‘There’s an Irish client none of us wants to handle ... from the North.’ Enter Gerry Adams

Actor Lisa Dwan on a temporary foray into PR, and her first lessons in Northern Ireland

Lisa Dwan: “I AM DOWN IN THE HOLE THE CENTURIES HAD DUG . . . centuries of filthy weather . . . flat on my face in the dark with the creeping saffron waters it slowly drinks.”

Lisa Dwan: “I AM DOWN IN THE HOLE THE CENTURIES HAD DUG . . . centuries of filthy weather . . . flat on my face in the dark with the creeping saffron waters it slowly drinks.”

 

On April 13th, 2001, I was fired from a shop job in London. It was Good Friday. In fairness, looking back, they were completely right. I was useless at it. I couldn’t help myself from telling customers that garments were overpriced, poorly made or ill-fitting, and left the shop unattended every few minutes to have a cigarette.

I was in one of life’s troughs. I had only left Ireland a few months earlier, largely because a “great man” of the theatre had told me in no uncertain terms: “You’ll never work in this town again.”

At the time, in my youthful arrogance, I just laughed it off as a hilarious cliche, but I very quickly realised that he had the last laugh. Because he turned out rather quickly, in fact, to be right. I didn’t really understand why. Actually, that’s not true. I knew why. But how was this even possible? I didn’t get how one man’s narrative of me being “tricky” could change the course of my life, causing me to leave the only home I’d ever known. Twenty years later, braver women than me would challenge that man’s 33-year reign.

When I first moved to London, my father sent over a computer from Lidl, along with a digital skills course (The European Computer Driving Licence) and a CD-ROM of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and off I went. “You-are-doing-very-well. You-are-on-one-word-per-minute,” Mavis told me with as much computerised sincerity as she could muster. “I can type!” I remember boasting to Fiona, an Irish customer who had come into the shop a couple of months before. As I was fastening her up, she told me that she ran a literary PR agency.

“Oh . . . what’s PR?” I’d asked.

“Talking to people,” she said. “You’d be good at it.” She mentioned some of her clients, described the books she publicised and was impressed that I’d read most of them. I was glad she didn’t buy that awful jacket with the weird zips. I liked her.

“Wetting rain,” as my mother would have called it, melded with my own tears as I fled from the threshold of that shop’s awning where I had just been fired. I had no education, no family, no prospects – my fairytale dream of becoming an actress was slipping further and further away. I couldn’t even hold down a shop job. How was I going to pay rent? How could I call my parents over Easter and tell them I’d been fired? I had fallen from conventional safety into one of life’s little cracks and, most of all, I had this funny little accent. I felt the weight of all my failures as I sat on a pew in St Dominic’s Priory, sheltering from the lashing rain.

I wept

The priory was on the bend between South End Green and Camden. I don’t know what possessed me to run in there, or how long I stayed. I wept into my hair and my hands until eventually, a man sidled over to me.

“Do you want me to hear your confession?” he asked.

I hadn’t been in a confessional box since I was 12 years old. Uncertain, in case they were going to send me back out into the rain again, I whispered, “I’m very lapsed. I can’t even remember how the prayers go.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “Give it a go. You might be surprised by what you remember.”

“Bless me, Father, for I have . . . f*ck . . . Oh sorry . . . Shit . . . Sorry!”

‘Just tell me your sins,’ he said, and I replied with sobs, snot and confusion. He was right after all, because suddenly the same old prefabricated list came flooding back with all of its solemn insincerity: “I was disrespectful to my mother; I said a bad word. . .” He seemed pleased.

He asked me what my favourite piece of music was.

“Bach’s cello concerto,” I answered.

“Well, for your penance, go home and listen to that,” he said. “I’m Derek, by the way. You’ll find me here most days.”

Derek was no priest.

When I stepped back outside, I turned on my Samsung flip phone and there was one new voicemail: “Hello Lisa. This is Fiona. We met in a shop on Hampstead High Street. Look, for some reason, I like you, and if you would be interested in a job in publishing, give me a call.” I phoned her back immediately and told her that fortuitously, as it just so happened, I had a gap in my diary.

“There’s an Irish client none of us wants to handle,” she told me when we met. After a pause, her voice lowered. “He’s from the North, and . . . if you’re happy for me to throw you in at the deep end, and give it a go, there might be a proper job at the end of it for you.”

I had never been to Northern Ireland. I’m from a small town in the middle of Ireland, between Dublin and Galway. We were brought up violently apathetic towards the North. Questions about Ireland’s civil war, the IRA and the Troubles were – much like drink-driving, or the plausibility of the Eucharist – frowned upon in our house and met with terse, taciturn responses.

Enniskillen bombing

In truth, anyone who had heard Gordon Wilson’s testimony about holding his dying daughter’s hand under the rubble of 1987’s Enniskillen bombing would understand any parent’s desire to turn that horror and helplessness into hope; the urgency to pull a child’s imagination away from the graves, the bloodshed and the stories of our history, guiding them towards a broader landscape, to another possibility. And that, to us at least, was Europe.

My parents may have often taken a somewhat questionable “free-range” approach to parenting, but on this point, their efforts stuck out. We understood that they were born to children of “New Ireland”, born out of the bitter bloodshed of a civil war, and they were determined not to let that define us. I don’t ever remember seeing a Tricolour at home. Instead, our house is called Shalom and is cluttered with Spanish dolls, Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba records. Pictures of Italian tenors line our walls, alongside Padro Pio’s glove and various African carvings. There were stories told to us about our family history, that the Dwan’s were black Irish – either Italian, Spanish or Portuguese depending on who was telling it – and that they’d arrived onto the shores of Ireland with the Armada. Who knows what the truth is, but our name does translate into Gaelic as Ó Dubháin: the black one.

“Falls Road, please,” I said to the black-taxi driver at Belfast Airport. The only thing he batted an eyelid at, quite rightly, was my low-cut top and inappropriate cleavage. I had spent the previous night trying to apply my Mavis Beacon know-how to a press release for a book I hadn’t even read and didn’t have time to buy any “professional” attire. In desperation, I called my sister, who is in international relations.

“Help me,” I begged. “Tell me what to say. I’ve never even seen a press release let alone written one!”

“Jesus Christ, Lisa – you cannot do this, it’s insane!”

“I have to,” I whimpered. “It’s my only chance of a job.” There was silence on the other end of the line, until eventually, she said, “Well, I suppose you could call him a political visionary.” P-O-L-I-T-I-C-A-L (spacebar) V-I-S-I-O-N-A-R-Y. I was off.

In late 2001, a new term entered our collective consciousness: WAR ON TERROR. It was the phrase of the moment. Bush and Blair bandied it about ad nauseam, but I soon learned that one man’s alleged terrorist is another failed actress’s new PR client. Enter Gerry Adams.

Press release

The fact that our introduction began with him correcting the name of his book on my press release was indicative of our future together. In fact, I turned out to be so terribly bad at my job that at times I was somehow brilliant. Looking back, I didn’t know what any of the rules were so I broke them all, and that tends to get attention.

Gerry Adams was the only remotely suspected terrorist I’d ever heard of, and for any child growing up in England or Ireland, his was a face, and voice, to be feared. Margaret Thatcher even had the bizarre notion of banning his voice from being broadcast, which, incidentally, is how Stephen Rea – the great Beckett actor – paid off his mortgage: by portraying Adams’ voice on radio and television in the late 1980s.

Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife by Samuel Beckett: “I have learned to give my imagination permission to dissolve the boundaries of my small self.”
Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife by Samuel Beckett: “I have learned to give my imagination permission to dissolve the boundaries of my small self.”

Overnight I found myself chairing press conferences in the House of Commons, with a room full of hostile political journalists. “Ah, lads, please. Can we talk about the book?”

“Not so long ago, she would have been arrested for knowing me,” Gerry once told a young British journalist. “I may have been better off!” I retorted. “So might I!” he joked.

While the War on Terror raged, I listened to personal testimonies of waterboarding, internment and even young blindfolded men being taken up in helicopters and pushed out – not knowing they were only a few feet off the ground until they landed. I heard about Belfast, Falls Road, prison, hunger strikes, about the long road to the peace process. I remember a long car journey in which I asked Gerry if he resented me for my apathy; for the privilege that allowed me to be so ambivalent about something he devoted his life to. Did he resent me for the perspective Europe gave me? He understood when I said that it would be inauthentic for me to foster sentimental feelings about the North. We swapped stories, told jokes, he recited poetry. He forgave me whenever I was late, or gave him the wrong information, or turned up too hungover to function. I watched him laugh, hug trees. I saw him vulnerable. He was there the day my heart was broken. He saw me get sober and pull my life together. He rang when my dad slipped into a coma. He turned up at the opening night of my Beckett trilogy in Belfast.

No’s Knife

The last time I met Gerry Adams was in the gardens of Leinster House. He had invited me to watch the historic Abortion Bill being sworn in, from the gallery. I was in Dublin performing a one-woman show from my own adaptation of Beckett’s prose. He had attended the night before and told me that he found it very moving but didn’t understand it. I told him Beckett often wanted his work to play on the nerves of the audience, not their intellect. These “texts for nothing” were written in the 1950s when Europe was trying to come to terms with herself after the war, as she is again now. I called the piece “No’s Knife” from a line in the piece: “The screaming silence of No’s knife in Yes’s wound.”

It was intimidating territory, attempting to turn a gathering of Beckett’s prose into a theatrical piece. What was I going to do with my body? One phrase gave me the greatest visual clue: ‘I AM DOWN IN THE HOLE THE CENTURIES HAD DUG . . . centuries of filthy weather . . . flat on my face in the dark with the creeping saffron waters it slowly drinks.”

I’m from the Bog, the centre of Ireland, where the Bog of Allen lies across it like an open wound. Where “the creeping saffron waters” contain a set of chemicals that preserves flesh. I thought of the bog bodies that were dug up from the ground, centuries-old, hands bound – a brutal death. The same creatures that inspired Heaney to write Tollund Man. The bog where the IRA discarded bodies. I thought of bodies that lay across fields in Flanders. I thought about our unburied dead. The wounds that won’t die. The traumas that won’t shush.

Gerry asked me if I wouldn’t mind sending him a recording of some of the Beckett pieces so he could play them to a friend of his who was dying.

“Leave! All you had to do was stay at home . . . Home! They wanted me to go home . . . Where would I go if I could go? Who would I be if I could be? What would I say if I had a voice?’

You’d be hard-pressed not to hear all the political resonances in these words. As I read and rehearsed, the lines’ images flashed before me; all the drowned unnamed refugee souls. I thought of that image of that little boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a shore in Turkey. Who would he have been if he had been allowed to be? I think of all the women who are still “down in the hole the centuries have dug”. I think of the remains of the 800 or so babies recently found in the septic tank of the Magdalene laundry, 10 miles from where I grew up and wonder what they would say if they had a voice? I think of Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist from Northern Ireland who was shot and killed in Derry in 2019, the most recent casualty in a conflict that has left more than 3,000 people dead. I think again of “the screaming silence of No’s knife in Yes’s wound”.

Communing with dead

So much of Beckett is communing with the dead. And in a way, I feel the presence, the voices of all that lot with me. Or, as Beckett says, “those of the dead, those of the living and those of those who are not yet born . . . It is they have taught me all I know.” They’re my guides up there under the lights, watching on in the darkness.

One of the greatest gifts from my 13 years or so of sensory deprivation in his Not I – a -play for a disembodied pair of lips – was that as time went on, I increasingly stopped feeling like a human being. Hovering eight feet above the stage with my blindfolded head tied into a vice, my arms in brackets, was ultimately just so damn liberating. To have your body removed, as a woman, was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever known. I got to play a consciousness – a trillion voices – not one consciousness but consciousness itself, a continent of consciousness. It actually altered my voice, and a shocking guttural tone arrived from way beyond my female or even human register. I got to peel away the trappings and entrapment of a woman, of what society has done to us as women, go beyond the limitations we set ourselves, the little palatable realities shaped by our fears.

The truths Beckett tells, and the picture of us he puts before us, strip away false comforts. Beckett has shown me time and again that sentimentality isn’t truthful – it is the language of gangsters. Beckett offers no history lesson, no sermon, no story, only the wound.

It concerns me deeply that we live in times when new boundary lines are being drawn. When the news is filled with the same old conversations about nationalism that never took us anywhere; when even swastikas rear their depraved heads again; when Ireland faces the potential of having a new hard border driven back through her heart; when masked men shoot dead a bright star in her prime and parade down O’Connell Street in Dublin. In a world being led by the likes of Trump and Putin, forging division, perpetuating hate and fear and lies, against the backdrop of Brexit and the rise of nationalism throughout Europe and the world. We need a different narrative, to overcome the oppressive voices that threaten us from without and from within.

In the world Beckett showed me, I have learned to give my imagination permission to dissolve the boundaries of my small self, where, on this stage, I go beyond the confines of identity that imprison me – it is here that I find this new narrative, this new tale of myself.

We need to see that we are much greater and richer than our paltry ideas of identity can stretch to, that we are, as Beckett says, “Of one mind, all of one mind . . . deep down we’re fond of one another.”

This is an edited version of Lisa Dwan’s essay taken from Europa28, edited by Sophie Hughes & Sarah Cleave and published on March 12th by Comma Press, in partnership with Hay Festival

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