Hilary Fannin: I was top of the class in drinking down the nuns’ wild tales

Man, I loved a bit of fervour. Hand on heart, I’d like to acknowledge the energy that the nuns put into the telling of the great, mad story of their exotic world

‘The nuns had chilling accounts of nice devout girlies, children just like us, on their skinny knees, chatting to a weepy virgin, who believed in their devotion so much that she made herself into flesh.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘The nuns had chilling accounts of nice devout girlies, children just like us, on their skinny knees, chatting to a weepy virgin, who believed in their devotion so much that she made herself into flesh.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

‘May is the month of Mary, the month we all love so well.”

In the big, red-brick convent where I went to school as a child, an establishment for dignified little girls with Alice bands and knee socks and ink pens and pristine copybooks, where we skipped down the gravelled path each morning with a penny for the black babies in our mitts and a churning gut full of apprehension underneath our pinafores (or maybe that was just me), the month of May was a pretty big deal.

In that icy universe of polished tabernacles and plaster saints, and all those poor banished children of Eve, moaning and weeping in a valley of tears, possibly somewhere just outside Limerick, a whole month of daffodil-fuelled holy happiness was a big deal.

May, blue and vivid and sun-kissed, was when all the angels and saints had a well- deserved vacation from the weariness of the world, and the pale-blue virgins hopped off their plinths and took a break from their endless beseeching. When the baby Jesus slipped out of his heavy plaster swaddling and splashed around in the baptismal font in his armbands.

May was when grim Irish classes and mind-bending mathematics classes were cast aside, so that we little girls could walk in slow procession around and around the tennis court, kneading our rosary and telling the Virgin Mary how very much we loved her.

Heady, holy May was when you were so full of sanctifying grace and good intentions, so intent on good deeds and pure thoughts, so close to that other kingdom of the dead, that you could almost feel your guardian angel’s soft, hot breath on your neck.

 

The energy of the nuns

I remember that slow trail around the tennis court as if it was yesterday.

Man, I loved a bit of fervour. Hand on heart, I’d like to acknowledge the energy that the nuns (“the Poor Little Sisters of the Divine Jaysus”, as my father liked to call that particular order) put into the telling of the great, mad story of their strange, exotic world.

They told a hell of a tale: talking snakes and seductive apples,blood-hot seas and crowns of thorns, and glorious resurrections, to name but a few. Not to mention chilling accounts of nice devout girlies, children just like us, on their skinny knees, chatting to a weepy virgin, who believed in their devotion so much that she made herself into flesh, and flew down from heaven to have a chat about all that ails this strange old world.

I was pretty crap at just about every subject the nuns threw at us, but I was top of the class in drinking down their wild, wild tales.

 

Maybe everything is about loss

Half a century later and it’s May again. There are no rosary beads in my purse, no mantilla in my carrier bag. I’m not lying awake at night worrying about pagan babies in limbo or the possibility of uncalled-for stigmata. Instead, I’m getting ready for the opening of my new play, Famished Castle.

The first scene I wrote in this play was a story that one woman tells another, a story embroidered with loss and death and love and flesh. And maybe everything is about loss. I read somewhere that all our stories are about coming to terms with our own intricate expulsion from the garden.

I’m dead grateful to be working. Many playwrights are hawking their own equally wildly inculcated stories around in shoulder bags and laptops, looking for a home for stories deserving of our attention. I know my luck.

I’m indebted to the company that I’ve been keeping this last month or so. The best thing about working in theatre is its communality: you cease to be alone. Suddenly you are among loads of people crowded into a small kitchen, trying to get a cup of tea before the read-through. They are the actors, director, dramaturgy, technicians, costume, set, sound and light people, and stage managers with sharpened pencils.

They include the young theatre practitioners, who were there to gain experience in their chosen fields, I counted some 30 people in the room when we began our journey in early April to where we are now.

I don’t know if the nuns, whose words my imagination clung to back in those devout daffodil days, would necessarily appreciate the dark, comic, broken journey the four characters in Famished Castle undertake. I don’t quite know if the fire those educators ignited was meant to burn so long.

  • Famished Castle, written by Hilary Fannin and directed by Rough Magic’s Lynne Parker, is at the Theatre Royal, Waterford, on May 8th and May 9th; and the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, May 12th-23rd. theatreroyal.ie, paviliontheatre.ie
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