My play, Traitors, Cads & Cowards, part of In the Shadow or In the Shadow Festival, centres around an Irishman held in Wandsworth Prison. By strangle coincidence my last play, Your Ever Loving also staged in London this year, was also about an Irishman held in Wandsworth Prison.
Both stories are based on real events. Both make liberal use of the testimony of real people. And both involve Irishmen who could quite easily have been executed by the Crown for perceived acts of treason and terrorism.
And although it was never my intention, these two very different plays – stories set sixty years apart – seem now to me like bookend pieces.
The name of this new London Irish festival is inspired by a quote from the Irish President and poet Michael D. Higgins. He was trying to grasp at the relationship between two small blocks of neighbouring land mass whose histories and people are meshed into each other’s DNA and yet remain stubbornly, defiantly, apart:
“Ireland and Britain live both in the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history.
That complexity – that shadow and shelter thing – is no better exemplified than by Ireland’s greatest and longest running export to its near neighbour – its people.
The festival’s plays tell stories of people who came across a patch of sea to escape poverty, or destructive religious hypocrisy or arranged marriages, or fight fascists when DE Valera’s Ireland opted to remain neutral.
And then in Anna May Mangan’s Women’s Work, there’s Nora, a long time emigrant who’s forgotten she’s Irish.
These are all people whose relationship with the land they left is as complex and difficult for themselves to comprehend as their relationship with the place they landed up in.
In Traitors, Liam McEnroe, a volunteer in the 1916 Easter Rising, is brought to Wandsworth to face interrogation before the Sankey Committee.
This is an Irish rebel trying to violently overthrow British rule in Ireland whose brother was recently killed in Belgium wearing a British army uniform.
Liam is an invented character but his situation was not that rare. My script relies heavily on transcripts from interviews with Irish rebels interrogated by Sankay which were discovered and generously shared with me by the English academic Doctor Geoff Bell.
Liam is bunked in with an English deserter and a conscientious objector and together they struggle towards grasping at a humanity that is larger than nationalism or nationality.
In Your Ever Loving, the migrant is a young Belfast lad called Paul Hill who arrived in London in the 1970s looking to escape ‘The Troubles’ back home, pick up building work and feed his obsessions with rock music, Arsenal football club and soft recreational drugs.
Paul was not an invented character. He was one of the Guildford Four who would be locked up in Wandsworth and scores of other British prisons for 15 years after being tortured into making confessions to murders they did not commit.
The play makes heavy use of Paul Hill’s letters home to his family from prison cells. Again I had to rely on the generous spirit of another writer Tony Murray, who is a lecturer at the London Metropolitan University and in charge of the university’s Irish in Britain archive which Paul donated the letters to after his release.
At that play’s end we meet the Paul of today, older, greyer, wiser, living in Washington DC and quietly despairing of smug, overbearing politicians who support the torture techniques used on him being brought to bear on suspects in a different, newer war on terror.
That, I think, is the thing I most want people to take away from this inaugural In The Shadow or In The Shelter Festival.
These are all stories of a specific people leaving their place of birth to go to another specific place. I believe it is important to tell these stories. As someone whose parents both made this journey I am a product of these stories. But there is also a universality to the plays, a search for greater, wider truth.
Perhaps it is that we are all, every one of us, in the shadow and in the shelter of each other.
Traitors, Cads and Cowards is performed as part of a double bill at the Lion and The Unicorn on 10th, 12th (matinee) and 14th October. Then at the Colour House Theatre, Merton Abbey Mills, London SW19 on 21st October