Passion Project: The greatest story ever told in Ballyfermot
An epic piece of street theatre will transform Dublin 10 this weekend. Here’s one community's story of the show with a cast of hundreds
Drummer Collum Dunphy with Roxanna Nic Liam (Jesus) in The Passion Project at Cherry Orchard Equine Centre, Ballyfermot. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It is Saturday morning and I am in the canteen of St Dominic’s secondary school in Ballyfermot where a giddy group is gathering. As I walk in the door, a woman says, without knowing who I am or why I’m there, “You’re in the right place.”
Two women come in wearing bright yellow T-shirts with The Passion Project written on the front. They’ve just come from bag-packing in Tesco to raise money for the project. Few of us have any time any more, except here, where all the pockets of time you like to keep for yourself, such as early Saturday mornings, are being generously donated.
This group of local actors are here to rehearse for an epic piece of street theatre taking place in Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard over the weekend of April 8th and 9th, The Passion Project.
In 1633, the residents of Oberammergau, Germany promised that if God spared them from the bubonic plague, they would produce a passion play every decade for the rest of time depicting the life and death of Jesus. And they have.
Ballyfermot made no such promise. This particular play was the brainchild of Joyce Jackson, the creative arts producer of the Ballyfermot Community Civic Centre. Her inspiration came not from Germany but Wales. In 2011, Port Talbot put on a huge modern reworking of a passion play in the streets, with Welsh actor Micheál Sheen as Jesus. Manic Street Preachers played at the Last Supper. It was transformative for the soul and reputation of the town.
In Ballyfermot, the group sits around a table in the centre of the room in a cube of sunlight. They are finalising the script and Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon of the theatre company Brokentalkers are guiding the action. Keegan says they ran with Joyce’s passion play idea for the narrative structure, “but we wanted to make it relevant to the community”. They met drama groups from the school and the local men’s shed.
“What emerged out of that process was conversations around housing and homelessness,” Keegan recalls, “and who has agency within a community when it comes to decision-making around what will happen within that community.”
Ruthless property developer
They came up with the story of a ruthless property developer who wants to radically transform the area. “He is taking the position that the people need to trust him; that he will do the right thing.” He will be played by Dublin actor Donal O’Kelly.
Then there will be an “anti-establishment” Jesus-style figure who “stands up against an oppressive movement”. The Messenger is played by Roxanna Nic Liam. “We first encounter her when she’s being evicted from a squat in an abandoned field.” She rallies the community around her and is punished.
At the rehearsal, I was hoping to slink around the sidelines, but I’m asked to join a scene where the developer’s henchmen bully people into revealing the whereabouts of the Messenger. I try not to panic.
“Snitches get stitches,” one of the women shouts at the developer character.
“Just shoot the f**ker,” one man jokes and everyone dissolves into laughter.
After rehearsal, Jackson drives me around Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard to show me the key locations on The Passion Project route. She shows me the Aspect Hotel in the slightly desolate Park West, where it will all begin, and the wasteland, where the homeless people’s tents will be burned. We pop into the Cherry Orchard Equine Centre where girls are trotting around on horses. There’ll be a pony show here incorporating the Jesus figure.
Along the parade route will be majorettes and choirs, with sulkies leading the procession. There’ll be an eviction scene in someone’s front garden. After more on-stage drama in the civic centre, there’ll be a Best of D10 show with Finbar Furey and X Factor’s Mary Byrne. In the library, there will be a spoken word piece by Shaun Dunne on homelessness.
Then the Jesus figure will be tied up on the flat roof of the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and taken by trailer to Markievicz Park where the “crucifixion” will take place on a netted climbing frame.
If it’s going to be contemporary, you’ve got a huge field to play in because god knows what Jesus would be like if he came back today
A week later, I’m sitting in the library of St John’s secondary school for boys with about 15 second and third years. Some of the boys took part in Ballyfermot’s 1916 celebration, Lost Voices, and have auditioned for parts in The Passion Project. A few seem unsure about what’s going on. One boy, Sam, was at the audition and gives us the gist.
“There’s going to be marching and a protest at a roundabout, and then we go down to the civic centre and someone gets shot,” he says. “There’s gonna be people shouting at the person who shot the person and then that’s where the drumming is going to be.” He tells us about a scene where he has to hold his hand over his mouth, “because we don’t get a say, so that’s what its meant to mean”.
I ask them did they hear about the bonfire part? They almost collectively sit up.
I get a bit worried that I have that wrong so I backtrack slightly. “So who will be involved in the drumming?” I ask.
“I’ll do it,” say some voices from the back, newly enthused.
Pupils from the local schools will be using the drums but it is the men from the Ballyfermot men’s shed who made them. On a Friday morning in March, the men’s shed is a cold place, with an old electric fire making little dent in the chill. Timber is stacked along the walls and jam jars full of paint brushes line the shelves. Everywhere are the men’s own passion projects: swan-shaped flower boxes, intricate garden benches, wooden toys.
“We’d timber there for the cross and that sort of thing, which we’re not using now,” says Matt Flynn, a retired cabinet maker. “We even made the drumsticks. They want placards and signs made to put around the place. Anything they want that we can make, we make.”
So you must be handy enough? “We’re handy in that we only live around the corner,” jokes Billy Hannon.
Flynn tells me about the men who have joined the shed. “Some of them have slight strokes, some of them have lost their wives and they don’t drink or smoke. And then we have other people here for respite, one or two with nerves.” It’s somewhere to go that isn’t the pub or the bookies.
I just feel that this could be the catalyst for something very positive
Jimmy Garland came here when he gave up work to care for his wife, who went blind. He became lonely and depressed in the house. “Matt was taking timber off the roof of his car when I walked in and I said, ‘I’m after being sent here by the doctor.’”
Flynn joked, “Well, we don’t want you here so,” before taking him inside.
The men’s shed was consulted on The Passion Project. “Joyce approached me and she said she was doing it contemporary. She said she had two chaps on board who were going to write it and I said, ‘if it’s going to be contemporary, you’ve got a huge field to play in because god knows what Jesus would be like if he came back today. If you wanted miracles to happen and things like that he’d have to be made homeless.’ ”
“He could’ve wrote it himself,” says Billy Hannon.
At this point, Liam Colohan arrives and asks why the kettle is not on.
Hannon, who has lived in Ballyfermot all his life, tells me how years ago they had a passion play every year “and all the local young fellas used to be dressed up as Roman soldiers and bring their horses and that. They’d be galloping up and swinging their swords. It was to get the horse community involved.”
He thinks the community is no longer quite as tight-knit. “People are working all hours to pay a mortgage so you don’t see them. There’s a girl moved in across the road over a year ago and I still don’t know her name.”
Garland gives me a lift back to the civic centre, praising the shed on the way. “I found the hardest thing to do was walk through the gates and say I’m having a problem.”
In the civic centre, I meet Vincent Jackson, “the longest independent councillor on Dublin City Council”. “I think people are getting very excited,” he says. “Because it’s a little bit different.”
Adds Jackson: “The parish priest in the Assumption church says to me, ‘It’s very different, Vincent’ and I said, ‘It is, Fr Richard.’ He’s allowing the church to be used, the grounds and all. I’m delighted that they’ve all bought into it.”
He hopes The Passion Project will provoke a conversation about the “shocking” housing crisis, and he thinks it might address part of the perceived divide between Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot. “I just feel that this could be the catalyst for something very positive.”
Two weeks after the last rehearsal the actors are around a table again. Brokentalkers’ Feidlim Cannon creeps around the table, whispering direction into ears. There is less joking. Donal O’Kelly slips off and re-emerges in a pinstripe suit fit for a ruthless developer. There are a few wolf whistles. He grabs the lapels and says, “Louis Copeland made this for me himself.”
Sure it’s for the community, isn’t it?
Then everyone is moved outside to practice being in the open-air. They are doing an eviction scene and their voices are rebounding off the concrete walls. Everyone is beaming with the sort of energy that comes from knowing something is working well. Chelsea Butterly and Jordan Begley mime blocking the door of their house and henchman Tony Fagan calls for the battering ram.
One of the actors, Mark Curley, comes over to chat. He’s 17 and has never done anything like this before. He’s chuffed with his baddie role. Watching the eviction scene, he says, “My house has been in the family for 50 years. If what’s happening to Chelsea happened to me, I’d lose the plot.”
I leave the rehearsal and walk up Ballyfermot Road to Chelsea’s mother Julie’s house, where that eviction scene will take place. A sulky goes past in the cycle lane; the driver has one hand on the rein; the other hand is texting furiously.
For the community
Julie’s house is on the main thoroughfare and the front door is wide open. “I leave it open all day. I’m so used to the area and everyone knows me,” Julie says. For the scene, they will take the door off its hinges and replacing it with a fake one so they can kick it in. “Sure it’s for the community, isn’t it?”
The Butterly name is over the front door, put there after her mother died. “We said we’d get the door and the windows done in her name, and put her name over the door. So I went up to B&Q and picked out Butterly. And me da says, ‘Jaysus what are the neighbours going to think?’ I said, ‘Let them think what they like.’ ”
In the living room, the fire is lit and a fish tank bubbles beside us.Julie has lived in this house all her life. “I was born in the front bedroom.”
She is proud of the community effort. “When we were young, Ballyfermot was rough.” She describes an afternoon in the 1970s as “like the OK Corral”. But there were big fields and in the summer they would chase rabbits and camp “and the parents would bring over the rashers and sausages and let us all cook for ourselves”.
Her husband killed himself almost 18 years ago in the garden of this house. “He just gave me a hug and a kiss and told me he loved me and went out the back.” Her eldest brother was brain damaged and paralysed in an accident when she was seven, “so I take care of Anthony now. You just have to get on with, as they say.”
On The Passion Play not being religious, Julie says, “I don’t think many people are, since all these things came out about the homes. Three things my father predicted was: there’d be a pope with his own name, Francis; the IRA would get part-and-parcel in the Government and they will take over; and if Jesus Christ ever came back down off the cross, they’d kill him again because they’ve learned feck all from the first one.
“And then they knocked on the door with this,” she says, laughing.