I’m looking back at my year in Ireland from a distance of four months and more than 4,000 miles. My friends from the master’s program at NUIG finally celebrated our graduation at the end of November, an event I could enjoy only vicariously, through photos and social media. So this is a good time to take stock and reflect. Items on my Ireland to-do list havs been crossed off, vigorously:
- Make friends (I knew I’d like the other Mitchell Scholars. I just didn’t know how much.)
- Travel (though I never made it to Dingle or the Ring of Kerry. How soon can I come back?)
- Study another language (if only a cúpla focal—a couple of words)
- Perform in another country (unexpectedly, in Portuguese)
- Write and publish something (see “You Had To Be There: Irish Theatre in 2011,” in this fall’s issue of the New Hibernia Review)
- Do some good (see Theatre of Witness at the Derry Playhouse)
- And have some fun (see Galway, city of).
And I have new lists: penpals to keep up with, soda bread recipes to try, plays I want to direct here in the US. But when I look back, what I remember most clearly is not my own accomplishments, nor my new goals, but the hospitality of the Irish people. From chance acquaintances offering flashlights, umbrellas, and 5 a.m. lifts to the airport (just don’t call it a “ride” — that means something very different), to the incredible bounty of activities we enjoyed during our Mitchell Scholar commencement weekend in May, my year was suffused with generosity.
My time in Derry/Londonderry during a short internship toward the end of my Mitchell year was no exception. Pauline Ross at Derry Playhouse welcomed me into her theater; Teya Sepinuck welcomed me into her Theatre of Witness project; and the Birthistle family welcomed me into their beautiful home, where they housed and fed and entertained me for the three weeks of my internship. I learned so much about the history and hopes of the city through their guidance and in my work for Theatre of Witness, a storytelling/documentary drama project that provides a forum for marginalized voices. In Northern Ireland, Teya works with people involved in and affected by the Troubles. The result is tremendously powerful, for both performers and audience.
This summer the participants were men coming to terms with the legacy of their past: two ex-prisoners, a former RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) detective, a former British soldier, a former prison governor, and a man who had lived through a car bomb as a child. They told their life stories to Teya, who developed a script, and they all collaborated on the staging, crossing borders drawn by sectarianism, violence, torture, and betrayal. They performed and toured the resulting piece, Release, this fall. I am awed by the generosity and courage of the participant-performers in both Release and other Theatre of Witness performances.
Teya’s assistant, Emma Stuart, treated me to a road trip adventure around the Inishowen Peninsula. We crossed the border into Donegal, trading stories of emigration and travel and places that feel like home, rounding a tight bend and driving up against hedges to let local farmers’ trucks pass, inching down a steep incline to collect seaweed from a sandy beach strewn with boulders, and approaching the most northerly point of Ireland: Malin Head.
There we discovered the most northerly garden, and the only thatched conservatory on the island, in a picture-perfect white-washed red-trimmed cottage. We couldn’t take our eyes off that house, so we pulled over and poked our heads in through the open door, pretending that we thought it was a shop. (We knew it wasn’t a shop.) Out popped the owner. Dermot was delighted by our interest in his 200-year-old cottage. He treated us to juice, gave us a tour, and regaled us with some history and folklore.
Dermot was on his way back to Belfast. He invited us to spend the night in the cottage in his absence. Though we declined gratefully, we got to talking about Theatre of Witness—and lo and behold, Dermot revealed that he was the parish priest of Lisburn, responsible for 14,000 parishioners. He wanted to bring the show to his town and his people, and he had a brand-new performing hall. What were the odds? Only in Ireland. Thanks, Father Dermot.