Last month saw Green Curtain Theatre's The Shadow or in the Shelter Festival take place in London. Taking its name from a speech that Irish President Michael D Higgins gave in 2014 – “Ireland and Britain live both in the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history.” – the festival examines the lives of Irish men and women who travelled to London, from 1916 to the present day. Of the six plays in the festival, five were written by women.
Starting its run at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town, I caught up with the festival during a series of dates at the Colour House Theatre in Merton Abbey Mills (near Colliers Wood, London). On the night I visited, the two plays in the double bill were written by Lorraine Mullaney and Anne Curtis.
The first, longer play, entitled Body and Blood – focused on Aileen (Pamela Flanagan) who has travelled to London to track down her sister. Seeking help from her uncle Colm (Liam Clarke) who himself has been in self-imposed exile in London, Aileen gets a job as barmaid in the interim. As the dutiful daughter, Aileen's internalised a lot of her mother's values and never questioned that there was any other way of living, apart from how she was raised. But as she enjoys more personal freedom by the day and grows close to one of Colm's younger associates, the prospect of living on the breadline and an arranged marriage is a less attractive prospect.
Written by Lorraine Mullaney, Body and Blood was inspired by the experiences of mother and grandmother. Up until the 1970s, in some Irish rural communities, matchmakers would arrange marriages between young women and much older men. The women in question had were often still in their teens and forced against their will. Mullaney's grandmother's marriage was arranged by a 'matchmaker', but her mother bucked tradition by 'arranging her own', hence the fascination with this subject. The post-war years saw wave after wave from immigration to Britain from the Empre and elsewhere, and despite undergoing economic austerity, the relative freedom to be found in Britain drew the young people of Ireland like a magnet.
I admit I found it mind boggling that in the 20th century, arranged marriages could exist in a culturally-rich country like Ireland, and that the practise of a dowry was still expected between parties. Talk about marriage being nothing more than an economic transaction...
For women who stayed behind in Ireland, but had children out of wedlock, they had to deal with the stigma around at the time with being an unwed mother and have their children taken away from them. Often the children were not only 'looked after' by the State, the children would sometimes be sent overseas to the States for adoption. (It's worth noting that Britain had its own 'secret history' of sending children to Australia – a practise that continted unopposed from the Second World War until the 1970s.) Anyway, Anne Curtis' Importance of Being, starring Colette Kelly and Orla Sanders, addressed finding out the fate one's child in the twilight years, and the memories and regrets that brings.
The Irish presence in the UK could be felt long before the 1950s. During the Second World War 20,000 moved to the UK either to the join the Allied or because unemployent in Ireland was high and the UK needed 'war labour'. In the festival's Crows by Day, Jackals by Night by Maureen Alcorn, a Donegal man is serving with the British army in the Far East, but his wife is having to cope with the seperation...
Coming full circle, Anna May Mangan's Women's Work dealt with three generations of women of Irish descent – all with a different perspective on their respective 'Irishness'. The youngest who was born in London feels the most Irish while her 80-year old grandmother with dementia has forgotten this about her self. And straddling both extremes is the mother...
Is there a body of work that trully reflects the Irish experience in England over the past 100 years? Perhaps not, but Green Curtain Theatre are trying to address this and I look forward to their future festivals in the months and years to come.
© Michael Davis 2016
The Shadow Or In The Shelter Festival ran from 10th-23rd October 2016.