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Thommas Kane Byrne: ‘There’s a reason most of the roles I’m offered are gangland stories. I’m so sick of it’

The actor has teamed up with Gemma Dunleavy for He Sits of a Tuesday, set in the working-class Dublin community where they grew up

Thommas Kane Byrne has always stood out in Dublin’s crowded performance scene, not only because of what he can do with his face and body – like a latter-day Michael Kidd, he makes whole narratives out of gestures – but also because of his careful use of the natural resource of his home turf. Raised in St Mary’s Mansions, on Seán MacDermott Street, he draws on the greater surroundings of the north inner city and on the buried tensions of his and his community’s identity. To open a conversation with him is to be hit by a great gale of talk.

Few are a better match for him than Gemma Dunleavy, the petite virtuoso, born into Phil Shanahan House on Sheriff Street, who sings about the people, sounds and concrete that have shaped her. (Her track PhilShanahan Soul is a 36-second ode to her former home.) The two met in childhood – “We both would’ve been in that performance space,” Kane Byrne says, smiling, “so we would’ve always been aware of one another” – and speak together in fast-moving sentences. Where one bobs, the other weaves, each peppering in information their friend might have forgotten.

They have collaborated before: Dunleavy has let Kane Byrne use her music in his productions, and Kane Byrne credits Dunleavy’s Setting Son as providing inspiration for his writing. Now, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, they’ve created He Sits of a Tuesday together. As with so much of their work, the piece centres on stories of home. “People are always asking me whether I’ll write about anywhere other than D1,” says Kane Byrne, who wrote the play. “But in each block of flats there are 60 homes with 60 families, and each of them has their own story. How could I not start there?”

He Sits of a Tuesday, a work in progress, follows six working-class women and a girl as they wait in a local politician’s office, all desperate for help. “I’ll be very careful not to mention the name of the person,” says Kane. Dunleavy laughs, then says, “Years ago, politicians would hold clinics in the area to help whoever needed it – say, if you needed a home or if there was a problem in your flat or if someone in your family had problems with drugs or whatever.


“So say if you had a problem, like you needed to get your child into rehab and you didn’t have the money, you’d go to whichever politician was holding these clinics. And this particular one was around on Tuesdays, so people would say to you, ‘He sits of a Tuesday,’ letting you know where you might find them. Because you wouldn’t really know where to get them – it was all word of mouth.”

We’re not just trying to pay lip service. Because we’ve had so many adults pay lip service to our area over the years

—  Gemma Dunleavy on the north inner city

These faces, they say, would never appear. “You’d get this politician putting up posters, and calling himself the face of the inner city, but never actually showing up. And on the odd time he did, he’d tell us all, ‘Leave it with me,’ to the point where we referred to him as Leave It With Me. It became a thing your ma would call you if you didn’t scrub the dishes right or whatever,” Dunleavy says, laughing.

“You know the way with films like The Blind Side there’s the white-saviour complex?” Kane Byrne says. “Well, this is posh-saviour complex.”

When Kane Byrne sees the media portray Dublin 1 as a violent area “it breaks my heart, you know what I mean? Because, at the end of the day, the media are the ones with the platform, and there’s a certain language that they work in, and it is a sensational kind. But we’ve been getting it for years and years, so I’m also sort of desensitised to it. We’ve really stuck it out, through all the hard times, and, like, finally, when you feel it’s kind of prospering a little bit, you get this bullshit again. Like, there’s a reason the majority of the roles I’m offered are gangland stories. I’m so sick of it.”

“We say working-class or under-represented communities when we talk about the north inner city or Ballymun,” says Niamh Ní Chonchubhair of Axis, the north Dublin arts centre that is hosting the production. “But what we really should be calling them is underestimated – underestimated and under-resourced, because we’ve seen what happens when those resources aren’t there.”

It is typical of Kane Byrne, a writer with Roddy Doyle levels of observation, that this essentially tragic tale should be packed with moments of comedy and joy. It is also typical of Dunleavy’s music for difficult topics such as poverty, misogyny and violence to be packaged in beautiful and easily digestible form. In that way, He Sits of a Tuesday is more manifesto than narrative. “In this country you can’t discuss diversity without discussing class,” says Kane Byrne. “And I think the women in this story, though they’re from a certain area, they’re all women we know. They might even be whoever is watching from the audience that night.”

He Sits of a Tuesday has sold out. “I think it’s really resonated because these stories are universal,” says Ní Chonchubhair. “None of us are immune from needing help.”

“And you can resonate with someone no matter what sort of world they’re coming from,” interjects Dunleavy.

I’ve been very lucky to avoid, mostly, being a diversity hire in my industry. People have wanted me for me. And now we’re just trying to give that back to our community

—  Thommas Kane Byrne

Why a story about just women? “Because I just feel like if there’s anything to be said by a man, it’s already been f**kin’ said, in every dialect, in every language, iambic pentameter to f**kin’ O’Casey, like,” says Kane Byrne, laughing. “I’m on a bit of a weight-loss journey at the minute, and it’s, like, if there’s anything nice to be eaten, I’ve already eaten it. It’s the same with men.”

He and Dunleavy hope He Sits of a Tuesday will help to change attitudes. “Everyone from our area is so proud to be from there,” Kane Byrne says. “And in many ways we feel like we’re in our prime. But it’s hard enough to feel novel, or just not a ticked box.” It can feel impossible to break out of being defined as a north-inner-city Dubliner. “If an Olympic gold medallist and an Oscar nominee can’t do it, then who can?” he says, referring to Kellie Harrington and Barry Keoghan. “I’ve been very lucky to avoid, mostly, being a diversity hire in my industry. People have wanted me for me. And now we’re just trying to give that back to our community, so they can have it easier.”

“We’re not just trying to pay lip service,” says Dunleavy. “Because we’ve had so many adults pay lip service to our area over the years. If anything, that’s put a rocket in my pocket to give anything I’ve got from this industry back.”

He Sits of a Tuesday is at Axis Ballymun on Thursday, October 5th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival