Brian Cox: ‘The Irish have been so subjugated’

The actor, who was born in Dundee to an Irish family, stars in Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’ in London. He talks Irishness, displacement, drink and his support for Scottish independence

Brian Cox: ‘My family are all Irish. They were forced to move, to wander and be uprooted.’ Above, in Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Photograph: Helen Warner

Brian Cox: ‘My family are all Irish. They were forced to move, to wander and be uprooted.’ Above, in Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Photograph: Helen Warner

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 01:00

Shortly after 6pm, the stalls and balconies in the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End are empty. A faint smell of paint and wax lies in the background. The building, softly lit and shadowy, has the air of an empty church.

The image is not inappropriate, since Brian Cox, one of the stars of Conor Mc- Pherson’s The Weir , sees the theatre in quasi-religious terms. Two hours earlier, a full matinee audience on a wet, dreary day had hung on every word as the actors explored the aching nature of loss, ghosts and memory.

“I think it translates well,” says Cox, sitting in a tiny room upstairs in the cavernous, winding Wyndham’s. “I think there is a universal quality to this. It is what the Mass used to do for Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharist. The Mass had a kind of mystery about it, and the theatre has a mystery about it.

“It is a secular transubstantiation, dealing with your own ghosts. People are touched by it, because any human being recognises these stories. You feel it from the audience every night: you feel the laughter. I had a woman in the other night who was in tears later in the restaurant. She was still caught up in it.”

Back at The Weir

Sixteen years since its triumphant outing in the West End, The Weir has returned – a success once more, but subtly different as well. Cox’s portrayal of Jack (a role first played brilliantly by Jim Norton) is angrier, while Dervla Kirwan’s Valerie has about her a nervous, damaged simplicity.

Risteard Cooper’s Finbar is the local who has moved to the town, done well and now brags to hide ever-increasing self-loathing;. Ardal O’Hanlon’s sparse depiction of Jim says more in a gesture than most actors achieve in a night. Peter McDonald’s Brendan – the barman estranged from domineering sisters, unwilling or unable to change – is given, like the other characters on stage, time to breathe in a production that never hurries.

For Cox, who is 67, McPherson’s work has echoes of his own background. He was born Catholic in Dundee, Scotland and raised by four older sisters after one parent died and the other suffered mental illness.

“I do feel that my heritage is part of who I am,” he says. “It is a tortured heritage, but it is very muscular. This play rings so many bells with me. I have no difficulty with it at all. I have no difficulty with the starkness of it, the loss of it, the accuracy.

“My family are all Irish. My great-grandfather came from Derry. My great-grandmother came from Donegal – the McCann side of my family. The Coxes all came from Enniskillen. They were forced to move, to wander and be uprooted.”

Cox’s family history is steeped in tragedy, but also in community. His father died when he was eight. His mother, who worked as a spinner in Dundee’s jute mills, had repeated nervous breakdowns.

“I did a thing recently about my great- grandfather from Derry, who ended up going up into the poorhouse with his six-year-old boy when he was 39, having had eight kids, lost his wife at 36, and lost five of his kids.”

His great-grandfather had lived in Glasgow, which “was unremitting towards the Irish – it was not a very good place to be”. His grandfather, James McCann, “got away”, first serving as a soldier. “Then he would come back to Glasgow and never work. Eventually he got to Dundee, and there were Irish communities there, and it was very well-organised because the Irish had stolen a march on things.”

The scars caused by emigration ran deep, particularly for those who were forced to come to terms with losing touch with the life they had lived on the land, if only as poverty-stricken smallholders, as well as having to leave their homeland.

“The only reason they came to my part of Scotland – the east coast – was because the women could spin and weave; the men didn’t have any employment,” Cox says. “So in the east coast in Dundee, 80 per cent of the population were women. And they were Irish and Highland women: the men became househusbands. They had been farmers and smallholders and literally their whole world had changed overnight.”

The migrants from both places – equally remote, equally poor, equally foreign to the Scottish lowlands – came to “build the roads, to build the canals, to go into the engineering jobs. But the psychological change was so momentous that there was not the ability to adjust to it.”

Whisky and the damage done
Inevitably, for some, the journey ended in drink.

“I did a programme on addiction a few years ago,” Cox says, “how whisky became the crutch drink because of the blended whiskies that happened at the beginning of the 1840s. So suddenly people had this time on their hands, not earning enough money; the women were the ones working. Then there were these bars [opened] and the alcohol rate went right through the roof.

“There is that predilection about drink in the Irish, it is a kind of a cliché, but it is also about the nature of celebration and storytelling, and the fact that they do celebrate, the whole spirit of the seanchaí, that is such a powerful spirit.”

Cox is endlessly forgiving of the Irish, “a people who have not been served particularly well”. The Celtic Tiger saw people “on the fiddle, but then everybody was on the fiddle”, while the economic crisis it left behind “was not their fault, it was not their fault”, he insists.

“You have been so subjugated. You have had such a bad rap for so long. It is very hard to know what the Irish model themselves on, because they don’t want to model themselves on their previous generations. I don’t like that very much. So who do they model themselves on?”

Cox sees the world politically. He is a Labour man through and through, though the nature of Labour politics in Britain leaves him cold: Gordon Brown was decent but flawed. Tony Blair was “a spieler”. In Scotland, Labour, led locally by Johann Lamont, is “lamentable”. In Britain, Labour was “undermined and undervalued”, reduced to a barren nothingness by Blair “in order to make everything acceptable and sound-bitey”.

Cox’s journey has made him favour Scottish independence in this September’s referendum. “I am not a nationalist, but I believe in independence because I believe the whole thing has got to start over again.

“I grew up very much the opposite, thinking they were very funny people in kilts and skean dhus ” – the six-inch sheath knife hidden in socks – “and I couldn’t be doing with any of that. Then I looked at their history and thought, there is more to this than meets the eye.”

The Weir is at Wyndham ’s Theatre, London, until April 19


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