On 13 June 2019, co-writers of Fishamble's THE ALTERNATIVE Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney wrote a speech to address the topic: 'Reframing Our Borders - What If?' at On The Edge, the Theatre Forum and Theatre NI Conference 2019. In the speech, delivered by Oisín Kearney, the writers discuss being Irish in Cambridge, their new play The Alternative, produced by Fishamble as part of Fishamble's A Play For Ireland programme, and issues of identity in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Due to technical difficulties the video is an abridged version of the full speech, which can be found below.
Reframing Our Borders - What If?
Oisín Kearney and Michael Patrick talk about their play for Ireland, THE ALTERNATIVE, and some questions it poses. What if Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom? What if Home Rule had passed? What if there was no War of Independence? No Civil War? No partition? What if the island had only one soccer team?
First of all, thank you to Theatre Forum and Theatre NI for inviting us to speak here today. It’s a real honour to be part of the conference and to be in such a beautiful venue. I would like to apologise on behalf of my co-writer Michael Patrick for his absence. He would love to be here, but he’s currently too busy wearing ridiculous wigs and tights at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s an actor and a writer from Belfast, and I am a director and writer from Warrenpoint, Co Down. We did however, prepare this speech together. So if there’s anything you vehemently disagree with, lets just say those are the that bits he wrote.
When I met Irma a few months ago, she asked me if I could speak today for about 25 minutes about our new play, about Michael and I’s process and our perspective on borders, and how we might reframe them through asking ‘what if?’ I’ll do my best to stay within the borders of that brief.
Michael and I are delighted that Fishamble: The New Play Company chose our play, ‘The Alternative’, as the winner of their ‘A PLAY FOR IRELAND’ initiative. The play will premiere in the Dublin Theatre Festival as part of its nationwide tour in association with The Everyman, Pavilion Theatre, Lime Tree & Belltable, Galway Town Hall Theatre, The Draíocht, and The Lyric Theatre Belfast in September and October 2019.
To give you some context, I’ll tell you a bit about Fishamble’s process in creating the scheme. To quote their website, Fishamble is “Ireland’s only Olivier Award-winning theatre company which, as well as producing internationally renowned productions, supports the writers of 60% of all new plays produced in Ireland each year. It wants to encourage people all over Ireland to express themselves through theatre, to engage the public in making plays, and to create work for audiences throughout Ireland, north and south.”
In 2011, Fishamble ran TINY PLAYS FOR IRELAND, playing to sell out runs across the country, and in 2018, as part of its 30th year, Fishamble embarked upon a search for A PLAY FOR IRELAND. The brief was to find: “one, big, ambitious play, that bursts with humanity and tackles a subject about which the playwright feels passionate - A PLAY FOR IRELAND that captures the zeitgeist of the country, that demands to be produced.” So... no pressure there...
Of 372 submissions, 30 plays were chosen to be developed in partnership with 6 venues, and 6 were then shortlisted for table-read workshops. Finally, after much debate and discussion, Fishamble chose ‘The Alternative’.
Certainly, it means a lot to us, as storytellers from north of the border on this island, to be commissioned to write a PLAY FOR IRELAND. In approaching the task, we were challenged to think about the state of the nation, the whole nation, the whole island, the whole Irish diaspora. We asked ourselves: what kind of a play should we write for Ireland at this time? What does Ireland want to hear, and what do we have to say? In writing “The Alternative”, we ask our audience to imagine something:
What if Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom? What if Home Rule had passed? What if there was no War of Independence? No Civil War? No partition? What if the island had only one soccer team?
Clearly things would be very different - and not just because a full island soccer team would obviously have won the Italia ‘90 World Cup. Dun Laoghaire is Kingstown. Belfast is the second city of the Irish state, not Cork. We pay in pounds across the island. And Padraig Pearse is merely a school teacher who would have helped to write an obscure Bolshevik manifesto, but instead was one of the defenders of Home Rule Act in 1913.
Now, we have set the play in a television studio - BBC Dublin, in an alternate reality where the entire island of Ireland is much like Northern Ireland is today - a constituent part of the United Kingdom. The action takes place on the eve of a referendum, which asks the question - Should Ireland be independent? British Prime Minister Ursula Lysaght is returning to her hometown of Dublin to convince voters to Remain.
The play imagines a world where things happened differently. A world in which Home Rule passed in 1913 and Irish nationalism was accommodated within the United Kingdom. How things could have been different, if an Irish government put down the Easter Rising without executing the leaders. How things could have been different, if that Ireland had maintained a separation between church and state. How things could have been different if Irishness and Britishness had developed in a way that they were not mutually exclusive. And, if Ireland had the choice to become independent from Britain through a referendum… How would the people vote? What is the Irish nation? Who are the people within it? And what makes them tick?
For the play, we have six characters, but focus on the struggles of a father-daughter relationship against the backdrop of the recent passing of their wife and mother respectively. This fractious relationship is built on misunderstanding, miscommunication, and deceit, and it reflects the wider relationships of individuals who have been forced to make a decision about their nationality and to vote Leave or Remain. Sometimes these bigger questions are the ones that people obsess over. But how can you have a healthy nation without the everyday business of living? How can you publicly choose the future of your country, if you do not first look at the smaller private decisions which shape your lives?
So, how did Michael and I come to write this piece? Well we first met in Cambridge University. I was studying Politics and Michael Physics and Material Sciences (I’ve no clue how that relates to acting and writing, but there you go). We socialised through our college drama society, and together we ran the University’s Ireland society… which, apart from being an excuse to get University funding to buy potato bread, was a place where we became very conscious of our Irishness, and what that meant to us. As two men who consider ourselves Irish, we both grew up in Northern Ireland, where identity is such a tumultuous issue - and there we were in the belly of the beast of British elitism, an institution dominated by the ruling British classes. Incidentally, Cambridge was celebrating its 800th anniversary when we arrived. So coming over there from Ireland, insecure and a chip on our shoulders, and seeing banners everywhere just saying “800 years” - it was like “you don’t need to rub it in lads!”.
I vividly remember being in a pub on my freshers’ week and being called a ‘terrorist’ because of my accent. This was 10 years ago. I also remember being told that I was not Irish. I was Northern Irish, which meant I was separate... different. Other. Of course, this made us become very defensive of our Irish identity, and we probably played up to it. It became something that was almost cartoonish, a parody of Irishness, a heightened identifier to prove our difference to our British friends, the border between them and us. We attended Churchill college, named after Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was one of them fellas who had done his fair share of meddling in Ireland. The college is known as keeping in its archives some of Margaret Thatcher’s handbags. And at formal dinners, a hall full of hundreds of students would stand up before the weekly meal, raise a glass, and proclaim “To The Queen.” followed by “To Sir Winston”.
Needless to say, Michael and I didn’t feel like standing up. We sat stoically, and did not utter a word, much to the confusion of our college mates who probably thought we just being difficult. We probably lived up to the observation of Winston Churchill about the Irish, when he said: "We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English." And certainly, going to university in Cambridge became somewhat of a daily exercise in refusing to be English. I was heartened when I learned that Charles Stewart Parnell had attended Cambridge as an undergraduate, but he was ‘sent down’ after getting into a drunken fight with two men who sold manure. Shit for fertilisation. So, you know, Michael and I tried our best not to follow his lead, and get into trouble with the authorities.
We were the jesters - the intelligent fools, in the mode of Fr Ted or Dylan Moran. I think this is quite a common thing when people first leave this country. To think about where your from, what it means to you and to project it outwards. But over the years we’ve constantly been talking and thinking and refining what our identity means to us. Why is it so important? And what it means to think of ourselves as Irish. Especially, coming from the North.
After University I moved to Belfast to train in TV & film production, whilst Michael trained as an actor in Mountview. We met again when he returned to Belfast, and we began creating theatre under the name of Pan Narrans - the Storytelling Ape. Him acting. Me directing.
We recently co-wrote a play as part of Fishambles’ ‘Show In A Bag’ scheme, again very proud to be working with Fishamble, who consider themselves an all island company - and performed that show at Dublin Fringe Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and at several venues across Ireland. ‘My Left Nut’ was based on the true story of Michael developing a swelling on his testicle when he was 15, that grew to the size of a large avocado. He was unable to talk to anyone about it for years, mainly because his father had passed away when he was younger. He was just too embarrassed to tell his mum that there was something wrong with his balls… especially since Michael genuinely believed it was caused by masturbating too much. But also because he didn’t want to dispel the rumour in school that he was well-endowed. It’s a comedy about grief, growing up, masculinity, and love of friends and family. We had a fantastic time creating the show and we carried that enthusiasm into writing our second play: “The Alternative”.
Now, this play is not about genitalia. We’ve progressed a bit in our themes. When the application time came, myself and Michael sat down and began thinking deeply about Irishness.
In an ideal world, we think Irishness would be an all-encompassing identity which can include: inner city Dubs whose families have lived on the same street for generations, the people of Dunfanaghy to Dingle, Achill to Rosslare, recent immigrants who have chosen to make a home for themselves here and emigrants who have chosen to leave, and even Northern Irish Unionists who might embrace the Irish aspects of their character if it did not threaten to diminish their Britishness. What’s more, I have recently become an uncle - a niece born in Scotland, and a nephew born in Belgium. They are part of a generation with a more fluid identity - both of them are Irish, but they’re also European, one’s British, the other Belgian. So identity, both personal and national, was certainly something on the forefront of our minds.
The other thing bothering us, and is no doubt on the minds of anyone else who lives near the border is Brexit. And when you look at it, the Brexit debate can also be considered one of identity. What do the British people latch onto as their British identity? Is it one based in the history of Empire, and defeating Hitler, and that traditional culture of self reliance and standing alone - or is an identity that looks outward to the world in collaboration?
Brexit has ignited the English nation to strive for their form of independence, and the Scottish Independence movement has seen them wrestle with their identity. With our own horrible, insecure hangups about our Irish identity, we wished to write a play that encapsulates all this.
Who are we? What do we want? Where are we going? ‘The Alternative’ is not a Brexit play, but it is our response to what happened a century ago on this island, what is happening right now, and what is about to happen.
We settled on counterfactual history as the way into ‘The Alternative’. When political events are so up in the air, and are so emotional and raw, writing about them directly can be difficult. By transplanting our play to an alternative timeline, we can talk about the big themes around Irishness, Brexit, independence, and unification - without touching directly on nerves, and hopefully making it easier for people to think constructively on these questions. And to have fun with it.
Our process began with a great deal of research. We spoke to a number of historians and consulted a range of books: Kevin Kenny’s ‘Ireland and the British Empire’, Diarmaid Ferriter’s “What If?: Alternative Views of Twentieth Century Ireland” and historical fiction such as Richard Harris’ “FATHERLAND”, which envisions a world where the Nazis won World War Two. To explore political satires set in TV studios, we watched all of Aaron Sorkin’s NEWSROOM and Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK. I’d highly recommend writing something where watching season after season of Aaron Sorkin shows counts as “research”.
Initially, we wrote together in the same room, but the nature of our jobs began to affect our process. Sometimes, we are up and down the country, and sometimes in different countries. For example, I was directing a feature documentary in Colombia, while Michael was working in Belfast, and when I was editing in Dublin, he was acting in Stratford with the RSC. We faced barriers of distance, and relied on skype, whatsapp, and working on shared Google Docs - which is not ideal when you’re looking for a secure wifi connection. We also felt that writing this play gave us space to indulge our imaginations and cross the borders between art-forms, writing and acting, theatre and documentary.
We created a world with its own logic, its own history, its own rules and boundaries. We had fun with history and our national origin stories to create characters with new identities. Many of the elements of this new world were distasteful to us. The whole of Ireland under the yoke of Empire?! A Union flag flying over the GPO?
But many things strangely seemed somewhat better. In our fictional world, there is and has never been a border on this island. No Troubles. A National Health Service for every Irish citizen? A history that lacked religious control and institutional child abuse? A country that had long protected cultural and language rights, recognised the rights of LGBTQ communities and women’s right to choice.
When you get lost in imagination, it’s important to come back to reality.
Michael and I came to see that in many ways, in our new fiction, Ireland as a whole within the UK might have been better off, as both North and South have suffered from the partition of 1921.
Let’s not forget, 100 years ago (when the alternative history timeline of the play diverges from our own)... it was a time of great political turmoil. Britain was in the throes of constitutional crisis, at the heart of which was the question of Irish Home Rule. This crisis was staved off only by a Great War and subsequent formation of the Irish Free State and the statelet of Northern Ireland. A line was drawn around six counties, and the two parts of Ireland embarked on two alternate but inextricably linked paths - both paths, I think many in this room today would acknowledge, were fraught with difficulty, and with cruelty.
In recent years, the physical and structural violence of the two Irelands was finally being recognised and addressed. The Good Friday Agreement in the North, and in the South, the emerging socially progressive politics that followed the death of the Celtic Tiger and recession. This island began a process of healing, from mistakes of 100 years previous. And today, that has been challenged yet again by decisions made outside this island, in the towns and villages of our neighbour, England.
Brexit has led us to what commentator Fintan O’Toole has called the “no-man’s land between vague patriotic fantasies and irritatingly persistent facts”... and perhaps the most irritating fact of all is that the issue of the border between the North and the South of Ireland, is a circle that cannot be squared.
This is the way we see it:
Britain cannot leave the EU Customs Union and retain the open border we currently have on this island. And if the UK led by a hard-brexiteer Prime Minister crashes out of the EU without some sort of a deal, a hard border is inevitable. Despite the backstop, and proclamations that it will never happen, the British government has not offered any solutions. The British Parliament cannot accept the special circumstances of the North and the British political establishment does not respect the Good Friday Agreement. The political tectonic plates of these islands are shifting, and against the will of the people of this island, against the will of most of the people of the North, Ireland will be in some fashion re-partitioned.
The events of 100 years ago repeat themselves. The psychological border of our nationality is being cracked open once more, another recession threatens, and a re-traumatisation which allows the ghosts of a dark yesteryear to become very real… To Irish border people, myself included, the border is invisible. It’s simply an imaginary line on a map, where lives and stories flow into one another, and people cross daily for work, family, love. So for us to be told that this imaginary border could become physicalised… By a customs post? A customs worker? Even a camera? That divides us against our will. It seeks to control how we think, to try to change how we perceive, because of British patriotic fantasies. Perhaps, these fantasies should be met with the power of Irish imagination.
So, although it’s only one small part of ‘The Alternative’, by conceiving of a world where the border never existed in Ireland, we can ask audiences to think about the border, its function and its future. When the mind is without borders, the world will follow suit. If art can erode the partition of the mind, then perhaps it can have a greater impact in reality, in time.
In writing ‘The Alternative’, we wish to question the border across this island specifically, but also any border between individuals, groups, communities, nations. Borders are artificial. They only really work if people on one side of the border accept they are different to those on the other side. A ‘them’ and an ‘us’. We think that stories which ask ‘what if?’ can be some of the most effective weapons in breaking down borders.
Writing a play, or creating any kind of art, is a revolt. It’s an expression of feeling, in the name of fresh perception, which tries to invent something new. Michael and I are just part of a greater context of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and all we’re trying to do is to look at things differently, to question through entertainment. We seek to create work that challenges what we see as arbitrary boundaries, something that looks at the confusion of our time, and reframes it in an alternative context. Hopefully that can allow audiences to entertain the thought: ‘what if’? What if things had happened differently? What if they could be different?
Imagination is the essential component of any progressive change, and this has been shown by many groups of determined people who are making this island a better place to live. Once we ask ‘what if?’, we might be able to envisage a world where our physical, conceptual and social borders are framed differently, where the goal-posts are shifted. And from there, we can ask ‘How to change things?’ And then ‘when is the best time to do it?’
Perhaps the creation of art can be used to cross borders. Perhaps artistic endeavours can be utilised to begin creating new meaning, new identities, maybe a new Irishness. Perhaps Imagination can take us forward to reframe our lives, our relationships, our borders, and our nation… to empower us to think about and create the type of place we wish to call home.
Thank you very much.