Telling difficult stories in a town that's full of them
It’s a writer’s lot to tell difficult stories, and Owen McCafferty is just the man for the job
Owen McCafferty was born in Belfast, and he lives and works there, but he seems uncomfortable with the idea of being characterised as a Belfast playwright. Or maybe he’s just feeling uncomfortable, full stop. When we meet, McCafferty seems wary, tense, a little prickly. He’s polite, yes, but I get the impression – at first, at least – that he treats speaking about himself and his work as something of an endurance test.
McCafferty has just returned from Dublin, from the opening of his play Quietly at the Peacock. It’s a tense, powerful piece of theatre: two strangers, Ian and Jimmy, meet in a Belfast pub to talk about the events of one day many years ago. Both men are seeking forgiveness and understanding, and their search is witnessed by Robert, the Polish barman.
Although the narrative of Quietly is based on a violent incident in 1974, McCafferty says he’s interested in exploring the idea of reconciliation in the present, “behind the scenes, quietly, not in public”.
He also touches on the experiences of economic migrants in the North. “The level of violence is at a minimum now, so other people are coming to live here, bringing baggage of their own. Because we’ve been busy trying to solve our own shit, confronting the notion of reconciliation, we haven’t noticed what’s going on. So you see racism quietly creeping in as well.”
Born in 1961, McCafferty has made a name for himself – both locally and internationally – with intense, experimental writing that is nonetheless deeply rooted in his native tongue. One reviewer praised his “vitriolic gift for the hurt and excitement of language”, while McCafferty has said he writes in a “heightened Belfast dialect”.
Many of his plays are set in the city, including the award-winning ode to Belfast, Scenes from the Big Picture, first performed by London’s Royal National Theatre in 2003. So is it a place that he cares about? McCafferty is visibly discomfited. “I was born here, I live here, it would be a strange thing if you were born somewhere and didn’t like it. That’s a strange question. Would you be asking it if I lived in Leeds, or Cork? I don’t think that Belfast hangs as heavily over us as the politicians think it does. Ordinary lives go on here, just as in any other regional city.”
But isn’t there something distinctive about the city, that profoundly influences his writing, his own sense of identity? McCafferty muses, his brows low.
“I did a piece of prose writing, years ago, and in it I kept using the sentence, ‘I am a Belfast man’. Above and beyond anything else, beyond British or Irish, it is my first port of call. That’s liberating and at the same time limiting.”
Perhaps McCafferty’s reluctance comes from the fact that, if you are from Belfast, there are certain stories that you are expected to tell. And while McCafferty has never shied away from the Troubles, or indeed any other issue he has explored in his writing – identity, work, infidelity, displacement, dealing with the past – sectarian conflict comes second to the stories of interconnected individual lives.