Moyross on stage: residents take back their story
Residents of the Limerick estate have grabbed a chance to give their perspective after years of negative coverage
From the estate to the stage: ‘The vast majority of people in Moyross are just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.’ Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22
Early in the development of a new documentary piece about Limerick’s most notorious social-housing estate, Lime Tree Theatre’s artistic director, Louise Donlon, came to see Moyross from a new perspective.
The show was a co-production between Lime Tree and TheatreClub, a Dublin-based company that specialises in tales of community and disenfranchisement that are delivered in absorbing, startling ways.
Early in director Grace Dyas’s research, she found a revealing map of Moyross. With colour-coded details, the map showed how many of the more than 1,000 houses were occupied or vacant, but also something starker – in the largest estate in the country, there was hardly more than one way in or out. It was built like a prison.
Through years of negative media coverage, Moyross had become synonymous with violent disorder, gang warfare, gun crime and drug addiction. Maybe one of the reasons for this bad reputation, seldom challenged even in Limerick, came down to a question of access. It was something the project was keen to address.
“The vast majority of people in Moyross are just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives,” says Donlon, who moved to Limerick two years ago. “They live their lives in a glass bowl with people looking in and saying, ‘What kind of a place is that at all?’ People think it’s the only valid representation of the area. Clearly, it couldn’t be.”
Years of salacious reportage have made many residents of Moyross wary of outsiders who come seeking stories. However, as company member Shane Byrne says, TheatreClub had similar experiences countering sensationalist reports about their work, while performances of their ground-breaking plays Heroin and The Family in Limerick helped prove the company’s bona fides. (“That’s us,” Donlon recalls one Moyross resident saying after a performance of the company’s The Family. “That’s my family.”)
A community gaining control of its own narrative allows for some redress – you can tell another side of the story – but it can also lead to sanitisation.
An attempt to airbrush
A curious reminder of such airbrushing came early this year, when the former chief executive of Limerick City of Culture, Patricia Ryan, objected to a line in Moyross Youth Crew’s rap section of a song to promote the year: “The city’s looking rough when you’re walking on the bridge/It’s the city where we’re tough, there’s no place you’d rather live.”
“It’s really not the image we want to portray,” Ryan wrote at the time.
Through careful negotiation, the production straddled the urge to celebrate and censor. A dialogue between two mothers who grew up in Moyross in the 1970s recalled halcyon days and happy childhoods, for instance, but their later life had brought a more tainted perspective.
“As adults, they had lost that innocence,” Donlon says. “It’s something imposed from elsewhere. It really limits their own expectations of themselves and their communities. It’s very poignant.”
Elsewhere there were tensions among participants over what subjects they were willing to air; some experiences of gangland shootings were still too real and raw to share.
Donlon was also aware of another risk in bringing this self-portrait of Moyross to her impressive but cloistered new theatre space, which is housed within Mary Immaculate College. Might the show create another goldfish-bowl display of the residents?
The Lime Tree’s first co-production had longer-term ambitions, however: to introduce socially excluded communities to their theatre, to feel part of the city’s story. “Very often it’s about making people feel comfortable coming into a space. It’s as basic as that.”
On the morning before opening night, it appeared to be working. Nathan Keane, the rapper who had challenged Limerick City of Culture’s more fancifully pristine image, seemed nerveless about his performance in Moyross later.
“I’m kind of used to it at this stage, with all the rapping,” he told me. “So it’s handy out. We didn’t set out to make it all daisies and roses and everything. We’re keeping it real, we’re not trying to say it’s something that it’s not. We’re just showing our side of the story and it’s not as bad as what it’s claimed to be.”
The show was for everyone, he felt, but he was keen that Limerick city councillors would attend. “They were given jobs in Moyross, like, and they didn’t do nothing about the place.”
Still, he wasn’t inclined towards anger and his outlook was appropriately resilient and lyrical. “It’s our chance to get our show out there,” he said, “to get across our side of the story and just to show how strong a people we are. We were put down, but we were never kept down.”