This page (published 2018) has info and images that illustrate some recent shifts in emphasis in my work – particularly towards more direct biographical and autobiographical writing, where generally in the past I have tended to create fictions.
Included are references to
- my work as Artist-in-Residence at Loughshinny Boathouse Studio which culminated in a short booklet publication of interviews with members of the community and a public performance in the form of a personal memoir in September 2017
- a performance of work-in-progress given at Anaverna in Louth on Jan 6th 2018 entitled ‘Epiphanies’.
- History Plays: For example, in 2016 I responded to a commission from Irish Art Oslo to write and perform a solo show on aspects of the life and work of Roger Casement.
Scroll on down to read about ‘Epiphanies’ and further down again for the History Plays. But first, my residency at Loughshinny Boathouse Day Studio, just a mile from my home:
- NEARER HOME: LOUGHSHINNY BOATHOUSE RESIDENCY
I was one of a sequence of artists invited to try out the boathouse as a retreat. The building is ideally located at the peaceful Loughshinny Harbour, where land, sea and sky meet in an array of constantly changing colours. My original intention was to sit in glorious isolation and rewrite a novel I had drafted over the previous four years, set in Fingal (still unfinished!). Instead, restless, I found myself using the boathouse as a base from which I travelled out or invited people in for conversations. I invited the local school to avail of my occupancy to allow 5th class children and their teacher to come and write creatively and get to know the harbour through words, sounds, tactile exploration and images. I also interviewed and photographed a random selection of local dwellers and visitors. The residency itself took place in the Spring of 2015, but it would be two years later in 2017 before the work undertaken went public, at the official launch of the studio. Below is an image and extract from my short performance ‘My Loughshinny’ given at the launch, and two sample pages from my booklet of interviews published by Fingal County Council.
EXTRACT FROM ‘MY LOUGHSHINNY’
Stand still. Pick a shell up from the ground and listen. Make the sound of the sea.
Swishhhh …. whish…. wishhhhh….
“Welcome to Loughshinny”, … the woman said, “My husband caught this today.”
I looked at her blankly.
“It’s a gift, a welcome gift.”
She held up a lobster.
Her name was Mary. “I already cooked it for you”, she said, “I hope you don’t mind”.
She didn’t stop for long – too busy rearing a houseful of girls and a young lad in the house next door – all grown up now with kids of their own. Packie was still fishing then. I never tasted a lobster as good.
We lay that first night on a bare mattress, Sharon and me, on the flagstone floor in the middle of rubble and chaos, waiting for ghosts. None came
2. GETTING MORE PERSONAL: EPIPHANIES
I am no stranger to adapting and performing James Joyce’s words. As well as ‘The Dubliners Dilemma’, my well-travelled solo show, I have adapted and performed scenes from ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and read from various works at diverse public events. But when it came to presenting ‘The Dead’ as a solo piece in January 2018, I chose not simply to enact scenes from the well-known story, but incorporate personal memory of first reading the book and reflections upon my own journey into literature, through Joyce and his great admirer Patrick Kavanagh in particular. What emerged was an autobiographical narrative framework that saw me recreate a time in my life when I was moving between Dublin and Munich, a confused rural youth, over-dependent on alcohol – turning to literature for a sense of identity and self.
EXTRACT FROM ‘EPIPHANIES’
I began writing short stories [at 19] and even submitted one. And this is where my failure as a writer really begins. I chose my market unwisely. I had written a traditional story of a rural schoolmaster and a group of children out on an adventure on the Monaghan bog. I spotted an ad in a newspaper inviting fiction submissions and without any research fired it off. It was duly rejected and it turned out the publication in question was a short-lived Irish attempt at a kind of Playboy nude magazine. They were looking for something a bit more racy than the marshy fields of Monaghan. I didn’t submit again after that, but I kept on writing – stories about flatland and hard drinking young men and awkward sexual relationships – poor and derivative stuff mainly. I was writing for myself. I saw myself in some kind of bizarre training for the day when I would write something really important, like A Portrait of the Artist or At Swim Two Birds or Tarry Flynn. I read Anthony Cronin’s cautionary book ‘Dead as Doornails’ about all the 1940s and 50s bohemian writers, in particular Patrick Kavanagh who I was coming to idolise, all of whom had died from drink, and instead of seeing it as a salutory warning, I came to the odd view that to be a writer, you had to be an alcoholic too. So I took to drinking heavily in literary pubs and even having the odd whiskey by the typewriter.
A few years ago I eventually wrote a spoken-word poem partly recalling those awful confused years before I went to Germany and, as they say, found myself – and – affirming how I finally did become a writer, but a writer after my own design. The poem was a light-hearted thing, entered for a friendly slam at the Flat Lake Festival in Monaghan. The last ever typewriter had been manufactured in a factory in India and our theme was to commemorate the beloved writing machine. Anthony Cronin was a guest at the festival that year and I found myself recalling his book which I had read almost forty years earlier – with its tales of Brendan Behan and Myles na gCopaleen and Patrick Kavanagh so poor that his Christmas dinner was an egg boiled in the teapot. I called the poem Dead as Doornails after Cronin’s book, and I came up with this.
Read the poem.
(The text of the poem is located elsewhere on this website – open it in a fresh tab here)
3. THE HISTORY PLAYS
My most visible ‘history play’ is ‘The Big Fellow’ (about Frank O’Connor and Michael Collins) which is described in the Current Theatre Projects section of this website. Here I am going to focus on a less widely seen piece, a study of Roger Casement commissioned by Irish Art Oslo, and which I performed in the Nobel ‘Mirror Room’ at the Grand Hotel in Oslo in 2016. I was invited to present a work that would reflect on Casement’s lesser known career as a human rights rapporteur in the Belgian Congo. I set the drama in his prison cell the night before his capital trial for treason begins. This is the opening scene:
ONE: 1916, ROGER CASEMENT IN HIS PRISON CELL
Sir Roger Casement in a cell sits gazing vacantly at files and transcripts
SOUND FX 1. PRISON DOOR SLAMMING
CASEMENT: He’s gone. Alexander has gone home for the night, more worried than I am. Alexander Sullivan, Serjeant at Law, my counsel, my defence. My trial begins tomorrow, the trial of Sir Roger Casement for shipping guns into his native Ireland to use against the Crown. The first charge of high treason against a knight of the British Realm in several centuries. And poor old Alexander Sullivan of Dublin has accepted the hopeless job of defending my case.
Well, I’m sorry for you Alexander and I know you will do your best. And thank you for coming by my cell tonight … with your… rather pathetic proposal. Well, come on, man, it is pathetic!
“Sir Roger, … your friends…” “Speak up Man! Friends? I have no friends!” But it seems I do – still – have a few loyal supporters, and you tell me they have asked, nay implored that I lay out, succinctly and in summary form, an account of the good that I have done, the service I have given our monarch, this empire… humanity – in some vain hope of clemency. Tell them about my work in the Congo. Show the jury what a compassionate and moral fellow I am beneath this cold, treasonous exterior.
Oh the things I witnessed. The atrocities that I recounted from the Congo State with its grasping Belgian king; my famous report that shook liberal England from its torpor and forced it to see, really see, what was already known?
You think, Alexander, that recalling that temporary triumph of Witness over Darkness will cause the English jury now to waver one iota from its course this week? I do not think so!
And in recalling how I stirred the British conscience by exposing Belgium’s shame shall I remind them of their own country’s calumny? And no, I am not referring to poor Ireland. They need no reminding of that while the blood of James Connolly still bubbles and froths under the gravel at Kilmainham. No, I am recalling events a little further afield.
Do they already forget the Natal business? South Africa 1906? Ten years ago only, and already swept out of memory. How they took a sledgehammer to a nut; quelled a minor revolt, a local protest against a lousy poll tax by turning British machine guns and heavy canon on 3,000 half naked Zulus armed with sticks, killing them all. I wrote to Edmond Morel. “An abominable cowardly butchery”; I called it; “A tale of murder and pillage that the British name will not get rid of for some time”.
Oh the scales were falling from my eyes by then, Alexander. I had been, it is true, a believer in Imperialism as a civilising force. A matter of bringing order where chaos, as we thought it reigned. Until I finally faced the fact that our liberal English colonials were morally little better than the rotten Belgian King.
Shall I remind the jury of that? That I discussed the wretchedness of imperialism by any nation in any patch of the globe a whole ten years ago – and not suddenly these past two years in what some have sought to dismiss as a maddened drift to the cause of my own beknighted homeland?
No Alexander, I know you prefer me not to mention such indelicate matters, but to concentrate my gaze again upon the Congo State; my first and famous report about the dreadful doings of the foreign King.
Well, perhaps because it will while away a night, or because it merits remembering; because the wretched oppressed African requires the benefit of our kindly gaze as often as we can avert our eyes towards him – rather than out of any deluded grasp for mercy, Alexander, I will indulge you. This night I will write up something for you: And I will revisit the great River Congo.
TWO: 1903, CONGO: CERTAIN ATROCITIES RECALLED
He paces about and then pick up his Congo Report.
FX 2 & 3 SIMULTANEOUSLY
Sounds of a steam paddle on the river
and – The cries of native Congolese children.
My Lord, I have the honour to submit my report on my recent journey. I arrived in Leopoldville on the 5th of June and remained in the neighbourhood of Stanley Pool until the 2nd of July when I set out for the Upper Congo…
FX 4: The rattle of machinegun fire.
He suddenly morphs into the persona of Mola Ekulite a young Congolese man, initially wild in agony, but then settling into testimony mode.
MOLA How did I lose my hands, Bonkunzi, my two hands, the hands that held my children, the hands that caressed my wife, the hands that worked the wild rubber tree until they were burned raw? This is how I lost my hands, Bonkunzi, this is how I have no hands.
I am Mola Ekuliti from the village of Mokili in the district of Mantumba. State soldiers came from Bikoro and attacked the Bwanga towns, which they burned, killing people. They came under the command of the European officer we called Ikatankoi, which means The Leopard’s Paw.
The soldiers took prisoner all the men left in the town, and tied us up. Our hands were tied very tight with rope, rope from our own village, and we were left out in the open all night and it was raining very hard, and our hands swelled up because the thongs contracted.
Two of our men were killed during the night. The survivors were taken down in the morning to the lakeside at Iyanga. My hands were so swollen by now that they were quite useless. The soldiers saw this, they saw that the thongs had cut into my bone and they began to beat my hands, Bonkunzi: they beat my hands against a tree with their rifles. I do not know why they beat my hands. The Leopard’s Paw was nearby watching and he could see what they were doing: the white man Ikatankoi. He was drinking palm wine, while the soldiers beat my hands with their rifle-butts against the tree. And then my hands fell off.