Eugene O’Brien embraces the energy that working outside of his comfort zone offers

The writer discusses his debut novel, Going Back, a Pure Mule sequel, and two new plays

As the summer comes to an end, things are heating up for writer Eugene O’Brien. We meet outside on a Saturday morning, the fresh air a welcome reprieve from the heat of the rehearsal room, where he has been working with Pan Pan Theatre on a live production of Mespil in the Dark, the experimental film series he created with the avant-garde theatre company last year, when theatres remained shut due to Covid restrictions. O’Brien has enjoyed revisiting the characters and the Dublin 4 apartment complex where the stories unfold: “It’s like a little world within a world, all these different lives unfolding in one place.”

Pan Pan Theatre seem like an unlikely match for O’Brien, whose work for the stage and small screen has been defined by a vernacular approach that brings poetry to a recognisable rural Irish idiom, and representation of a small-town life that is often unseen and unsung. “I know,” he admits, when I point out the radically different styles in their work. “I’m such a meat and potatoes guy, and they are ‘oh look, let’s see what happens if you throw a pantomime horse in.’” He first worked with the company and director Gavin Quinn in 2017, on The Good House of Happiness, a multicultural adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, at a time when several screenplays he had written were suddenly dropped and “the stuffing was knocked out of me”. In the Pan Pan rehearsal room, O’Brien found that he loved the energy that working outside of his comfort zone offers: “It is such a joy to go into a room where narrative arc, structure, all those things I love, don’t matter, and people are just taking risks. It opens your head right up.”

It was with that spirit of risk and the pursuit of joy that O’Brien found himself revisiting an even older story of his last year, for his debut novel Going Home, which is also being launched this month. The novel is set in the world that O’Brien is best known for: small-town midlands Ireland, where his play Eden (2000) and the ancillary TV series Pure Mule (2005) were set. The play and series charted the lives of several characters in a fictional town in Co Offaly over the course of a single weekend: the unhappily married couple, Billy and Breda; the sexually voracious young women Geraldine and Jennifer; and, most memorably, the pugnacious builder Scobie, who O’Brien describes as “the archetypal heavy drinking, King of the Weekend type”, who was determined to outdo his gentler brother Shamie in every context, but especially when it came to women.

Eden remains the play for which O’Brien is best known, while the six-part series was probably the most successful drama that RTE produced that decade. O’Brien attributes the success to the audience’s appetite to see their own lives reflected on stage and screen. “It was something that was very real. These were ordinary people and we were going into their inner lives, and their inner sexual lives, in a way that people hadn’t been done as much, and definitely not in Ireland.”


They didn’t say they wanted a Pure Mule book or anything, but for the first book

The opportunity to return to the character of Scobie came from an unlikely source at the height of the pandemic. “RTE screened Pure Mule again during Covid,” O’Brien explains, “and there was a lot of interest in it, a whole new generation watching it, and that was very gratifying. [The publishing team at] Gill watched it and they asked me would I be interested in writing a book. They didn’t proscribe it in any way. They didn’t say they wanted a Pure Mule book or anything, but for the first book I thought, ‘do you know what? Write something you know about’ and I know Scobie really well. At the end of The Last Weekend [a two-part Pure Mule special, which RTE aired in 2009], Scobie goes to Australia and I always wondered what happened to him after that.”

Starting out, O’Brien was terrified of tackling a new literary form: a novel does, after all, contain “an overwhelming amount of words”. In his plays, O’Brien tends towards the terse: “I am conscious of people’s time, I love editing, cutting. Taking 10 lines and having someone get to the point in three.” Screenwriting, he elaborates, “is so direct. Man with red hat gets off bus.” However, with the novel “you have to make the sentences flow, you have to use better words. I thought I knew how a novel worked — I read a lot — but really, I learned it all by doing. Thankfully, I was working with a brilliant editor, and that helped.” When O’Brien got into the flow of the story he found it coming in “plain language, and that was okay, I just wanted to get it done. Maybe I will be a bit more literary,” he quips, “if I get another chance”.

The form of the novel also allowed him to get deeper under Scobie’s skin in a way he could not in a play or TV script. As the book opens, Scobie is “nearly 40 and he just can’t settle. I wanted to find out why is that. I wanted to delve under the belly of him, have a look at what’s behind the bluster.” O’Brien had his own crisis when he was 40. “I found turning 40 really difficult. I was confused. I found myself drinking too much. I gave up drinking [like Scobie does], and that was a great thing to do, to go out into the world without that crutch, you really learn about yourself.”

Scobie’s journey to self-awareness is not quite as easy. “Scobie is the kind of person who is always involved in other people’s business. And it’s the same thing here.” In Going Back he reunites with familiar characters — his old flame Deirdre, who now has a gambling addiction — and he also introduces us to new ones: Deirdre’s daughter, for example, who is being blackmailed by a local guard. “I do a lot of work back home in Banagher,” where he grew up, he says, “and I really wanted to reflect a new generation. There’s a sort of shadow world that isn’t often talked about or seen. And of course Scobie gets involved with the younger ones; he is looking at them in a fatherly way. But really, being in other people’s business, it’s a way of distracting him from who he really is. In the book he literally goes back to something that happened a long time ago and we realise that’s what made him who he is.”

With publication set for September 15th, O’Brien has another new project ready to take his attention: Fishamble Theatre premieres his new play Heaven at the Dublin Theatre Festival at the end of the month. Written in the first months of the pandemic, the play is set in the same midlands town that Scobie lives in, although it involves characters we have not met before. Like Going Back, however, the drama circles the theme of return, introducing us to Mairead and Mal, a middle-aged couple in a loveless marriage, on the night they come back to Offaly for a family wedding.

I suppose the play is about loneliness, maybe, the loneliness you feel when you can’t confide in anyone

Like Eden, the play is a dual monologue, a form that O’Brien has enjoyed returning to. “I suppose the play is about loneliness, maybe, the loneliness you feel when you can’t confide in anyone, and [the theatre] is this magic space where you are allowed to express yourself, and move on or not.” Unlike Billy and Breda in Eden, O’Brien is happy to admit, Mairead and Mal’s “is a good marriage, and they do manage to find a way to move on”. How they get there, however, is another story.

Mespil in the Dark runs from September 5-10 at the Mespil Flats

Going Back is published by Gill Books

Heaven runs at Draíocht, Blanchardstown from Oct 6-8 and Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire from Oct 12-16 as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, before touring nationwide.

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer