Fear and loathing in Buncrana

Frank McGuinness’s new play, The Hanging Gardens, and Arimathea, the novel he thought he should write as research for it, draw deeply on his experience of growing up in a threatening, oppressive Ireland

Bleak vision: Frank McGuinness. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Bleak vision: Frank McGuinness. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

Some time ago, as Frank McGuinness toiled to bring a long-gestating play to fruition, he decided that some research might help. As his story concerned an ageing novelist slipping into dementia, he set about acquiring in-depth knowledge of the subject, though not in the way one might expect.

“From the earliest days that the play manifested itself in my imagination I knew it would be a very wise piece of research to at least pretend you’re writing a novel,” McGuinness says. “So about three years ago I did. But I really didn’t have any intention that it was going to be a new departure. I do a lot research of very different kinds for new plays, and it was very firmly of that camp at that stage. But, having written a novel, I now have some sympathy with my character’s madness: it’s a very demanding task.”

That the Donegal-born playwright should have felt compelled to produce a full-length work of fiction in order to create a stage character is indicative of the febrile energy that has made McGuinness one of Ireland’s greatest dramatists. That the novel in question, Arimathea, should be published just as the play that spurred it, The Hanging Gardens, is set to open as part of Dublin Theatre Festival says even more about his vocational and imaginative rigour. Though markedly different in content, the works share many thematic touchstones, from the ambivalent effects of art and religion to the dynamics of family and the prospect of death.

What’s more, both book and play draw deeply on McGuinness’s own experiences. Arimathea recounts how life in an oppressively pious Donegal town is turned upside down by the arrival of an enigmatic Italian artist, commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross in the local Catholic church. Inspired by a real Italian who rendered ecclesiastical scenes in McGuinness’s native Buncrana at the turn of the 20th century, the novel updates the story to the 1950s, chronicling the personal and social fissures opened by the outsider’s presence.

“It came remarkably quickly, because I was dealing with voices that were very close to me,” he says. And although he concedes that his use of monologues is highly theatrical – “Henry James it’s not” – the heightened atmosphere and vivid portrait of local life make for a striking read. It is also very funny. One can see why the interest of the publisher Michael O’Brien was piqued by the manuscript McGuinness had previously kept locked in a desk drawer.

Return to the Abbey
As his first original drama for the Abbey since Dolly West’s Kitchen, in 1999, The Hanging Gardens marks a return to the stage where McGuinness made his name with plays such as The Factory Girls and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. “The Abbey is home, but sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate it, and for them to appreciate you,” he says.

Directed by Patrick Mason, its story of a grown-up family returning home to deal with the mental deterioration of their novelist father (played by Niall Buggy) draws on concerns from McGuinness’s more recent past.

“It’s something I’ve been brooding on for a fair while, but I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago,” he says. “You have to get to a stage where you really are the next generation to go. I mean, I’ve never recovered from the death of my parents, in the 1990s – the double whammy of them both dying within a year really brought home my own mortality. Also, I turned 60 at the end of July, and that was another landmark.

“But I’m now highly conscious that I’m one of the oldest male members of my extended family, and that really does bring it back to you. And if you’re going to write seriously as an older man or woman, it’s something you have to confront. Any other way is just escapism. That’s very easy, and I hope I’ve never taken any easy options, because in the long run they’re immensely boring. And I believe in living an interesting life.”

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, McGuinness had a happy home life among his extended family: “We were so loved, and that gave you the courage to face anything.” But he did not entertain lofty goals about leading an interesting life. As someone who was “given the full whack of Catholicism and nationalism”, he did not dare to. “Fear was so much a part of learning about everything then, not just school learning but learning about your body, about religion. Ireland was a terribly frightened place then.”

Nonetheless, he felt different from those around him, a feeling at times menacingly reciprocated. “Growing up in Donegal was a very threatening thing for me to do, actually,” he says. “It was pretty clear from when I was quite young that other people could see that something in me was not quite the same as them, and you lived with the constant threat of what was coming your way. And it did come my way.”

Traumatic time
Education provided an escape. As one of the first generation to avail of free secondary schooling in the 1960s, he endured a traumatic time as a second-level pupil – “I still have very terrifying dreams about those men who taught me and who, well, had power and who used it,” he says – but eventually ended up in the capital, studying English at University College Dublin.

“Even though it was an awful wrench – I’d never spent a day away from Buncrana – that was the liberation, no doubt about that,” he says.

“That really was when I learned to undo all the harm that had been done to me through my education. I owe an enormous debt to UCD, in that I met true teachers there, and I started to use my brains rather than just my memory.”

One of the most significant things that McGuinness learned about himself concerned his sexuality, which had been a source of fear and confusion since adolescence.

“I felt that I can’t lie about myself and keep on living,” he says. “That was the choice that was left to me – it was as big as that. I knew something had to be said, but said primarily to myself.

“And it took years to not be afraid, to even say it to myself, that you are homosexual, you are gay, and not to panic, because this is what we were trained to do. And in panic you trust authority, other people who have designs on you. And when I did make that statement to myself, I’m not saying it was like the Mama Cass song, getting better every day – it was a very slow process – but at least I was ready for myself to go out into the world.”

While pursuing a career as an English lecturer – he is still professor of creative writing at UCD – he started to write, first poetry, then drama. “I wanted recognition, no question of that: I wanted to get my voice heard,” he says. “Factory Girls was an attempt to say I come from a distinctive culture, Sons of Ulster was a way of saying I come from an extremely complex culture.”

He has maintained this path ever since. And if his subsequent works, be they original plays or adaptations of classics, haven’t always had the critical and commercial success of his landmark 1980s plays, he is philosophical about his fortunes. “You have to be aware that the lows are really necessary, because you don’t keep on if you can’t deal with them.”

His new works suggest that McGuinness is less tormented about his past than the conflicted undergraduate or tyro playwright of yore, with both play and novel set in his home county. “I’m more at peace writing about it now,” he says.

Family portrait
At the core of Arimathea lies a portrait of a loving working-class family: “They’re not touchy-feely – they’re from Donegal – but they’re grounded in where they are. And that’s very much what I’m trying to do in the book, in a way that I’ve probably never done in a play: to celebrate that.”

But lest anyone think McGuinness has gone all happy-clappy, his new play is underpinned by a bleak vision of contemporary Ireland. “What’s happening in the play is that all the great patriarchal institutions have abandoned us and proved themselves to be utterly unreliable and unworkable: church, State, education, even the arts.

“I feel this is an analysis of a family alone, and how they come to some understanding of the great tragedy that has befallen them – the disintegration of the king, if you like, the man who has ruled the roost there. They have to find another way of coping.”

When it comes to dealing with his own life, writing is more important than ever for McGuinness. He may be pleased with his first foray into fiction, and invigorated by the prospect of premiering a play to an Irish audience, but his creativity is still spurred by more ambivalent instincts.

“I write now for reasons that only become clear when I’ve done it. As I said, I come from a culture of fear, and I probably write out of fear as well, fear that I’m not there unless something is coming through. It’s not a comforting thing to say that at all – it doesn’t bring any release by saying it – but I am always aware that fear is in everything I do. I would love it to diminish, but it doesn’t. Not at all.”

The Hanging Gardens opens at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on Wednesday.
is published by Brandon