‘Irish people empathise with the loneliness of the immigrant experience’
New musical combines Irish emigrant and asylum seeker stories
My great-uncle George grew up in rural Tipperary. My childhood memories of him, my grandmother’s brother, are of a well-dressed, white-haired man, with our family’s characteristic aquiline nose. He was deeply religious, and a fan of the Queen. He wore well-made suits and visits to his little apartment in Ballsbridge would end with him sending you home with a gift of half a china tea-set (the other half to be gifted next time). George was held in high regard for being that most privileged of all qualities - he was “himself”.
Uncle George died in 2006 - almost a decade too soon to see his country make history by voting same-sex marriage into law, recognising the equal status of LGBT people in Ireland for the first time. It was only in the months before the referendum that I learnt that George was gay, and about the years he spent away in London, exiling himself, like so many others, from an post-independence Ireland that had become increasingly conservative.
In researching The Mouth of a Shark, a new musical show premiering this week in Dublin, I spoke to Irish emigrants in many cities around the world. Hearing the stories of LGBT people who left home when it was a place of oppression and stigma gave me an insight into what someone like George might have experienced.
As Irish people, the idea of leaving home is engrained in our nation’s narrative. The solution to crises from the Famine through every recession and now, the current housing crisis, has been to exile some of our youngest and brightest. Poverty, unemployment and adventure are the most common reasons given for emigrating. But what about those who left Ireland for other, more complex reasons? Those who left carrying unspeakable pain?
Ireland has failed in being a home to so many. And yet conversely, in 2018, an era of travel bans and Brexit and anti-immigrant sentiment, we are a place of refuge to individuals coming from other countries. In a global context, the country demonstrates the theory that one man’s prison is another’s paradise.
The Mouth of a Shark explores this contradiction. It places the real life experiences of asylum seekers who have arrived in Ireland recently, alongside those who left Ireland in decades past. The commonalities are striking. A woman fleeing a forced marriage in Pakistan, a young gay man from Drogheda who almost joined the priesthood but instead went to New York, a lesbian from Tunisia who was spied on by her violent brother, an Irish woman fleeing the terror of a childhood in an industrial school, a Zimbabwean man attacked and imprisoned for his first love, a man alienated from his family in Belfast in the 70s for being gay and not being involved in the war.
The stories interweave and overlap, testimonies bearing witness to the universal experience of being displaced - the pain of leaving the place you call home and the loneliness and exclusion of being an immigrant in a strange place.
The title of the show comes from a line in the poem ‘home’ by British-born Somali poet, Warsan Shire, about migration: “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well”. It asks us to bears witness to the desperate stories that lead people to flee everything they’ve ever known; an homage to their resilience. But it is also a rally cry to the rest of us to welcome them into our communities. As one of the stories in The Mouth of a Shark asks: “We all need to someone to take us by the hand: so whose hand are you going to take?”
Ireland has come to so far in such a short space of time - “we voted in same-sex marriage, we have a gay Taoiseach, we’re sound”. It’s tempting to see ourselves as a bastion of progressive social values. Yet, when you judge a country on how it treats its most vulnerable, we’ve got a long way to go.
President Michael D. Higgins has called our response to the refugee crisis “grossly inadequate” and “shameful”. Direct provision, which was originally designed as a temporary measure in the 90s, has been dubbed by many as the Magdalene Laundries of our times. We consider ourselves a multicultural country, but how many people of colour are in positions of power or are represented in our culture, on our screens?
We have an opportunity to step up to our reputation as always hospitable and “the friendliest country in the world”. But that means recognising who we are currently excluding and asking, how we might more actively include them and become advocates for their rights? Because Irish people, more than most nationalities, can empathise with the loneliness of the immigrant experience.
I like to imagine my Uncle George wasn’t lonely in London. I like to think he found a community of other young gay men there. I like to think someone took him by the hand and made him feel like he belonged. I hope he was able to speak his truth in a foreign city in a way he felt he couldn’t at home. At the very least, I hope he heard the stories of others like him, who had carried the burden of their untold selves for too long, and that it gave him some semblance of comfort.
The Mouth of a Shark premieres this week at Where We Live, a new festival in Dublin presented by Thisispopbaby with St Patrick’s Festival, and runs at the Complex Dublin from March 11th to 15th. See thisispopbaby.com