In May 2008, Democratic Unionist Party MP Iris Robinson gave an interview to the Stephen Nolan radio show on BBC Northern Ireland. In it she expressed sorrow that a gay man had been beaten almost to death in a homophobic attack in Belfast. Homosexuality was still an ‘abomination’ to Iris however, but homosexuals like murderers could be forgiven by accepting Jesus. She had a lovely NHS psychiatrist, who worked with her who could help those suffering from the ‘abomination’ to be cured. To say that the interview caused a reaction is quite an understatement. Universally condemned for her religious and homophobic extremism, neither Iris or her political party backed down. Her party colleague Ian Paisley Junior (son of the Reverend Senior who in the early 1980s campaigned against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the north with the catchy slogan ‘Save Ulster from sodomy’) supported Robinson. Iris’ husband Peter Robinson – then the First Minister of Northern Ireland remained silent – possibly too busy shouting ‘No, no, no’, at any questions being posed to him.
She later stated in parliament that “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children” (although she later claimed that this direct quote had been misinterpreted. )
The BBC started doing some investigation into Mrs. Robinson’s background and in January 2010 a Spotlight documentary was released which revealed that throughout the previous year’s controversy, 60 year old Iris had been conducting an extra-marital affair (I’m assuming said affair was ‘torrid’) with a 19 year old named Kirk McCambley, and that she’d been using her political influence to get loans approved for him to open a cafe. Iris checked herself into a psychiatric unit and announced her retirement from public life.
Last night I went to the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre to see ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe and starring Amy Conroy. First and foremost, this wasn’t an entirely awful show, but one that has major problems.
Written in 2013, about a woman whose mother suffered from mental health issues, attempting suicide for the first time when her daughter was only seven. To cope with this horror, the little girl starts a list of all the lovely things in life – hence the play title ‘Every brilliant thing’. From a seven-year old’s perspective this involves things like ice-cream; sunshine; the colour yellow; being allowed to stay up late to watch television. The story progresses to various points throughout her life where her mother’s continuing struggle with her mental health impacts on her daughter, whose own mental health is challenged. The list of numbered brilliant things continues as time progresses – reaching into the thousands. Clearly mental health is a serious topic, and one that affects every family in the land. This is not where the problem lies.
In December 2019, upon the announcement of the Abbey Theatre’s 2020 programme of events, I bought a ticket to see ‘Faith Healer’ by Brian Friel for its March revival. Starring Niamh Cusack, Aidan Gillen and Nigel Lindsay, it would be my first time seeing an adaptation of a Brian Friel play. Obviously the production was cancelled, along with all other live events. These have only just reappeared in the last couple of months, after almost two years of darkened stages.
I met Aidan Gillen randomly, early during the lockdown. At least I think I did. When I say I ‘met’ him, it may be more accurate to say I ‘encountered’ him. I recognised him from ‘Queer as folk’ from the tail end of the 20th century, and from various other shows. Imagine my surprise when one lunchtime, last spring I was crossing the Samuel Beckett Bridge to my northside of the Liffey, laden down with a bag full of insulin and needles, when he almost crashed into me on his bicycle. I was crossing at the green pedestrian light, and I imagine that he was trying to zip through before the cycle lights turned red. He was quite apologetic as he went on his way. My internal response was ‘Oh look it’s Stuart from Queer as Folk’. I think it was him anyway. If it was, then his politeness was impressive. If it wasn’t then, I retract the cycling slur from his good name. In either case – watch those lights.
Sarah Hanly’s debut play ‘Purple snowflakes and titty wanks’ is currently running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It is a co-production with the Royal Court Theatre in London, and runs in Dublin until 16th October.
A one-woman show starring Hanly, it tells the tale of Saoirse Murphy from her religious secondary school years in a convent school in Enniskerry, to the bright lights of musical theatre college in London. The story is relayed as a conversation between Saoirse and her best friend Aisling, as she struggles with an eating disorder, and her attraction to other girls, while navigating the minefield that the sexual politics of life in a mixed sex school.
Each year over the Christmas and New Year period, the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) stages a show with an extended run. These productions tend to be crowd-pleasers which suits the time of year, and also act as slightly more adult counterparts to the insanity of the panto season. For the past three years I have attended – ‘Drama at Inish’ last year; ‘Come from away’ in 2018; and ‘Let the right one in’ in 2017. All were wonderful.