Friday, 14 April 2017

Rebel in the Soul


On April 11th, 1951, Dr. Noel Browne, Minister for Health, resigned from the first coalition government, and a new Ireland was born. 

His decision had far reaching consequences. The most important was that church and state would begin to separate and the nascent Republic of Ireland would set out on a long painful journey that would eventually lead to an independent civil society.

Within weeks the coalition government fell and in the subsequent election √Čamonn de Valera and his Fianna Fail party were returned to power. Sean MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta party was decimated, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, de facto leader of the Irish Catholic Church, would soon be seen in a new light.

Hopefully, you can find out how this all came to pass at The Irish Repertory Theatre when my play, Rebel in the Soul, begins previews April 12th with opening night April 18th.

The story has always fascinated me, probably because the three main characters, Browne, MacBride, and McQuaid were such interesting figures; it’s hardly surprising that each gave a somewhat different account of how the events in question came to pass.

It’s been a thrill to watch Patrick Fitzgerald, Sean Gormley, and John Keating bring these characters back to life. In many ways we see the events unfold through the eyes of Browne’s wife, Phyllis, played by Sarah Street; Mrs. Browne was a singular person herself for she knowingly married a man with Tuberculosis. Talk about love and commitment!

I hasten to add that this is a play, not a documentary. Playwrights can go places that the narrators of mere facts cannot. We can explore character and act on strong supposition, or even hunches. 

And what characters! You couldn’t invent Browne’s life and trajectory. His parents both died of Tuberculosis, the dreaded “silent death” leaving him orphaned and penniless on the streets of London at the age of 10. 

From out of the blue he was granted a full scholarship to a prestigious Catholic Prep school, and eventually returned to Ireland as a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. He became a medical doctor with the one goal of eradicating Tuberculosis; elected to parliament, on his first day he was made Minister for Health.

Sean MacBride was the son of Maude Gonne - muse of Yeats - and Capt. John MacBride - 1916 martyr. At his birth, his mother declared him “a man of destiny.” And he surely was. A confidant of Michael Collins in his mid-teens, he became IRA Chief of Staff, founded Clann na Poblachta, arguably the most promising Irish political party; and after his political career imploded he helped found Amnesty International and introduced the MacBride Principles that did so much to outlaw sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

And what of John Charles – so powerful and ubiquitous was he in Irish life that he had little need of a surname or title. Nowadays it’s often hard to appreciate the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland up until the 1970’s or just how completely this complicated man micro-managed the country’s political, social, and cultural affairs.

Volumes have been written about Archbishop McQuaid and, yet, he usually emerges as an ecclesiastical ogre, instead of a solitary man of his times and position. An obsessive-compulsive, he had a deep love of poetry and, indeed, was an unlikely patron of the hard-drinking, obstreperous poet, Patrick Kavanagh.

Did anyone ever know Sean MacBride? Such an extraordinary and admirable man, and an Irish-American icon, he was not at his best during the 1951 crisis. Then again, which of us is in the eternal battle between principle and pragmatism. There’s a haunted quality to MacBride’s gaze that’s hard to ignore in most portraits.

And Browne? He eradicated the scourge of Tuberculosis from Ireland and demanded free comprehensive health coverage for pregnant women and children up to the age of 16. But was ever a man so unsuited to the game of politics.

The US is still wrestling with the issue of decent health care for all its citizens. Perhaps, we’re in need of an iconoclastic Noel Browne who was willing to risk all for his goals back in 1951.   

Rebel in the Soul, written by Larry Kirwan, directed by Charlotte Moore, at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC 10011, April 12-May 21, irishrep.org – 212.727.2737
$20 off preview performances April 12-17 with Code PREVIEW
$10 off all performances using Code EARLY (expires 4/18/2017)

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dispossessed Generation


I’ve travelled this country for many years in awe of its beauty and sheer size. 

I admire its self-sufficiency, the way it picked itself up after the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the attack on 9/11. 

There’s a resiliency and a willingness to roll up the sleeves at the worst of times, and an openness and generosity of spirit that emerges when things get better. 

But there’s a new element swirling about in the hinterland – despair. I see it in the faces of the many opioid abusers. They were a mystery to me at first – I could tell they were junkies, but they differed from the fevered smack heads of the East Village.

Opioid users tend to be more passive, perhaps because they have much more access to their drugs of choice, many of which are prescription painkillers. Debilitating these drugs may be but they seem to be keeping a lid on the almost existential pain that you sense in so many economically depressed areas. 

This despair has become more pointed over the years. I first noticed it soon after the attack on the World Trade Center. Did the sudden loss of American invincibility cause the change? 

Still, New York City suffered more than anywhere else and yet I don’t sense the same debilitating angst in the five boroughs. But head 75 miles in any direction out into the country and it begins to hit you. Despite longstanding urban poverty, I suppose cities breed more opportunities.

I have little doubt but that the Great Recession of 2008 opened the floodgates of despair. People who had always treasured job security were shocked by the fragility of the American economic system. It suddenly became crystal clear just how much more their corporate superiors cared about the financial bottom line than the loyalty of employees.

But the collapse of 2008 only hastened what was already afoot. Out in the Rust and Coal Belts, 21st Century technology had for years been replacing jobs that paid $25 per hour. Meanwhile, standbys like the great service employers, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, rarely pay more than an entry level $9.   
   
Is there any wonder there’s a curdling despair rampant across the country? And now instead of getting people to face up to the fact that we are in a time of great and inexorable economic change, we have a president who is promising a return to the good old days.

What’s staggering is that many people believe him, even as his party is busy trying to demolish the Affordable Care Act one of the few meaningful safety nets for this dispossessed generation. 

Many others are convinced that the president hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of turning things around, but at least he’s “shaking things up” and “draining the swamp” – even as Goldman Sachs dominates his cabinet. 

What unifies these people is that they have no faith in the Democratic Party, once the defender of the working class.

Nor do they trust the federal government to do anything for them. And yet who else is there? Surely not their erstwhile corporate masters who have little interest in anything but the bottom line.

And yet the federal government is the only entity with enough power – or interest - to form a coalition with corporations and begin to educate workers for the new economy, as has been happening in Germany for years. 

This won’t solve the whole problem. But it could help current high school graduates gain work-study apprenticeships in the new 21st Century factories that are rapidly becoming the norm.  Unfortunately, these modern work sites will be mostly automated and employ few - though pay will be good. 

And what of the rest? Many will be forced to work in service industries, which is why it’s vital that a national minimum wage provides a livable income.

It all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but it beats the dishonest promises of bringing back jobs that have gone forever.

And what of the opioid users? Well, Obamacare, for all its defects, offered rehabilitation opportunities for those who wished to kick the habit. Trumpcare - if it ever materializes - will provide none. 

And so, the president’s hollow promises will continue to echo in the shuttered factories of the hinterland as a despairing, hollow-eyed generation shuffles by.