Saturday 24 July 2010

Mother and Child Reunion

I’ve been writing a play about Dr. Noel Browne, the controversial Minister for Health who brought down the Irish government back in 1951.
A strange subject, you might say, and hardly relevant. Oddly enough, the era is redolent with familiar catch cries such as “socialized medicine,” “powerful health lobbies,” and “separation of church and state.”
Ireland, to some degree, has come to terms with these issues but it’s a rare day they don’t make the news in this country.
However, let’s skip such thorny issues and deal with a more mercurial subject – playwriting; and, in particular, how do you write a play?
It’s a question that arises frequently, for it’s a rare person who doesn’t think they’ve got at least one play in them. And they’re probably right.
“Sure isn’t it all about words?”
Actually it’s more about cutting words and retaining only as many as will allow the actors to tell the story. That story, however, better be universal and deal in some substantive manner with the complexities of the human condition.
One more small item - you’ve got to furnish your actors with distinct and meaningful characters that stay true to the subject matter and times of the play.
So some sixty years later how am I supposed to portray Noel Browne and his era? Well, there are many books on the subject, and contemporaries of the good doctor still living. Yet you can read and ingest information until the cows come home but in the end you must be able to state the “spine” of any play in one active sentence.
In this case, “Noel Browne brought down the Irish government because his family suffered from Tuberculosis.” In essence, he was haunted by their deaths and vowed to eradicate a blight on the nation long accepted by church and state.
There are other resources one can turn to. Images are always helpful in coming to terms with time and place. Black and white photos from 1951 can instantly place you back amongst characters in belted overcoats, felt hats, and Brylcreamed “short back and sides.” Clothes indeed make the man – not to mention the woman.
But family is your trump card when it comes to playwriting. My mother, like many women of the time, had a great affection and respect for Noel Browne despite the invective hurled at him by political, religious and medical establishments.
He was handsome, of course, despite his own battles with tuberculosis, and a courtly man with impeccable manners. But their loyalty to him ran much deeper – he cared about the women of Ireland and was outraged by their second-class status in society. But most importantly, he was determined to reduce the shockingly high infant mortality rate.
There was so little money in Ireland back then; some of my more senior immigrant readers will knowingly nod their heads when recalling just how hard it was for small farmers to eke out a subsistence living. How fathers held on to farms to the bitter end reducing older sons to poverty while younger brothers and their sisters were forced to emigrate.
Such was the case with my own father, working long hours for my grandfather, a cattle dealer – never sure just how much he’d be doled out at the end of the week.
Noel Browne must have seemed like a savior to my mother. His Mother and Child Scheme promised free maternity care for all mothers and free healthcare for all children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of income.
It was not to be – the church and medical profession resented Browne’s encroachment on their territory; they opposed the scheme, it was withdrawn and Noel Browne resigned.
The books I’ve read on the subject are valuable in providing the facts of the matter; but the pictures of the protagonists in their belted coats or ecclesiastical finery, combined with the memory of a woman whose life could have been made so much easier, sustain me every day I face a blank page.
You do have your own play within you and similar resources to bring it to life. Get started now. You have all sorts of memories lying dormant and colorful characters only awaiting the call to strut across your stage.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Nancy of the Smiling Eyes

I am always amazed at the lack of commitment of liberals, left-wingers, commies or whatever you call them nowadays.
You know the scene: a group of people are discussing current affairs when into their midst barges Paddy MacGasbag gorged to the eyebrows on the half-truths, innuendoes and general balderdash spouted on confrontational talk-radio and television.
Whereupon, this apostle of Know-Nothingness proclaims, “Government sucks and the liar in the White House is wasting my taxes on bailouts. Guy ain’t even born in this country!”
Instead of lacerating this Limbaugh wannabe with a litany on the lines of, “Pardon me, Pádraig, but much the same was said about Alexander Hamilton. However government will eventually keep your sorry butt off the street with a guaranteed social security check, and I don’t give a fiddler’s if the President hails from Ballydehob, the dude just soaked 20 billion out of BP and guaranteed every child in this country proper health care.”
Alas, rarely is such a riposte offered – usually an embarrassed silence descends as sundry liberals, left-wingers or plain old commies shuffle off with their tails between their legs.
Nancy Benedict-Murphy would have stood her ground. She’d have been a good deal more polite and factual, but Mister MacGasbag would think twice before ever again making such a grand entrance.
Then again Nancy never backed off from any challenge be it the crippling effects of Parkinson’s Disease, or her ongoing fight for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged.
She passed away last month but this community activist and union organizer will long be remembered the length and breadth of Connecticut and further afield too.
I have particular reason to be grateful to Nancy. Back in the glory days of the Bush imperium when the country allowed itself to be steamrolled into the Iraq War, Nancy would roll her wheelchair up to the stage at various Black 47 concerts.
We had written some songs – mostly from the troops’ point of view - about the waste of lives and energy caused by this unnecessary foreign adventure. The barstool patriots were outraged and not shy about venting their feelings. Liberals, left-wingers and commies, for the most part, chose the high ground and waited for better weather.
Not Nancy of the smiling eyes. Wherever the battle was, you could be sure she was in the thick of it. Though the Parkinson’s may have taken its toll, it never dimmed those eyes and their commitment to support the causes dear to her heart.
To my regret I knew little about the others aspects of her life – her intense love of nature and her delight in her gardens in the Connecticut countryside – but I could tell from those eyes that she had a wicked sense of humor and an inner peace despite the physical hardships visited upon her.
There are two powerful strands in the American character – the rugged individualist and the lover of community. The country suffers when these are out of whack, usually the case whenever the patriot game is shamelessly manipulated by politicians, or when greed is glorified as the be all and end all.
Nancy was a person truly in balance. She believed implicitly in the rights of the individual but, like James Connolly and Bobby Kennedy, she also felt that democracy was more than just about having a vote – it implies the right to economic and social justice, and above all that everyone is entitled to decent and affordable health care.
Many feel likewise but not everyone takes the time and trouble to ensure that the less fortunate get a hand up the first rungs of the ladder of opportunity. That was Nancy’s mission and she went about it with such dignity.
And how she inspired those around her – particularly the many idealistic young women who seek to make our society a more equal and compassionate place. They will be her ongoing testament as they introduce the Paddy MacGasbags of the world to logic – and manners.
As for me, I’ll always have the memory of that woman in the wheelchair edging up to the front of the stage back in those unsettling days when it was considered unpatriotic to raise your voice about the misdirection of the country.
But most of all, I’ll remember Nancy’s eyes and the sheer joy they gave to all those lucky enough to have known her.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

At last an apology

They finally apologized. You had to wonder why it took so bloody long? After all the years of stonewalling the young prime minister stood up and, with grace and humility, admitted the obvious - that the murdered in Derry on Bloody Sunday had been guilty of nothing more than exercising their basic right to protest a shameful sectarian government.
“When England remembers and Ireland forgets,” my grandfather used to murmur, “that’s when the problems up North will be settled.”
Cameron’s statement was a momentous event, though in many ways bittersweet, for the grainy images of the murdered summoned up not only that horrible day in 1972 but the tumultuous years that followed.
Oddly enough, a line from Scripture came to mind, “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I had first noticed it on a cassette tape of sermons by Rev. Ian Paisley – and had pirated the preacher’s voice for an instrumental coda to Black 47’s Fanatic Heart.
How strange to think that this bigot has been a backdrop to so much of my life. And yet he is now a conciliatory force; indeed, many are nostalgic for the days when he and Martin McGuinness, a one-time leader of the Provisional IRA, jointly led a power sharing government.
Who would have even imagined such a coupling on January 30, 1972? But things do change, if glacially. Yeats, as ever, nailed it: “peace comes dropping slow.”
The British had so many opportunities to initiate a just settlement in the North of Ireland. What held their hand?
Was it that empire must never be proved wrong? Having changed the ground rules in 1921 and set up an artificial statelet, did they feel they would lose face by admitting that they had sacrificed a half million nationalists to the jack-booted mercies of their unionist masters?
Those innocent people back in Derry were protesting a cesspool of gerrymandered sectarianism - easy enough to forget now. When the smoke cleared that day the non-violent Northern Ireland civil rights movement had been swept aside. Terrible things would be done in the next sixteen years. Thousands died or were maimed.
It need not have happened had Prime Minister Ted Heath the moral courage to state the obvious. But better late than never and this apology may provide mortar to bind the bricks of the new foundation laid at the signing of the Peace Settlement of 1998.
Many Irish-American activists have backed off since then. Some were fatigued, others confident that those on the ground in the North finally had a democratic framework to work within. I was never less than amazed at their commitment down all those violent years.
They were often laughed at and despised by media and establishment but what matter – they had seen the grainy images from 1972 and resolved that a better Ireland could be created where freedom and justice went hand in hand.
They had few victories and many defeats - the death of Bobby Sands MP and the deportation of Joe Doherty spring to mind – but there was little despair, just a stubborn resolve to keep eyes on the prize.
It was often sad to see old comrades turn on each other after the Peace Settlement – of course it’s always easier be unified on what you’re against than what you’re for. Movements – and, indeed, life itself – tend to balance on an uneasy fulcrum of pragmatism and idealism. Perhaps this apology will help heal some wounds and enable old comrades to explore friendship again.
One way or the other, on June 15, 2010, Britain finally remembered. Given time Ireland will forget and that new foundation will strengthen and hold.