Liam Harte explains how his research into the Irish in Britain became the basis for a new play, which has just opened.
The Irish Government published in March the country’s first official policy on diaspora issues. Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy runs to 57 pages and is informed by over 130 submissions provided by organisations and individuals as part of a wide-ranging policy review. Characterising Ireland’s global diaspora as “both an asset and a responsibility”, the document outlines the key ways in which the Government aims to connect with Irish emigrants worldwide and foster two-way engagement.
The chief emphases in the policy are on supporting those who have left Ireland; connecting with emigrants and their descendants in an inclusive way; facilitating a range of activities at local, national and international level; and recognising the wide variety of people who make up the diaspora and their ongoing contribution to the shaping of the country’s development and identity.
Alongside the prioritisation of emigrants’ welfare needs, Global Irish acknowledges the importance of arts and cultural events in maintaining and strengthening links between the homeland and the diaspora. But while attention is paid to the ways in which the Irish language, literature, music and dance, the visual arts and sport are supported by Government funding, there is no mention of theatre or drama.
This omission strikes me as odd for two reasons. The first is because Irish theatre has been a global phenomenon since the 18th century, and a successful one at that. Long before W.B Yeats and James Joyce became international 20th century superstars, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedies were captivating London audiences in the 1770s and Dion Boucicault’s Irish melodramas were phenomenally popular with 19th century British and American audiences.
The second reason relates to a current project of mine, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, which purposefully harnesses the capacity of research-based drama to engage the British and Irish public on social and cultural issues of sharp contemporary relevance.
My English Tongue, My Irish Heart is a two-act play, written and directed by Belfast dramatist Martin Lynch, based on the research findings in my 2009 study, The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001. The play is currently on a tour of arts and community centres in Ireland and the UK, culminating in a three night run at the London Irish Centre in Camden Town on 29, 30 and 31 May.
The play tells the story of Irish emigration to England through the generations, exploring the perplexities of living with, and between, two worlds. Featuring a cast of five, it centres on Gary and Susan, a young, educated Irish couple who, after some time living together in Dublin, decide to emigrate to Manchester. There they encounter not only the universal challenges of finding employment and settling into a new environment, but also a set of acute dilemmas to do with issues of family and nation, identity and belonging, which are much harder to negotiate.
Throughout the play, the experiences of Gary and Susan are juxtaposed with those of earlier Irish immigrants, specifically those who left autobiographical accounts of their lives in Britain. And so we hear from an eclectic mix of historical characters – lawyers, labourers, journalists, politicians, pickpockets – whose first-person testimonies, drawn from my book, provide an oblique commentary on the two central protagonists.
The impetus behind this project is my desire to connect my research with audiences beyond academia, including those people and communities my research is about, so as to prompt them to reflect more deeply on the nature, meaning and effects of migration, both historically and in the present. This is why Martin and I decided to tour the play to counties along Ireland’s western seaboard – Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Kerry – that have known emigration for centuries, before taking it to two English cities, Manchester and London, with long-established Irish-born and Irish-descended populations.
As part of the project’s commitment to social responsibility and community outreach, some of the proceeds of the play tour will be donated to two emigrant welfare charities, the London-based Aisling Return to Ireland Project and the Safe Home Programme in County Mayo .
I also wanted to explore with Martin the capacity of research-based drama to deepen understandings of the lived experience of Irish migrants in Britain at different times and places, while also allowing him the artistic freedom to respond creatively to the testimonies in my book.
Research-based theatre is usually associated with research in the social and medical sciences, where it is often credited with engendering new layers of audience engagement. Might the same be true if this theatrical subgenre was used to recast the outcomes of humanities research in dramatic form? To what extent is such research amenable to theatrical rendition? Can it offer an alternative, more vivid way of presenting non-academic audiences with socially relevant knowledge? After a year of collaborative activity with Martin, I do not yet have clear-cut answers to such questions, but I do know that my thinking has been greatly challenged and enriched by our collaboration.
Academics like me often reach for the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ to describe what happens when we take part in conversations outside our discipline or area of expertise. More often than not, however, these conversations are carried on within the familiar precincts of the university and do little to disturb established hierarchies of knowledge. I now understand better than I did before that when these institutional barriers are breached a more genuine kind of interaction can take place between those on either side of the campus boundary.
The dialogue I have had with Martin over this past year has been of a grittier, less cut-and-dried kind than that which I am used to having with my academic peers. As a result, it has opened my mind to different ways of structuring and representing my research to a much broader audience.