Emigration once again: digging up the past
Declan Hughes’s 1991 play Digging For Fire about small-town disillusionment and the lure of foreign shores has caught the zeitgeist again
In the midst of writing one of his Ed Loy detective novels in the mid-2000s, author and erstwhile playwright Declan Hughes began to “pine again for theatre”. He thought of resurrecting Digging for Fire , his hugely successful play about friendship, emigration, cultural consciousness and social upheaval among a group of friends emerging on the other side of the 1980s recession, but quickly dismissed the idea.
The play was of its time, a time that had passed and taken the relevance of the play’s themes with it in the intervening years.
“I thought no one would ever do the play again,” he says. “[In the 2000s], Irish twentysomethings were no longer angsting about cultural authenticity, or the meaning of art and politics.”
Mass emigration had been replaced by immigration, and the Celtic Tiger kids were “more concerned with getting a second mortgage to buy rental properties”, things that “would have seemed insane” to Hughes when he was that age. “But then, everything collapsed, and suddenly the play seemed relevant again.”
Rough Magic, the theatre company co-founded by Hughes, which staged the original production of Digging for Fire in 1991, held a reading of the play at its 25th anniversary event in 2009, which Hughes says “had an extraordinary affect on the audience”.
“It seemed to speak to the moment. It is a weird property that plays have, of coming in and out of focus. The time can move on and you think, what was the point of that, and then the [social, political and economic] circumstances come round again and it seems right. The young actors involved, all in their late 20s and early 30s, were saying ‘This is happening again right now’.” So Rough Magic decided to do a new production of the play, which is now running at the Project Arts Centre.
Digging for Fire centres around a group of seven college friends, all approaching their 30s, who come together for a boozy reunion to mark the return of two members of the group from their adoptive homes in New York. They begin the evening reminiscing about the raucous parties and shared acquaintances of their youth, but as the night matures and the tequila takes hold, ugly secrets from the past emerge, leaving the group disillusioned and their friendships irrevocably damaged.
“The emotional part of the play is about what happens to people in their mid to late 20s, who are often at a crossroads in their lives,” Hughes says. “You may have already had a couple of relationships, found your niche professionally or still be looking for it. The life you have been living in shared houses with friends is coming to an end and marriage or children may be looming on the horizon, as they are for one of the characters in the play.
“There is a feeling that things aren’t going to be the same again, that change is happening whether you are ready for it or not.”
Hughes was 28 when the play was first staged. Having co-founded Rough Magic with Lynne Parker after the pair graduated from Trinity College in 1984, he was tied to Dublin himself, but watched everyone around him leave in search of opportunities abroad.
“I have sometimes said that everybody in Ireland in the 1980s that didn’t found a theatre company had to leave the country, because they didn’t have a semi-glamorous way of being unemployed the way we did.
“My friends and college contemporaries – the ones who chose not to be actors – went to London or New York. They were living my shadow life, in a way, the life I would have been leading if I had gone. too,” he says. “We were here, doing the theatre thing, scrabbling along on very little money – it was a pretty dreary time in Ireland – and they would bring exciting tales back from Manhattan, and we would think, what are we doing stuck here , we should be over there . . . ”
That dichotomy between “here in Ireland” and “there in America” lies at the heart of Digging for Fire , which won a coveted Time Out Theatre Award in 1993.
Ireland is a “folksy little village” that is suffocating its inhabitants, whereas America – at least for the two visiting emigrants Danny (John Cronin) and Emily (Margaret McAuliffe) – is a place where dreams can come true.
Danny “grew up longing for . . . freedom – from parents, locality, history, from roots of any kind, and especially from community”. He didn’t leave Ireland because of the economy or lack of jobs in the late 1980s, but because he felt no “sense of place” here and wanted to escape the “endless, pointless talk” on the radio and in the pubs.
“Why do you think I got out, for f**k’s sake? It wasn’t money or jobs or me da or any of that, it was to get shot of the torpor, to feel the weight of all that garbage lifted off my back.”
An aspiring writer, he tells his gathered friends about the short story he has had published in the New Yorker : “Things are beginning to happen at last.”
Emily, too, has found success in the US, having just held her first art exhibition after being discovered by a famous gallery owner at the cafe where she works as a waitress.
For those who remain, especially Clare (Orla Fitzgerald), America represents an opportunity for escape. Bored and frustrated with her unfulfilling career as a teacher and her collapsing marriage to Brendan, Clare tries to elope to New York with Danny, where she wants to believe her own ambitions to become a writer can be fulfilled.
But as the night progresses, the collective fantasy of America as a land of opportunity is demolished as the reality of Danny and Emily’s lives there is revealed.
The social and cultural differences between the two countries are also dismantled, as Danny, who “ grew up with the TV on . . . with England and America beaming into [his] brain” questions whether the divide between the two countries actually exists any more.
Danny is revealed to be a fraud. He has pretended to his friends in Ireland to be something that he is not, lies facilitated by the physical divide between Ireland and America, and their yearning for an exciting tale to detract them from their own mundane lives. It is a familiar scenario in Irish theatre, the emigrant who returns to Ireland full of stories of success and fortune abroad, only to be exposed as a chancer and a fantasist.
“The dialectic between someone who has been away and is back and the people who are still here has always been a good dramatic device,” Hughes says, adding that the returning emigrant can offer an outsider’s perspective on Ireland while also understanding the social, political and cultural intricacies that outsiders might not grasp. (This production of Digging for Fire is directed by Belfast-born but New York-based Matt Torney, who “adds his own experience” of emigration to the production, Hughes says.)
But Hughes wonders whether the perspective of the returning emigrant could be as poignant in the theatre today, in an era where social media keeps those at home and abroad updated on what the other is missing, even if people are not directly in contact with one another. The early-90s outfits and soundtrack aside, one of the most glaring signals of Digging for Fire’s age is the references to the letters and postcards the characters send one another.
“A very good friend of mine lives in New York and we are on Facebook all the time,” Hughes says. “I try to avoid talking to her online because what I want is what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, [when someone would come home from abroad], and we’d stay up all night because there was so much to tell. Maybe there’s a nostalgic element to that. But the world has shrunk, and unless you are an emigrant in Siberia, it is much easier to stay in touch these days.”
But Hughes is confident the questions the play raises about Ireland, politics, society and culture will speak again to a young audience, even two decades on.
“Two Irish girls who were home from New Zealand were at one of the previews and recognised the themes. Their generation are leaving just like ours did, only they are just moving further away, and that is more grievous. Social media has made it easier to communicate, but I have children who are still at school but if they end up emigrating to New Zealand, that would be one heck of a trip.”
The twentysomethings of the late 1980s and early 1990s who came to see the original production are coming back to see it again, Hughes believes, as well as a cohort of others who were living abroad at the time and heard about it from friends in Ireland but never got to see it for themselves.
“They were in London or New York because there was nothing happening here for them, and sadly, those same economic conditions are back again now,” Hughes says wistfully. “It is tragic, actually, that these things don’t change. They can improve for a little while, and revert back. As much as I would like Digging for Fire to be revived on a regular basis, I would hope the circumstances are not always as relevant to the moment.”
Digging for Fire runs at the Project Arts Centre until May 4th. See
This article is printed in the Life section of The Irish Times today.