Ireland’s Most Under-Rated Dramatist?

I was in Belfast last week to launch our new academy with Druid Theatre, and while there I was lucky to be given a copy of a publication that will be really exciting for anyone who’s interested in Irish drama: the first collected edition of the plays of Owen McCafferty.

McCafferty has been writing brilliant plays for nearly two decades now. They are appreciated in Northern Ireland and are also quite well known in London. And they have been produced internationally too. But he’s not very well  known in the Republic of Ireland, and it has always surprised me that he’s not as appreciated as his peers – McPherson, O’Rowe, Carr, McDonagh, etc.

In terms of formal variety, technical accomplishment, linguistic control, plot and characterisation, McCafferty’s plays are at least as good as any of the more famous Irish plays of the last 15 years or so. Yet I rarely hear of them being staged by amateur theatres, and don’t often hear him being referred to in academic conferences either. That needs to change, and this book will help to do that.

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It features five plays, all of them excellent in different ways. It opens with a short piece called The Waiting Line before moving to Shoot the Crow (originally produced by Druid, where it was directed by David Parnell – now in charge of theatre at the Arts Council). It then moves to Mojo Mickeybo, a play that originally appeared at Andrew’s Lane and which perhaps was neglected because it appeared at a time when there were similar monologue or direct address plays like Howie the Rookie and Disco Pigs. Closing Time appeared at the Dublin Theatre Festival about 12 years ago, and is one of the great Irish ‘pub’ plays, comparable to The Weir and Conversations in a Homecoming for its exploration of alcohol and the passage of time.

Finally, there is the play Scenes from the Big Picture, which some readers will already know inspired the title of this blog. I’d view Scenes as one of the best plays to have come from Ireland since the turn of the century. It gives us an almost Joycean view on the life of Belfast in the post-GFA environment, featuring a range of brilliantly drawn characters. It premiered in London, and has since been staged at the Lyric in a  production directed by Conal Morrison (I think). I’d love to see it appearing in the Republic in a full-scale professional production, and was delighted to see that it was staged at the Lir last year.

The book is introduced by Mark Phelan, who is himself a brilliant and insightful writer, and it’s published by Faber. You’ll notice that the cover features an image of McCafferty himself as a child  - looking mischievous. That doesn’t surprise me: his plays do have a mischievous quality, but he’s also an absolutely serious artist.

I also noticed that all of the plays had previously been published by Nick Hern Books, so it’s great to see these two publishers – these two rivals, really – being able to work together to bring out a volume that will do much to raise and consolidate the reputation of this great writer.

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Also in Belfast I heard the news about Jimmy Fay’s appointment as new AD of the Lyric (the job title is called something else, but media reports suggest that the AD is what he’ll effectively be). This is excellent news not only for the Lyric, and not only for Northern Irish theatre, but for Irish theatre generally. It seems likely to lead to greater traffic north of the border – of which there is already quite a bit (Galway’s Andrew Flynn, for example, is currently directing Philadelphia Here I Come! for the Lyric). Fay’s own production of McCafferty’s Quietly will also be touring to the Lyric later this year, albeit before Fay takes up the post formally.

What I’d love to see, though, is traffic coming in the opposite direction. McCafferty deserves to be more widely known in the Republic – or, to rephrase that, we deserve to know his work better. And there are other important works: I have recently been reading Rosemary Jenkinson’s Planet Belfast, for example, and I think it’s one of the funniest plays I’ve read in some time  - while also being a particularly biting satire. There have been other important plays from Northern Ireland in recent years, many by female dramatists. And there are of course many important practitioners there too.

In the meantime, I am hoping that McCafferty’s collection will sell well and widely.

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8 thoughts on “Ireland’s Most Under-Rated Dramatist?

  1. Just bought a copy! The introduction says the collection “records his continuing experimentation with the rough vernacular of Belfast speech–its rhythms, idioms, syntax and slang–shaping its spiky sounds into something altogether more lyrical.” Sounds like my cup of tea:)

  2. I am delighted that Owen is starting to get the attention he deserves down south. A playwright I feel has been neglected though, is Chris Lee who wrote both The Electrocution of Children and The Map Maker’s Sorrow, both of which received their premieres at the Peacock. He has written a number of plays since that have had readings and performances in Finborough and Theatre 503 in London. While not universally popular I thought he had an interesting voice.

    • Yes, I really like Chris Lee too. I know the two plays you mention but unfortunately didn’t see them at the time, and I’ve also read, and liked, the Ash Boy. I don’t know about the other ones you mention though and will definitely follow that up. Definitely he deserves to be better known, and not just in Ireland.

  3. That is fantastic, cannot wait to read it. McCafferty has also written an exceptional adaptation of Antigone that is part of my doctoral thesis. Thank you for this.

  4. I couldn’t agree more Patrick. I’v wrote some material on McCafferty and hope to focus my MA dissertation on his work. Looking forward to see Quietly again – one of the stand out plays from last year.

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