Guest Blog: Seamus Finnegan On I AM OF IRELAND
'I am of Ireland
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,' cried she.
'Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.'
(W. B. Yeats)
I was born in Belfast into a Roman Catholic family. As a child, we lived in a 'mixed area'. I played football with 'Derek', except around the 12th of July, when his mother forbade him to play with the 'wee Fenian'. I knew it had something to do with the Union Jack that flew from their front bedroom window.
I was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers. Gerry Adams, former President of Sinn Fein, attended the same school as me and we were in the same year. When the Troubles broke out, I joined the Civil Rights Movement and the People's Democracy - a student-led, left-wing group whose most famous member was Bernadette McAliskey, nee Devlin, the youngest woman to be elected to the Parliament of Westminster in 1969. I stuffed election leaflets into envelopes during the campaign for her election!
In 1971, the year of internment, I left Belfast to study English, Drama and Education in Manchester. Upon qualifying as a teacher, I moved to London where I taught English at the Jews' Free School in Camden Town.
In 1980, I had my first major play, Act of Union, produced in London at the Soho Poly Theatre, aided by the then Literary Manager, Bill Ash - a Texan, a Second World War hero, and a Communist. The play was directed by Julia Pascal, who subsequently directed all of the Troubles plays in my first published volume North.
Now, over 30 years after the first production of Act of Union, I Am Of Ireland is about to be staged at the Old Red Lion Theatre. It's also almost 50 years since the first Civil Rights march in Derry - the march that saw protesters beaten and clubbed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and brought to the world's attention the political quagmire that was/is the statelet of Northern Ireland.
This new play asks, after 30 years of war and 20 years of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, what is the state of that "Holy Land of Ireland" referred to in Yeats's poem where "time runs on"? "Changed. Changed utterly"?
Changed. And not changed?
The Roman Catholic Church, some say, no longer has the power and influence it once had. Plagued by scandal, there seems to be a defensiveness and confusion amongst the ranks of those who were once the moral arbiters for many. A ' loss of religious faith', a spiritual chaos, seems to roam amidst the 32 counties of modern consumerist Ireland.
The Republican Movement, who aimed for a United Ireland, have failed, with the result a disillusionment and frustration amongst the public. Do the bones of Bobby Sands, the first Hunger Striker to die, cry out in agony from Milltown Cemetery at the political machinations and betrayal of some leaders?
Are the Unionists/Loyalists on a path to self-destruction, or does the Lambeg drum beat loudly in Downing Street with Mrs May beholden to the DUP in her fight for survival and her seeming desire to return to a 'Little Englander' mentality?
Do the immigrants encounter a "cead mile failte" or "hundred thousand welcomes" in the new Ireland, or does racism and hate prevail in this bastion of one-time Christian civilisation, where Irish monks decorated the sacred scripts of Europe?
And what of the Diaspora, the exiles? Those, like me, who have lived most of their years out of Ireland. Some, like me, residing in the capital city of the 'old enemy'. Who are they? What identity do they have? Can they still call themselves Irish? How are they perceived by those that stayed in the 'old country'?
I Am of Ireland is a 'state of the nation' play that addresses these contemporary themes.