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.
“I am interested in the emotional baggage, rather than sabre-rattling about certain political positions,” says McCafferty. “I haven’t avoided the Troubles, I just don’t like being that blatant about it. There are other aspects of life that should be examined, like how you go about forming relationships with other people.”
The individual is paramount then? “Yes, I think that’s true. In that sense, I tell small stories. If they work well, that describes a bigger picture.”
In particular, McCafferty shows an acute ear for the way that men talk to each other – the bawdiness, the mocking banter, the abuse, the interactions that depend as much on what they don’t say as what they do say.
“I see myself as a storyteller, but I’m not a story collector,” says McCafferty. “I don’t want to steal from the outside world. You have to work ideas out for yourself, make them your own. It’s like writing music, as opposed to sampling.”
This year, McCafferty’s first verbatim work – Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) – was performed at the Mac in Belfast, based on the inquiry that took place in London, two months after the ship sank. The play was well-received, but one local review complained that “it had no laughs in it”. He laughs at the absurdity of the comment. But it points to a wider issue about Northern audiences, which often seem to be straining to laugh given any opportunity.
“I am sick, sore and tired of the idea that we have to laugh at ourselves,” he says. “You see it in certain types of writing, people feel forced to throw a laugh in order to make it palatable. Shut up! Not everything is funny.”
Later that night, long after the interview is over, McCafferty texts me. A new thought has occurred to him. “It’s the job of a writer to tell difficult stories,” he writes, “and we don’t seem to like being told difficult stories here.”
Shoot the Crow, 1997
A day in the life of four tilers on a Belfast building site. McCafferty worked as a tiler for many years, and the play was praised for its energetic, unsentimental dialogue.
Mojo Mickybo, 1998
Set in 1970s Belfast, this two-hander was McCafferty’s big breakthrough. Two boys form a friendship playing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and fighting the local gang, before the Troubles impinge on their lives. A film adaptation, Mickybo and Me, was produced in 2004.
Scenes from the Big Picture, 2003
Described as a Belfast version of Under Milk Wood, this featured one day in the city, with 20 characters and 40 scenes. It was, said one critic , “an epic that attempts to put the whole of life on stage – birth, death, love, sex, work, families, the whole damn thing”.
Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912), 2012
Using testimony from the London inquiry, it marked the inauguration of the Mac in Belfast, as well as the centenary of the ship’s demise.