John Patrick Shanley: ‘I’ve avoided writing as an Irish man most of my life’

The playwright recently won the Eugene O’Neill award amid high jinks at an Irish American gathering

John Patrick Shanley accepting his Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award

John Patrick Shanley accepting his Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 01:00

‘Speaking straight up, I’ve avoided writing as an Irish man most of my life,” John Patrick Shanley tells the Irish American Writers & Artists Association in Manhattan as the association presents him with his latest accolade.

Shanley is one of just two artists to have won the trifecta of a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and a Tony Award, to which he has now added the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award.

This is the fourth time this annual award has been given by the Irish-American body, a New York-based group with 420 members that is expanding across the US.

O’Neill’s father, like Shanley’s, came from Ireland, but Shanley, now in his early 60s, only recently began exploring his Irish roots.

His first play set in Ireland opens on Broadway in January. The cast of Outside Mullingar includes Irish actors Brian F O’Byrne and Dearbhla Molloy, with Debra Messing (Will & Grace), making her Broadway debut.

“I wanted to be an American writer,” Shanley tells several hundred IAW&A supporters gathered within blocks of the Broadway hotel where O’Neill was born in 1888. “If you’re an Irish-American writer,” he jokes, “the critics discount 46 per cent of your talent as a natural, genetic by-product.”

Shanley’s talent wasn’t spotted early. He was expelled from several schools, starting in kindergarten. An inauspicious start in school did not hold back the creator of Moonstruck and some 20 plays, including the huge success Doubt.

Some attendees at the gathering expressed surprise that Shanley wrote the original Moonstruck story, rather than adapting it for the screen. The romantic comedy about Italian Americans won Oscars for Shanley, Cher and Olympia Dukakis, who played Cher’s mother.

Doubt, which won many awards, including Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer and Tony, seized the imagination. It left open whether a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a Bronx schoolchild was guilty. (“Was he?” I found myself asking Shanley. He replied, perhaps a littler wearily, “I’m not interested in the question.”)

Doubt had a long Broadway run and was widely reproduced, including at The Abbey Theatre in 2006. Shanley directed the 2008 film version, with Meryl Streep in the Oscar-nominated role of the head nun accusing the local priest of misconduct.


First Irish visit
Shanley visited Ireland for the first time at the age of 42, on a 1993 trip to Mullingar. By then he had been through the marines, graduated from New York University, and switched from poet to stage and screen writer.

He first wrote about the visit to Kilucan (which is outside Mullingar, hence the new play’s title) in a much-commented-upon piece in the New York Times early this year. The piece, “The Darkness of An Irish Morning”, captures the sensory assault he experienced when he visited the family farm with his now deceased father and encountered “a pack of Irish people shouting in the dark”.

Shanley jnr commits an early faux pas by asking relatives economising with the electricity if there has been a power failure. And yet, he is charmed by the “strange mixture of calm and storm” Irish people embody and hit with the realisation: “These are my people.”

Shanley says he knew he would one day write about Ireland. The New York Times piece led to the play, which “spilled out very quickly”.

Outside Mullingar features O’Byrne a Tony-winning actor from Mullagh, Co Cavan, who played the accused priest in Doubt on Broadway. This time he’s the farmer who wants a wife – or does he? Shanley addresses the plight of bachelor farmers who “face an increasing habit of loneliness” but for whom, he says, “any change is a shock.”

Messing plays a neighbour who, like O’Byrne, is middle-aged, has never married, and is still living with a parent (Molloy in Messing’s case). Her sudden interest in O’Byrne, “sows the seeds of a crisis”.

“Irish people are very careful how they deal with their neighbours, because they’re not going anywhere,” Shanley noted in an interview.

The love-hate nature of sublimated Irish relationships is a topic he addresses in his IAW&A acceptance speech. Shanley, ranging from irreverent and slightly mad to philosophical and inspiring, asks at one point: “Why do so many Irish people write? So they won’t kill you.”

Doug Hughes, who directed Doubt, and will direct O’Byrne in Outside Mullingar, has another rhetorical question: “What other playwright besides O’Neill has such a wide body of work?”

Shanley accepts the award despite it being named after O’Neill, who he once characterised as “a miserable SOB”.

Bad acoustics do not quell the festivities, which are marked by jovial heckling – often by Shanley, and, on another occasion, by Malachy McCourt. McCourt, who is active in the IAW&A, leads the association’s $10,000 annual scholarship, named after his late brother Frank.

Shanley concludes the official proceedings: “We are the cosmos: balls of light, and in the case of the Irish, gas.”

His parting shot, “I’m just a schmuck like all of you!”, gives way to a song he has chosen: Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 hit You’re No Good. It is sung live, accompanied by a harp.

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