My English Tongue, My Irish Heart: the story of emigration to England on stage

Martin Lynch’s play draws inspiration and content from autobiographical accounts of Irish life in Britain stretching back to the early 1700s and collected in my book

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On Friday, May 1st, a new play by Martin Lynch opens in Belfast. After a week’s run in the city, during which it will play to audiences from both sides of the sectarian divide, the play will be toured by Martin’s not-for-profit theatre production company, Green Shoot Productions, to arts and community venues in rural Ireland, before moving to venues in Manchester and London.

My English Tongue, My Irish Heart tells the story of Irish emigration to England through the generations, exploring the perplexities of living with, and between, two worlds. The play, which features a cast of five, centres on a young, educated couple – Gary, a Mayo Catholic, and Susan, a Tyrone Protestant – who, after some time living together in Dublin, decide to emigrate to Manchester. There they encounter not only the universal challenges of finding employment and settling into a new environment, but also, over time, a set of acute dilemmas to do with issues of family and nation, identity and belonging, that are much harder to resolve.

The play is fast-paced, in-the-round, laced with Martin’s trademark humour and punctuated by some of the great songs of Irish emigration – all of which ingredients combine to make for a lively, engaging and at times provocative production, which is jointly funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Manchester.

Adding to the originality of My English Tongue, My Irish Heart is the fact that it draws much of its inspiration and content from autobiographical accounts of Irish life in Britain stretching back to the early 1700s, specifically those collected in my book, The Literature of Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). This means that the story of Gary and Susan’s 21st-century odyssey is criss-crossed by the stories of those who have gone before them, from lawyers, labourers and journalists to pickpockets, politicians and professional street preachers.

The experience of working collaboratively with Martin to transform the fruits of my research into an empathetic theatrical production has been as educative as it has been enjoyable. One of the first questions we asked ourselves – can you write a play about Irish emigration that doesn’t feature a suitcase? – set the tone for many of the discussions that followed, as we exchanged ideas about the most appropriate form, style and idiom in which to dramatise a kaleidoscopic range of historical experiences of emigration, and interweave them with a decidedly contemporary tale of uprooting and regrounding.

Though never fractious, not all of these discussions resulted in ready consensus between us. Sometimes, I found myself pressing Martin to make greater use of the source materials in my book, or to delve deeper into the experiences and emotions they express, only for him to respond by reminding me of the playwright’s core need to entertain as well as to inform. Audiences mustn’t be bored or feel they are being lectured to. A preachy script is a recipe for deadly dullness.

Seeing the script evolve and take shape has been an absorbing experience in itself. Unlike a book manuscript, on which one can write “finalised version” with some confidence before dispatching it to a publisher, a playscript remains remarkably fluid and open to change right up until opening night. Although this wasn’t exactly news to me, I hadn’t before realised quite how central the rehearsal process is to the creative process, how much more it entails than simply preparing a play for performance.

Academics like me often reach for the term interdisciplinarity to describe what happens when we take part in conversations outside our discipline or area of expertise. More often than not, however, these conversations are carried on within the familiar precincts of the university and do little to disturb established categories or hierarchies of knowledge. I now understand better than I did before that when these institutional barriers are breached a more genuine kind of interaction can take place between those on either side of the campus boundary.

The dialogue I have had with Martin over this past year has been of a grittier, less cut-and-dried kind than that which I am used to having with my academic peers. As a result, it has opened my mind to different ways of structuring and representing my research to a much broader audience.

All of which I welcome, because for me, the driving force of this whole project has been my desire to connect my research with audiences beyond academia, including those people and communities my research is about, so as to prompt them to reflect more deeply on the nature, meaning and effects of migration, both historically and in the present.

This is why Martin and I decided to tour the play to counties in the west of Ireland – Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Tipperary, Kerry – that have known emigration for centuries, before taking it to two English cities with large and long-established Irish-born and Irish-descended populations. Introducing the play to Belfast audiences is no less important to us, not least because the city’s character and development have been profoundly shaped by immigration and emigration since the earliest times.

I also wanted to explore with Martin the capacity of research-based drama to deepen understandings of the lived experience of Irish migrants in Britain at different times and places, while at the same time allowing him the artistic freedom to respond creatively to the testimonies in my book.

Research-based theatre is usually associated with research in the social and medical sciences, where it is often credited with engendering a new layer of audience engagement and participation on an embodied level. Might the same be true if this theatrical subgenre was used to recast the outcomes of humanities research in dramatic form? To what extent is such research amenable to theatrical rendition? Can it offer an alternative, more vivid way of presenting non-academic audiences with socially relevant knowledge?

After a year of collaborative activity with Martin, I do not yet have clear-cut answers to such questions, and this may still be the case even after My English Tongue, My Irish Heart has it final tour performance at the London Irish Centre in Camden Town on May 31st.

But I do know that my thinking has been greatly challenged and enriched by our collaboration, and I am greatly looking forward to hearing the responses of audiences on both sides of the Irish Sea to the play.

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