‘Home? Aren’t we there already?’
This is the first year, since the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, that Maura has wanted her family to march proudly through the streets on St Patrick’s Day. With her husband’s health failing and her two adult children continually arguing, she dreams of returning to her beloved homeland. But will Ireland be her saviour or her ruin?
“The pleasure in O'Reilly's play is in ... the easy, generous flow of the writing, with its mixtures of wit and singing lyricism …” (The Guardian, 2000)
“Kaite O'Reilly's razor sharp drama ... is a riveting piece of social history as well as a shrewdly observed portrait of two generations ... words tumble and chase each other ... and the close-up sparring matches are so real as to seem documentary at times ... deliciously comic moments ...” (The Stage, 2000)
“… created with great warmth, humour and compassion. The plays's wit, lyricism and sudden, unexpected moments of poignancy give as much food for the heart as for the head..” (The Irish Post, 2000)
Notes when writing Belonging
In this age of fast and cheap air travel, the ‘global village’ and multi-cultural societies – is the issue of ‘belonging’ to any one place outdated? Why does immigration, for some, still feel like exile? Can you feel homesick for a place you’ve never lived?
These and other questions confronted me when I chose to write about the complex relationship between the English West Midlands and its Irish community.
Growing up Irish in Birmingham in the 1970’s was a formative and defining experience. I’m sure like many immigrants from other parts of the world I was constantly aware of my duality – English in Ireland and Irish in England – yet this identity was further complicated by the effects of the 1974 IRA bombing campaign, when a war was carried out – literally – on our doorstop.
In Belonging I wanted to explore our diverse and sometimes troubled shared history and to celebrate a city and its people as we grow into the twenty-first century together.
Kaite O'Reilly. September 2000, Programme notes
30th of November 2000
The Rep, Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company
Director: Anthony Clark
Writer: Kaite O'Reilly
Designer: Rachel Blues
Cast: James Hayes, Niamh Linehan, Iain McKee, Jacqui O'Hanlon, John O'Mahoney
REVIEWS IN FULL
The Guardian, Lyn Gardner
Plays about the Irish experience of emigration and exile have become so common that they are almost a sub-genre in Irish playwriting studies. Kaite O’Reilly’s play is a rarity in that it comes at the question from a different perspective and from the other side of the Irish Sea.
Or more precisely Birmingham. Here, more than 20 years ago, came young Fergal and his bride Maura, part of the great haemorrhage of Irish emigration that build the city and the roads after the war. As one of the characters says: “Spaghetti Junction – that’s a great Irish work. Forget about fucking Ulysses.”
Then came the Birmingham pub bombings, and to be Irish was to be reviled and spat at in the street. Maura kept head down and spent pounds on elocution lessons to ensure grew up sounding as if they came from nowhere.
But now Aine has reinvented herself as a professional Irish woman, working as an oral historian and colonising the memories of Irish emigrants, Seaneen doesn’t give a damn about Ireland and thinks of himself as a European, and Fergal is dying. Maura decides that it is time to go back home to the farm where she was born. But first she wants to walk through the streets of Birmingham with her head held high on St. Patrick’s Day parade.
This is a little play, but a really lovely one. It deals in clichés but often makes them seem new-minted. You never mind for a moment that the characters have paint-by-numbers attitudes carefully designed to create maximum dramatic conflict, that the plotting is obviously from a mile off, or even that there is a classic stage Irishman. The pleasure of O’Reilly’s play is in the way she revels in these clichés, celebrates them and subverts them. It is also in the writing, with its mixture of wit and singing lyricism.
O’Reilly loves these people and sends them up rotten at the same time, just as she sends up the audience’s preconceptions and prejudices about what it means to be Irish.
Rachel Blue’s design, dominated by a grainy torn photo of the Irish landscape, cleverly unites a play that takes place in the real world and in the mind, in individual experience and the collective unconscious, both now and then.
The Irish Post Steve Hennessy
Steve Hennessy catches the premiere of Kaite O'Reilly's new play 'Belonging' at the Birmingham Rep and finds himself feeling where he belongs.
Never has the range of identities which individuals and communities have assumed in the Irish diaspora been more diverse. And recently, the debate about what it means to be Irish has raged more fiercely than ever in the pages of the 'Irish Post'. Anyone with even a passing interest in the question could not fail to be gripped by Kaite O'Reilly's new play. Set on the eve of the first St. Patrick' s Day Parade to take place in Birmingham since the pub bombings, the play uses one family to explore the complex and problematic relationship with national identity of first and second generation Irish people living in England.
Fault lines run right down the middle of the family. Mother dreams only of returning home, father thinks home is here. Their son refuses to engage with questions of Irishness and Englishness, preferring to call himself European while the daughter works earnestly away on an oral history project with Irish immigrants to preserve their stories and explore her
own identity. Kaite O'Reilly wisely takes no fixed position in the debate, but her play poses the questions beautifully, presenting us with a perfectly drawn map of the territory that so many of us have to negotiate. But 'Belonging' is far more than an 'issues' play. The characters are sharply created with great warmth, humour and compassion. The play’s wit, lyricism and sudden, unexpected moments of poignancy give as much food for the heart as for the head.
Add to these an excellent production with a clutch of strong performances from all six actors and it's a winning formula, whether you're Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Manchester or plain old Irish. Or you just happen to have a love of good theatre.
The intimacy of the Door Studio space at the Rep adds to the intensity of Kaite O'Reilly's razor sharp drama about an Irish family in Birmingham, part of the sixties tidal wave that built the city. It is a riveting piece of social history as well as a shrewdly observed portrait of two generations, and uses the device of a wry and omnipresent Speaker to comment and interpret and expand.
Maura longs for rural life back in Ireland, ever more romanticised in her imagination, and encapsulated in the prospect of the first St Patrick's Day parade since the shame of Birmingham's pub bombings. Her husband, Fergal, is dying by inches; her daughter, Aine, has reinvented herself as a professional Irishwoman; her son, Seaneen, is a world citizen and roundly rejects his Irish roots.
Words tumble and chase each other from Eileen Pollock's taut and uptight Maura. She has a lived - in face that cries bitterness in every pore and a poignancy that hurts. whether she is handling tacky souvenirs or cooking a breakfast Fergal cannot face. John O'Mahony gives an almost unbearably credible performance as the crippled Fergal, and the close - up sparring matches between Jacqui O'Hanlon as Aine and lain McKee as Seaneen are so real as to seem documentary at times.
Anthony Clark's direction produces deliciously comic moments like a synchronised drawing on cigarettes, and the Speaker's role lends mischief. Rachel Blues'
sepia, Emerald Isle backcloth of crofts and fields has rips and tears in the fabric - a potent symbol of disintegration and the collapse of dreams.
Birmingham Evening Mail
THE Door, the Rep's studio theatre, ends the year as it began - with the unveiling of yet another new, challenging play, superbly staged by Anthony Clark.
This time it is a drama set in Birmingham and written by someone raised in the city. The theme though is Irish. Kaite O'Reilly was raised in the Birmingham of the 70s and she sets her scene on the eve of the first St Patrick's Day Parade in the city since the infamous pub bombings.
It is a moving drama, inevitably drawn to tragedy yet never without its humour. The author presents us with an Irish-Birmingham family where the father (John O'Mahony), once a womanising, drunkard, is now stroke- bound. His wife (Eileen Pollock) yearns to take him on the parade with the rest of the family as a final gesture before going back to live in Ireland.
There is rebellion: the son (Iain McKee) has a Brummie accent and wants nothing to do with Ireland and the daughter (Jacqui O'Hanlon) was sent to elocution classes to lose her Irish accent but now defiantly affects one.
And, as in classic Irish drama, in comes a larger-than-life character (James Hayes) to demolish all dreams. Except director Anthony Clark's that is. He has had a dream year.
Buy Belonging at amazon.co.uk
Photos by Tristam Kurton