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From the Archive: Niall Williams

Editor’s Choice: An interview with Niall Williams from August 1991

Niall Williams in 1991: “one of the select breed of highly successful Irish writers of whom many sophisticated readers in Ireland have scarcely heard”

Niall Williams’s eighth novel, History of the Rain, is reviewed by George O’Brien in The Irish Times this Saturday. Born in Dublin in 1958, he moved to New York in 1980 then back to Co Clare on April 1st, 1985, with his wife Christine. His first plasy, The Murphy Initiative, was staged by the Abbey Theatre in 1991 and his first novel, Four Letters of Love, followed in 1997. He was first interviewed in The Irish Times on August 10th, 1991, by Harry Browne, under the heading, Polar Attractions

NIALL Williams is one of the select breed of highly successful Irish writers of whom many sophisticated readers in Ireland have scarcely heard.

That’s because the young author’s success to date has been almost exclusively with foreign audiences, to whom he and his Irish-American wife, Christine Breen, have told the story of their years living the simple life in a west Clare cottage . They’ve written three best-selling books, which have been excerpted in Reader’s Digest and translated into three languages.

With his first play, “The Murphy Initiative”, currently in preview at the Abbey under Paul Mercier’s direction, Williams’s name is set to become more familiar on home shores. He owes this coming-out to his recent “discovery” by the theatre’s artistic director, Garry Hynes, in a sequence of events which should encourage aspiring playwrights to keep a close eye on the columns of this newspaper.

“There was an advertisement in The Irish Times for the National Writers Workship, 1990-91 session,” Williams explains. “It was to be held in Galway, to be in playwriting, and Garry Hynes was to be the moderator.” Having for several years been a fan of Ms Hynes’s work at Galway’s Druid Theatre, he was immediately attracted. By way of application he submitted a play he and Christine had been working on; he was accepted.

Eight participants regularly mulled over each other’s work, performed for them by actors, for about two months. “I started writing the play in the last fortnight. The first act of ‘The Murphy Initiative’ was performed on the final afternoon of the workshop in January, to general praise. Garry made me an offer very soon thereafter; the Abbey optioned the play and I then had to write it.” Was all that a bit intimidating? “ I was terrified . I still am terrified.”

But how did this middle-class Dubliner come to be sweating over a typewriter in Clare? This may seem common enough these days, but the route is not so direct as one might guess – and its first leg was the yet more common transatlantic one. Williams met his wife to be when they were both studying for Masters degrees at UCD; in 1980 he joined her in her native New York suburbs.

In early 1985, they were both making the 90-minute trip from Westchester to publishing jobs in Manhattan. But the opportunity which had arisen to move into her “ancestral cottage” at Kiltumper, near Kilmihil in southwest Clare, offered them the commuter’s dream: to get out. He would write, she would write and paint (her work graces their books), and they would have 60 acres to try their hands at some farming.

Within five years, they published three memoirs of life in Ireland – “O Come Ye Back to Ireland”, “When Summer’s in the Meadow “ and “The Pipes are Calling”. (The “Danny Boy” titles, says Williams, were the US publisher’s idea .) The “Kiltumper books”, as he calls them, are not as unromantic about life in “the West” as he now rather defensively suggests. Nonetheless, their sense of intimacy and community is irresistible – and Irish bad weather does honestly dominate the first volume, set in sodden 1985.

For many Irish-Americans, Williams and Breen are living a fantasy, and four years after the first book was published they still get some 200 pilgrims a year to their cottage. “They come to take photographs, get the book signed, and then they go,” he says . “I’ve had people crying in my kitchen.”

No surprise, then, that “The Murphy Initiative” explores the polar attractions of Irish and American identity. “It’s about the cross-fertilisation of Irish and American cultures out in the West of Ireland. It’s about the meanings we give to place, and about the importance of language.”

Williams is keen not to reveal too much plot. The play is set in a village full of Murphys, where two American Murphys arrive, desperate – “more desperate than anyone else” – to locate their roots . A county councillor is moved to take an initiative which will save the parish and keep his son from emigrating . Comedy and significant ironies abound: American Justin Murphy, for example, can quote line for line from every Irish play written before 1968, while Irishman T.B. Murphy can do the same for the film “The Magnificent Seven”. Situations, says Williams, “are taken to the Nth degree , almost to the point of science fiction.

“But the Americans are not dumb Yanks, and the Irish characters are not cute hoors. It’s not the play which people immediately think it’s going to be; if it were it wouldn’t be going on at the Abbey.”

His claims for the play are, in the end, ambitious . “It’s saying: ‘We need you and you need us,’ for different reasons. Both those needs are so entangled at this stage that they’ve produced the thing that is what we need to survive.”