They say you have to suffer for your art but few have suffered as much as Gary Mitchell, the Belfast playwright who was the subject of a brutal campaign of intimidation by the people he wrote about – loyalist paramilitaries in the Rathcoole housing estate he used to call home.
It seems it isn’t just the native Irish who are given to begrudgery. Gary started getting critical acclaim for his work on radio first, then for his plays for the stage before heading towards the heady heights of network television drama. Gary’s portrayal of the grim reality of life in a soulless housing estate was talen a tad too personally by some UDA flunkies who thought drama was for “Taigs and poofs.”
Gary was becoming much too popular – his In A Little World of Our Own won The Irish Times Theatre Award for Best New Play in 1997, he won the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright and another of his Rathcoole plays, As The Beast Sleeps, was shown on the BBC network and he was writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
The UDA Award for Excellence in Drama was a vicious campaign of harassment, not just of Gary Mitchell but of his whole family, all of whom were forced out of their homes in which some of them had lived for half a century.
Finally, when his home was attacked in 2005, his car burned out, his wife and child terrified, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left Rathcoole to go into hiding.
Life might have changed for Gary Mitchell, but the passion for writing about what he knows best has never left him.
He has a new play opening up at the end of this month, Love Matters, which, somewhat bewilderingly to some, has been translated into Irish.
Set in a working-class loyalist housing estate, Big Ernie is due for release from prison – only to find t that his wife has begun an affair with the 18 year old son of the Detective that put him in prison and his own son isn’t quite the man he had hoped!
An internal feud between the Loyalists and the PSNI serves as an intriguing and tense backdrop to the universal themes of love and loyalty, trust and forgiveness.
When we met in the Board Room of the Cultúrlann in Belfast, I asked Gary if it was harder to write a play about loyalism and the loyalist community when he was no longer part of that community.
He took a sharp intake of breath as if the question had re-ignited the pain of his internal exile but quickly got round to answering the question.
“Actually, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be,” he says. “Being in that environment, I assumed wrongly that distance would mean I couldn’t write anything about it. But I was very wrong. Especially in that, what I have always tried to do is to include the universal themes in my plays which tries to say that my community isn’t stereotypically anything, there is no type that makes you a loyalist, but to try and say that we too have to cope with ordinary things as much as our closest neighbours and the rest of the world but there is something particular to us that is unique about us, that we believe in certain things.
“Leaving Rathcoole – although I’m not a million miles away, I can read the papers and watch the news – it’s the reality that I am really distant from and that hurts.”
However, Mitchell agrees that he has found a new sense of openness in the space between himself and his past life.
“Even hearing my plays in other languages, it opens you up. It makes you think about other things, and it makes you see yourself and your own community differently.” he says – though I’m sure he meant it in the first person.
Which brings us to Aisling Ghéar’s production of Love Matters which will be performed in Cultúrlann McAdam O Fiaich, in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and in The Project in Dublin’s Temple Bar.
It’s a bit of a surprise to hear that a man who has been called the John Le Carré of Ulster Loyalism is having a play produced in a language that would be an anathema to his peers He is surprised himself.
“Had you said to me when I was 16 that I was going to write a play that someone would translate into Irish, I would first of all say that I would have to have lawyers all over that, that I would have to have my own translator who would have to be an ex-UVF prisoner and I would have to have it translated secretly back into English,” he laughs.
“But that is another barrier that has been broken down on this journey that I’m on. I have to trust people and break down my own personal fear and paranoia over a language and over a people in control of that language. And the paranoia that comes with growing up in Rathcoole that says ‘you know what? They all could be mumbling Fuck the Prods, Fuck the Queen’ and I wouldn’t know.”
Now Gary knows there is poetry and song and the Irish of everyday life going on amongst those who cherish the language but he also has something to say about how Irish sounds to the untrained ear.
The original idea for a play in Irish was for Gary to hear for himself what the loyalist community would sound like in Irish and what it would be like to watch that.
“Because I heard my plays performed in German and in Hebrew and in other languages, I was struck by the difference in my emotional response to my own work.
“When you are watching a play you try to forget that you wrote it and you just try to experience it like an ordinary audience member. It’s easier to do because I didn’t write may play in German or in Hebrew and I came out with different feelings when I saw each production.
“That encouraged me to think, ‘What would that feeling be like if they were all speaking Irish? Would it be the same or would it be different?’ I have a feeling it would be totally different.
“When I listened to my play in German, it seemed to me that all the characters were angry and aggressive which is fairly normal for the loyalist play by me, most people have that reaction.
“But when I heard my play in Hebrew, it wasn’t aggressive at all. It didn’t come across as aggressive, the characters didn’t come across as violent, although they did retain that capacity, and it all seemed to come from fear and that gives you a totally different feeling to the forceful, violent language,” says Gary.
Love Matters in Irish, however, has given Gary a different feeling again, unlike the sound of German or Hebrew, unique of itself and sounding even playful or song-like or poetic.”
You can judge yourself how Love Matters sounds at:
Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on 29 Feb @ 8pm. Tkts: £8/£6 Tel: 028 9096 4180;
The Lyric Theatre, 2 Mar – 4 Mar @ 8 (4th Mar at 3) Ticéid/Tkts: £9.50 & £11 T: 028 9038 1081;
Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, 6-10th Mar @ 8 T: 01 881 9613 Tkts: €15 and €11
There will an after- show discussion after each performance EXCEPT 29th Feb and simultaneous translation will be available at all shows.