Patrick McCabe brings bog gothic to the small screen

RTÉ sent McCabe to Castleblayney, ‘the Nashville of Ireland’, for a month to write a play set there


Patrick McCabe is a pretty fearless writer. He has produced a dozen novels, a collection of linked short stories, a children’s book and several radio plays. He has worked with Neil Jordan to adapt The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto – dark and twisted stories both – for the big screen. His most recent book, Hello and Goodbye, consists of two gothic novellas, both of which are narrated by dead people.

He is not, in other words, a man to be scared off easily. But even McCabe got a bit of a shock when he caught his first glimpse of the challenge set for him by RTÉ television’s new series, Play Next Door.

The idea of the show is that a writer is sent to live in a town for a month and then has to write a play set in that location. The programme forms a kind of creative double act: first there’s a documentary, which follows the writer’s progress with the project; the play itself is aired immediately afterwards.

The short trip to Blayney
McCabe doesn’t travel far in geographical terms; it’s just 25 miles from his home town of Clones, in Co Monaghan, to his temporary abode in Castleblayney. But as his bus pulls up outside one of those uninhabited, unloved, oversized new houses that squat forlornly on naked blocks of land around the country, the writer’s face is a picture. “For God’s sake, lads,” is his initial reaction.

Without wanting to give too much away, the sight of McCabe peering in through the windows of the mansion, checking out its wood-swathed hallway and placing his modest luggage in a spookily pristine bedroom is – for those who are familiar with his work – an irresistible start. The house might almost have been designed and built as the architectural opposite of Raphael’s gaff in McCabe’s The Dead School, with its black binbags on the windows and its internal chaos of empty bottles, manky schoolbooks and much, much worse.

The documentary maker John Martin follows McCabe as he feels his way towards a story for the play – and away from the obvious boom-and-bust theme that the house might suggest. McCabe is not a man to embrace the obvious.

It’s hard to imagine that the writer didn’t have something in mind before he arrived in situ: something involving the country superstar Big Tom – Castleblayney has long been known as “the Nashville of Ireland”, after all – and a fistful of whitethorn from the field outside, perhaps. (Isn’t it unlucky to bring whitethorn into the house? But then McCabe, creator and chief exponent of the literary genre known as bog gothic, probably isn’t afraid of that old saw either.)

We’ll say no more – apart from the fact that McCabe’s play, If These Lips, is directed by Charlie McCarthy, produced by Gary Flood and stars Ian McElhinney, Olwen Fouéré, Nika McGuigan and Stephen Cromwell. The first Play Next Door episode, which aired last week and can still be seen on the RTÉ player, paired Fiona Looney with a pub in Thurles that is no longer open for business. And the series will finish next week with Deirdre Purcell taking on that iconic Wicklow landmark, The Bray Head Hotel.

Play Next Door is on RTÉ1 at 10.15pm on Thursday

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