AN IRISHWOMAN'S DIARY
JOHN Murphy, from Ballaghy, Charlestown, Co Mayo, wrote a play in 1958 called The Country Boy. It was performed in 1959 by the Group Theatre company in Belfast, and more than a month later at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It was runner up in the all Ireland drama finals at Athlone in 1960, where it was performed by the superb Charlestown drama group.
John wrote no further plays. His talent was siphoned off into Australian radio scripts, and he finally ended up in the Hollywood studios. Almost 40 years later, the Charlestown players have re enacted the play as a gesture of honour to the author on his return to Charlestown.
John, speaking of his inspiration for the work, described the clamour of voices from his imagined characters, each demanding to be heard. His influences, he said, were American dialogue from early cinema, family stories and experience of emigration, a way of life in Mayo. He wrote the play in a child's copy book.
Not every tribe is lucky enough to have its own mirror holder and shaman. Ballaghy has its in John Murphy. The playwright deals with the murky area which follows emigration for so many, the lack of success, the burden of memory and how it hinders integration and commitment.
The play forces the main character Eddie, dreamer and fantasizer, to confront reality and leave behind impossible yearnings. Through the confrontation, Julie, Eddie's American wife, who had been almost a caricature, rises to a new dignity as she becomes aware of the supportive role she has played while her husband dreamt and drank. The Ireland he left has changed, and he resolves at the play's end to make a life away from the limbo that went with constantly looking back.
At the recent production of the play by the Charlestown players, an involved intensity by the audience showed how accurately John Murphy had mirrored their lived experience of emigration, change and return to change, of displacement and lack of integration. The dialogue cut through layers of backward looking, maudlin nostalgia. Amiasmic vapour offimagined, idyllic past, was confronted by the reality of a returning unsuccessful Eddie and his American wife. The empty stateroom trunk he bears' home to impress symbolises the emptiness of his previous 15 years.
A 39 year old play it may be, but The Country Boy is still relevant. The compliance of the women makes it a little dated, but when steel is needed in confrontation, it is forthcoming from the women too.
Brash but real
Julie, brash but real, says to Eddie: "And even though I should have left you ... I never did. I had no folks who got their dinner from their own backyard instead of a store. I had no folks at all ... that I can remember. And if in all my life I'd never seen anything greener than the grass in Central Park, was that my fault? Was that any reason why you'd come home night after night and speak to me as if all the troubles in our life were caused by me?
No, Ed. All the troubles in your life you poured on yourself from a whiskey bottle. And because I had no folks of my own ... I thought it was great to look upon yours as mine. And Thanksgiving time came around ... and I knew they could do with something ... it wasn't you, Ed. It wasn't you. It was my hard hours in the dime store that made it possible for us to send a check. I don't know what you want me to be, Ed. No good you standing at the apartment window on a rainy evening, swaying there with a whiskey bottle in your hand and wishing the past would catch up with you ... and make you a man again."
Eddie remembers the stark reality of New York, the apartment where you had to make your way around the stinking garbage on the steps and the low, life doping up on the landing. Eddie entreats his younger brother Curly to seize the day, stay at home, confront his autocratic father, marry the girl he loves, and not use emigration as a let out from reality.
Some fit in
"Some guys fit in, they become part of the bricks and concrete, the railway tracks. They never smell the gasoline fumes or the stink from the chimneys. Other guys are country boys looking for something that's no longer there. When you're down on your luck and not a dime in your pocket, you can get a great view of the sun shining on the face of Nephin from Times Square."
Eddie can no longer keep shooting a line. The audience knows him. He is a brother, a son. A Morrison visa holder might feel the same, and fear the expectations of an American success he may be unable to achieve and sustain.
Attending the Charlestown players production of his play John Murphy was among his own, and they polished every nuance for him. His contemporaries were there too, the cast of the 1959 production was there, and a new audience of people from Ballaghy, Charlestown and Ballaghaderreen, to welcome him as only Mayo knows, how.
He had completed the circle, emigration via Belfast, Australia and Los Angeles. Success, return, and endorsement by his own. It was an emotional night in Charlestown. There was duchas in the air, the same duchas and hope that was in Mayo in 1986 when in torrential rain the people gathered to open an international airport that economists damned.
John Murphy's character, Eddie, faced his ghosts. Eddie's visit home was a catalyst. Decisions were made, life was tackled, real values were seized. John Murphy interpreted an important truth for his people, and travelled to Bellaghy and Charlestown to reiterate it again.
In a long line behind him were other Mayo standard bearers in their time and calling. People like Martin Sheridan, Paul O'Dwyer and Paul Durcan. More recently we have had Paddy Henry, a gifted director of the Charlestown players, and before him Jack O'Donnell, Father T.P Vesey and Pat Griffin, and as always in each generation Charlestown's core of polished actors.
We relived the story of Mayo and its hinterland - as told by "John Murphy - with much emotion. The play has been performed also at the Irish College in Rome. But that's another story.