was he would be on stilts and he would be a puppeteer and I would act as a puppet. So I would just be like whatever, do all the movements underneath and have strings attached to me. That was one of our ideas that we were going to do.

Anyway, we ended up becoming just really good friends as well. He had a really difficult life. So there were a lot of things he could empathize … You know when people … ? They can understand, shall we say? They can just understand things. And I hadn’t really met anybody who understood anything that I went through. It was always a bit like, “Oh, cop on, Joanna,” or, “Look, other people have it so much harder than you. Would you stop complaining?” So I thought, “Maybe I am just being a little bit spoiled or whatever.” Do you know what I mean? Or, “Maybe I am a bit … ” But I just never met anybody who said, “You know what? I understand, Joanna, and it’s okay.” But he did that, and he understood. So I was able to talk to him about anything.

But one of the days I was up in Dublin and on my way home, I said, “Here, I’ll call into Dougie and see if he’s there.” He lived in Saggart in Dublin. The exit for Saggart was on my way home, on the N7. And for the last couple of months, I’d been trying to call him and text, and then there was no reply, no response. I just assumed he was gone to France, you know? Because that’s what he said. He’ll probably have to take off to France. And the phone just always rang out and then eventually it was just off.

So anyway, I said, “Here, look, I’ll take a chance and I’ll call into him.” It was an apartment block and I tried to remember the code, because obviously I knew it. I was trying to remember, and maybe it was changed or something, but I don’t know. For some unknown reason, it just wasn’t right. And then some woman walked out and I said, “Oh, sorry. I’m just trying to remember what the code was.” And I was like, “Do you know if Dougie still lives here?” And she said, “The English guy?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Yeah, he’s dead.” And I said, “What?” And she said, “Yeah. They found him a week later. He just died in his apartment.” And I just … Obviously I was just shocked and said, “Oh.” And then she realized that she just broke some news to me. I just said, “Oh, we were very good friends.” And she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then I just went to the car and I cried and I broke down.

And I remember only a year or two ago, I spoke to my mom about it. I asked her, “What was I like?” Because I did, I shut it out. You know, I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I’d just pretend he never existed. And so I remember she said to me, she just said, “Yeah, when you walked home, you just said, with a complete deadpan face, ‘Dougie’s dead.’ And that was it. You never spoke about him again.” And then it was only, I’d say, a couple of years ago, I started bringing up a whole load of stuff from the past just so I can bring it up and release it and let it go, rather than it staying there and poisoning, do you know what I mean? So I had to face that and go through that. And I didn’t face it at all for a whole seven years or eight years, however long it was.

I was in this second hand shop in Nenagh. It was a second hand bookshop. I was in there, and believe it or not, Madonna’s biography jumped out at me and something just told me, “Just buy that and read it now.” And so I got it, and I was like … I didn’t really listen to her music at all ever. I didn’t really know much about it. And I was like, “Why suddenly Madonna, all of a sudden?”

So I read her book anyway and it really, really inspired me. Now, I don’t agree with anything that she’s become or whatever, but just … em her music, I preferred her eighties version. But anyway, that’s a different topic altogether, so we’ll leave that alone.

But it was just, when she was … What age was she? 18, 19, whatever. She took off to New York with just $35 in her pocket, and all the stuff she went through, and no matter what, no matter who said what to her, no matter what obstacles got in her way, she always, always kept that fire lit and always found a way to get there. And I just said, “If she can do it, so can I.” So I got my fire back and I said, “Do you know what? I’m not letting anybody stop me.”

I wanted to ask you, if I may, what have you learned in COVID that you’re not letting go of as we emerge from COVID? What is Joanna Ryan-Purcell keeping on?

I think I learned to challenge my own creativity. That’s something that I really focused on, was to really find, “Okay, who am I as an artist?” And also the fact that a lot of things were postponed, a lot of things were canceled. I was just about to do a show and all of that had to stop and blah, blah, blah. So I really went on the journey of, “Who am I without all of these other exterior things? Who am I without these exterior things? ” Because I always clung to exterior things as the hope light, shall we say, to get me through. Whereas now, I know that I’m okay and I know that I’m okay to go inside, and I know I’m okay to let go all of the exterior things. Just for a moment, just to see, “Who am I on the inside without all of that?”

And the lockdowns just gave me the time to do that. And I don’t think I would have had the time to do that otherwise, and to really go in and challenge blocks that I have. And I expressed all of that through my art and my painting. I was stuck with painting as well, that I have been for the last few years, and just only recently, in the last few weeks, I managed to unblock that. And I’m really, really happy about that. I found it.

Yeah. So that’s really what it’s given.

Yours Truly: Wonderful. Joanna, you come across a friend who is struggling more than you are through what we’ve been through over the last 15 to 16 months, what would be your advice to that person?

Joanna Ryan-Purcell: Somebody who’s in the depths of their struggles?

Yours Truly: Specifically as a result of COVID, I think, is the framing of the question.

Joanna Ryan-Purcell: Okay. Personally? Obviously, yeah.

Yours Truly: Yeah. You meet a friend and it’s obvious that they’re hurting because of lockdown. You’ve gone inwards and found magic. Somebody else might go inwards and not find that. So you find somebody who’s struggling, what would you recommend to them?

Joanna Ryan-Purcell: Well, I think it’s a really hard thing to believe until you actually feel it, is that everything you need is inside of you and all the love you need is inside of you. The best friend you need is inside of you. Yes, it’s nice to have those people around you just to remind you that, yes, you are okay, and, “Yes, I am here if you need to talk.”

But it’s something that I couldn’t believe for so long. And it’s because I went through all those unblocking the personal things that I started to feel it. So I think I would just say, “Just believe that one day you will meet that complete and utter true, true love, which is yourself, and keep that in your sight line and one day, you will.”


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