Not many people can say: “Meryl Streep played my mum.”
But Kinross woman Annie McCormack can – and that’s not even the most remarkable thing about her, or her late mother.
Annie is the daughter of renowned Northern Irish human rights activist Inez McCormack, a feminist “firebrand” who worked tirelessly for more than 40 years to amplify her community’s unheard voices, asking always: “Who is not at the table?”
Inez’s many achievements included becoming the first female regional secretary for Unison, the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and the founder of Belfast-based human rights organisation the Participation and Practice of Rights project (PPR).
And her impressive CV saw her immortalised by Streep in globally-renowned documentary play SEVEN, which presents the real-life stories of seven women who triumphed over huge obstacles to better their communities and countries.
Now, a decade after Inez’s death in 2013, Annie is continuing her mum’s legacy in her adopted homeland by teaming up with Scottish human rights organisation Making Rights Real to bring SEVEN to Dunfermline’s Carnegie Hall.
When Meryl Streep played Inez in the 2010 world premiere of SEVEN – which has since been performed in 20 languages across 32 countries – the Oscar-winner told the press: “I’m an actress, but she’s the real deal.”
‘People would listen in on our phone calls’
Indeed, growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, 47-year-old Annie recalls how “all-encompassing” her mother’s work could be.
“She was always knackered at home, because doing this kind of work is not just 9-5,” she recalls. “Quite often as a child, I’d get up in the morning and she’d already be away at work, and she wouldn’t come back until after I was in bed.
“The only time she really had off was whenever we would go to visit my granny’s house in Donegal on a weekend.”
But despite having grown up in the house where Inez’s work took place, Annie admits even she was “shocked” by what SEVEN revealed to her about her own mother’s life.
“The first time I ever saw the play, I was pretty shocked by the content,” Annie says, speaking from her home in Kinross.
“I was particularly shocked by some of the stuff my mum talks about, in terms of how she was treated. That probably speaks to how well protected I was growing up.
“From a Northern Irish perspective, there was definitely a safety issue that I certainly wasn’t aware of as a child,” she continues. “But as an adult, her and my dad would tell me about people listening in on our phone calls and stuff like that.”
‘She was actually a really vulnerable person’
For Annie, there is a poignant dissonance between Inez McCormack, the legendary activist, and the mother she knew and loved.
“It’s interesting, reading obituaries and things about her,” Annie muses.
“She’s often called this kind of ‘firebrand’ and a ‘challenging’ person. But she was incredibly warm. She was very empathetic. And she gave the best hugs.
“I think the people who would call her ‘challenging’ or a ‘firebrand’ would tend to be the people on the other side of the table from her,” she chuckles. “Because she was actually a really vulnerable person.
“I think that’s why people connected to her so well.”
Inez McCormack’s Dundee descendant
Dundee woman Clare MacGillivray, the founder of Making Rights Real, is one of the many people who connected deeply to the legacy of softness and strength left by Inez in Belfast, despite growing up more than 200 miles away.
“I grew up in Dundee, both my grannies worked in the mills and both my granddads worked in the shipyards,” says Clare, 49.
“My grannies used to sing to me, Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song. And the bit that always stood out to me was: ‘Oh dear me, the world is ill-divided; them that works the hardest are ay the least provided’.
“So I had that in my life from a really young age, the urge to fight against injustice. Those words stick with me every day.”
A community worker for 25 years, Clare encountered Inez’s work when she teamed up with Belfast-based PPR, Inez’s rights-based organisation, just a year after the Irish activist’s death.
“Even though I never met her, she has a great impact on my life,” says Clare. “I learned everything about human rights from Inez’s organisation.”
With the help of PPR, Clare carried out a project in Leith, Edinburgh, to help residents in poor housing conditions secure around £3 million of investment in their home using the universal right to an adequate standard of housing.
After that success, Clare was inspired to try and use human rights to improve quality of life for other communities across Scotland, so she founded Edinburgh-based Making Rights Real in 2020.
“When the opportunity came to set up Making Rights Real, it was really obvious that I would go back to where Inez and her traditions came from in Belfast,” Clare explains.
“I think Making Rights Real is really built on the legacy of the work she started in Northern Ireland.”
‘Chance meeting’ in Kinross car park
Both Annie and Clare’s lives were shaped and transformed by Inez’s legacy – but it was a chance meeting in the car park of a Kinross garden centre which brought these daughters in blood and spirit together.
“It was the first time I’d met Annie, and we were literally just chatting,” recalls Clare.
“And she said: ‘You heard of this play, SEVEN? My mum was one of the characters in it. It was an internationally-renowned play, and Meryl Streep played my mum. You fancy doing it in Scotland?’
“And I was like: Aye! ‘Mon then!”
From there, the pair approached Fife director and former Dundee Rep head of creative learning Suzi Morrice. Together, the three women had all the necessary skills to stage their own special, Scottish production of SEVEN – with a poignant twist in homage to the original SEVEN woman, including Inez.
“Early on, Annie and I had a discussion about how to cast this,” reveals Suzi, 46, whose background is in community theatre work. “I said I felt this 100% had to be women from Scottish communities.”
Through an open call, Making Rights Real recruited women who were active in their communities, or striving to be, and Suzi created a dual cast for the Scottish SEVEN – one from the east coast, and one from the west.
Unlike traditional castings, each role was cast based on the individual’s connection with their part, rather than physical similarities. And because the play is designed to be performed ‘script in hand’, it was accessible for a range of acting abilities.
“People were cast based on energy and affinity with the women that are portrayed in the play,” explains Suzi. “Our two Inez actors, Rosie and Moo, are incredible!”
Playing Inez ’empowering’ for Fife woman
Rosie Smith, 54, from the Southside of Glasgow, and Muriel ‘Moo’ McKenzie, 56, from Inverkeithing, play the ‘west coast’ and ‘east coast’ versions of Inez.
For Moo, getting to know and play Inez has been “emotional, eye opening and empowering”.
“She was feisty and stood up for things even if she was standing on her own,” observes Moo. “Meeting Annie made me want to do her and her family proud. I wanted to make sure my portrayal was authentic and true to Inez’s story.”
“It’s been really nice, hearing from Moo and Rosie what my mum’s story means to them,” smiles Annie. “I think that’s been a really interesting thing about watching SEVEN develop in the Scottish context.
“It seems that women who are maybe not comfortable telling their own story are more comfortable telling somebody else’s story, but then understanding that that other person’s story is also their story. And how you can use that as a strength, to kind of amplify yourself.”
Inez and Seven: Speaking truth to power
In 2022, the dual cast made a powerful statement by performing the Scottish premiere of SEVEN at the Scottish Parliament, and taking the stories of the seven women to those most able to enact change.
But for Clare, Annie and Suzi, the Carnegie Hall performance means just as much, if not more, as it’s taking the seven stories to those who may need to hear them most.
“Taking it to the Scottish Parliament was a massively important thing to do politically,” notes Suzi, who lives in Limekilns. “But to now take it into the community is just amazing.
“Having the opportunity to work with the Fife women has been incredible. Because to know what people are living with – health inequality, mobility issues, all these things – has meant so much more than it would’ve done just putting on a play by a cast that didn’t have any connection with Fife.”
From a human rights perspective, Clare hopes that Fife audiences “get wise to the fact that a lot of the issues faced by the women in SEVEN globally – poverty, domestic violence, poor healthcare – are also happening to the women here in Scotland”.
But can theatre and art really affect change in such a way? Annie thinks so – and notably, so did her mother.
“I was brought up on picket lines and marches and demonstrations [during the Troubles],” Annie recalls. “My mum was really good at bringing a different perspective to that. So on union marches in Northern Ireland, she would have a band and clowns and mimes, and she would always have a creche.
“She understood that the arts play a really important part in explaining how people feel and telling a story and sending a message. SEVEN puts that message on a platform that’s harder to ignore.”
Annie is following in mum’s footsteps
Undoubtedly, the public performance of SEVEN in Dunfermline will see Inez’s legacy rippling throughout Scotland. But even without the play, her activism lives on here in her very own bloodline.
Now an activist in her own right, Annie chairs Kinross anti-poverty charity Broke Not Broken.
Surprisingly, she reveals she never set out to follow in her mum’s footsteps – and in fact, didn’t begin her own activism until after Inez’s death.
“I didn’t do any of this stuff while she was still alive,” Annie says thoughtfully. “I remember a really good friend of mine saying, after she died: ‘So what are you going to do? Are you going to do some of the stuff she was doing?’
“I was like: ‘Well no, because she was her! I’m only me!’
“But I think that’s the real learning we can all take from her, and from the Scottish SEVEN – everybody can be doing stuff, it’s not just the people who, for some reason, stand up and decide they’re going to do it.”
Annie reveals that before she died, Inez told her to make sure everybody understood the value of being “effectively annoying”, and that mission is what drives her each day.
“It’s not just making a stooshie for the sake of it,” Annie explains. “It’s about understanding when you do that and how you do that, and making it as effective for people as possible.
“And I’ve found my way of being ‘effectively annoying’. So I think she’d be really proud of that.”
SEVEN will be performed at Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, on September 9 2023. Visit the OnFife website for tickets and details.