Mary Carr, ‘The Plays of Billy Roche’, in Journal of the Irish Theatre Forum, 1, 1 (Summer 1999).

[ Source: Available at UCD/Carysfort Press online; accessed 03.08.2011.]

Of the handful of new Irish writers to come to prominence in recent years, Billy Roche is one of the most compelling. In his refusal to assume the traditional concerns of Irish theatre, Roche has emerged as an almost frightening bearer of an Ireland without historical or religious resonances, a writer whose work is at the same time most local ( the crippled working class life of Wexford town) and at the same time modern and universal. Roche’s dramas represent a radical departure from the traditional themes of Irish theatre. A Handful Of Stars (1988), Poor Beast in the Rain (1989), Belfry (1991) - the three plays which make up the acclaimed The Wexford Trilogy - as well as his subsequent works Amphibians (1992) and The Cavalcaders (1993) offer a remarkable chart of artistic development and one that challenges on many levels our expectations of Irish theatre.

Small town life with its dreamers and losers comprise Roche’s world. Arguably it’s an arena he shares with other Irish playwrights but interestingly he reveals his domain with none of the anger we have come to expect from stage depictions of disappointed Irish characters as evinced in the plays of Tom Murphy to the urban fury of returned émigré Arthur Cleary in Dermot Bolger’s 1990 play The Lament for Arthur Cleary . The tone of rebels such as young Jimmy in Roche’s A Handful of Stars tells less of rage than of a hapless kind of frustration with a rapid, self-deprecatory wit. The themes of family, mother Ireland, mother Church or the Irish mother, sexual guilt, exile and emigration which have provided a mainstay for Irish drama are noticeably absent or substantially re-worked in his plays. The layers of historical or political allegory buried into even the most personal plays of our most prominent contemporary writers like Brian Friel or Tom Murphy are invisible in Roche’s work.

In contrast to Tom Murphy whose themes of disillusionment, the search for forgiveness, and the possibility of redemption, frequently arise out of a historical and political context or Brian Friel who persistently enquires into the boundaries of racial, cultural, national and linguistic identity, Roche’s work with its focusing on human dilemmas, the individual struggle and psychic conditions seems at first glance more straightforward and readily accessible. But that assumption overlooks the remarkable subtlety and skill with which Roche brings to bear on his themes of the necessity and impossibility of romantic love, distrust of industrialisation and more traditional motifs like the trauma of exile and the Irish predilection for fantasy over fact. Profoundly influenced by cinema, by the stories he heard growing up in his father’s pub in Wexford in the 1950s and 60s and by Celtic mythology, Roche has ingested his experiences, integrating them into his work in a manner that establishes an atmosphere more modern than traditionally Irish. In eschewing all traces of sexual neurosis, Catholic guilt, questions of nationalism and a socio-political or historical agenda, Roche creates a contemporary world, one that reflects and represents many of the attitudes and aspects of our time. These suggestions of the deepest and least tangible elements of our experiences, to which we can directly respond are described by Raymond Williams as ‘structures of feeling’ and offer a ‘way of responding to a particular world which in practice is not felt as one way among others - a conscious "way" - but is, in experience, the only way possible.’

Born in 1949 in Wexford town, Roche’s origins provide a clue to his thematic interests. The fifties were a breathing space in Irish history and for his generation a relatively uncluttered period, free from justified anger about England, from enthusiasms about revolutions, free from residual hang-ups about these matters after their solving. As Roche’s contemporary Sebastian Barry writes, to be born at that time in the Republic was ‘to be born with no great ceremony nowhere.

‘It was a country without definition, because it was a new place. But all the acceptance of foreign rule, the dominion of priests, the isolated desire for revolution - islands inside an island - had metamorphosed quaintly into dullness, dismay and inaction. Everything was done by way of freedom, nothing by way of peace.’

For Roche the only simple colour in the place was the local cinema, a twice-weekly event for the town’s youth and the vibrant stories he heard listening in the pub where his father, a lively and entertaining character who drew people to him like a magnet reigned supreme. The family’s Shamrock Bar enjoyed success for a decade until it was burned down as is charted in Tumbling Down , Roche’s first novel, part first-person memoir, past series of thumb-nail sketches about the people who shared the local stage of a small town with young Billy as he grew up. In 1959 the publication of the Whitaker Report heralded an economic revolution that was to dramatically change the face of Ireland. As Fintan O’Toole writes, it was an event that was to have profound implications for the country.

“After 1959 it became impossible to think of an Irish literary movement, because it became impossible to think of ‘Ireland’. Movements need common points of reference, but in the Ireland of the years after 1959 it was precisely the reference points of cultural and political homogeneity which were being removed. Whitaker’s revolution called into being new class forces, new divisions of urban and rural, new consumer choices, new modes of behaviour, so that ‘Ireland’ itself as a fixed and coherent notion which could underlie the work of a writer ceased to exist. It was replaced by a series of divisions, a series of variations on Ireland, a range of individual responses to the problems, not of unity and homogeneity, but of discontinuity, disruption and disunity.”

The effects of economic expansion were profoundly experienced in County Wexford in the sixties where a considerable increase in industrial activity locally led to a reduction in emigration figures and a new prosperity.

Nationalism was abandoned as the single binding economic and cultural force and its ideology which had always placed country above class, founding itself on the belief that what united Irish people was infinitely more important than the petty economic antagonisms which might divide them, gave sway to new class divisions. The sense of a social underbelly to the town runs through Roche’s work from his first play A Handful Of Dust to Amphibians all taking place in somewhat disreputable places from betting offices to snooker halls, populated to varying degrees with outsiders, the dispossessed, the unrespectable. Roche’s plays are immersed in the minutae of class division and social mobility. In Amphibians , factory worker Sonia’s romance with her boss Brian is scorned by her colleagues but regarded by Bridie as ‘ a chance of gettin’ out of here’ (A, 49) while in Belfry , Angela disparages her economically fortuitous marriage to Donal. ‘I never really wanted all the things that other people seem to long for Artie yeh know. Maybe that’s why I got them hah?’ ( WT, 141).

Roche also inherited a society that was sexually freer than its predecessor, where the stranglehold of the church was slowly evaporating and his work is marked by an absence of Catholic guilt or hint of sexual neurosis. His characters couple up and subsequently betray each another with an overwhelming lack of sense of guilt or shame. The moral and ethical issues of the plays are never tackled in the context of religious identity, there is no hint from any of Roche’s characters of they being bound by faith and rigid tradition to the Catholic Church to such an extent that Belfry , a play about a lonely sacristan and his first love affair not only occurs without a single physical expression of religion but also situates adultery right in the house of the lord, an act that would have previously been unthinkable. Roche avoids an examination of institutional power structures in order to focus primarily on the individual.

As Garry Hynes who directed a revival of Poor Beast In The Rain for Druid in 1995 said, ‘Roche is a great urban writer interested in the small lives of small people’. According to Robert Hogan it is this trend towards individualism in contemporary plays that imbues them with universal appeal. ‘The themes of the older Irish plays were usually, in a descending scale of importance, either for or against money, land, the made marriage, patriotism, and hero worship, social climbing, emigration and the clergy. We still find these themes, but we find them translated into terms of individual anguish rather than seen as uniquely national problems.’ But besides individualising these themes, Roche also puts a twist on their execution. Exile and return may be a theme in Poor Beast In The Rain , but Danger Doyle’s homecoming is not in search of a reconciliation with the past or with himself, the traditional motivation for returned émigrés. Roche may adhere to the traditional line of exile as representing a traumatic wrench for the individual but Danger’s matter-of-fact and harshly realistic attitude to his past is a powerful contrast to the mindset of the emigrants of Irish literature. Michael in Tom Murphy’s Conversations on A Homecoming returns to the White House from America, misty-eyed with memories about the past. In contrast to Danger Doyle’s rigidly accurate recollections, Michael’s furious sentimentality finds more of an echo in the emotions of the inhabitants of Wexford town whose romantic attachment to the glorious memory of Danger Doyle and his terrible deeds is re-kindled once word gets around of his return. As Joe fondly recalls ‘ Oh they didn’t call him Danger Doyle for nothing’. (WT,77) But Danger steadfastly refuses to be drawn into their nostalgic reveries about the past, he stands apart from the dreamers and hero-worshippers, determinedly detached Danger’s unremitting aloofness - he even stays in the local County hotel - is in accordance with Roche’s personal view that a person must harden themselves to the call of familiarity and fraternity if they want to survive in exile.

JOE: So what does it feel like to be home, boy?
DANGER: What do it feel like? ...I’ll tell yeh lads, today I found meself snakin’ through the streets of me own hometown like a whatdoyoucallit...Ah I can’t think of the word now....Yeah. A fugitive. (WT, 95)

Roche’s characters, the ‘livin’ dead’ with their ‘small lives’ are caught between staying and going. Their enthusiasm for leaving is constantly echoed in the plays where the option of emigration stands as a conspicuous metaphor for fulfilment and local fame. In A Handful of Stars Linda constantly complains, ‘ I think I’d prefer to be somewhere else’. In Belfry Donal cannot disguise his enthusiasm for Toronto.

DONAL: Yeh won’t know me when I come back hon. I’ll have one of those big plaid jackets on me and a great Canadian accent and all. None of yez’ll know me boy!...Jaysus it’s a brilliant place. I’m not coddin’ yeh. Lashin’s of money out there too...Not like here. We’re only in the ha’penny place here. (WT, 133)

But if Roche’s characters are frequently trapped within the narrow confines of their small town, they are often also plagued with feelings of exclusion. The notion of not belonging is one that runs through the plays leading inexorably to the crisis of leaving. But whatever Roche’s characters think about Wexford it is a stable and fixed entity, a fact that contributes to the difficulty of leaving. The dream of going away versus the stasis of their existence, the opposing forces between those who want to go and those who want to stay often contributes to the tension in the plays. Small town Wexford is monotonous and stultifyingly predictable and the plays, although eroded with incident, like films, have little forward impulse and often resemble compositions. In the 1995 Druid production of Poor Beast In the Rain , the steadily amplifying sound of rain thumping down on the roof of the betting shop underlined the impression of permanence and stasis.

The football and boxing matches, the ballroom dances, the cabaret, the constantly invoked spirits of the endless pantheons of local heros from Bullet O’Brien to Dinky Doyle serve as distractions from humdrum life. The romanticising of individuals alleviates the sense of deadness but the escapists are rapidly brought back to earth by the plain speaking Danger Doyles, Jimmys and Broaders. This edification of men is an opiate which reduces life to a dream and transfers its immediacy to a fantasy which transcends any possible experience. Jimmy, the recalcitrant young delinquent in A Handful of Stars is well aware of his emerging status as local hero when he is whisked off to jail.

JIMMY: Tell them Jimmy Brady done it. The same Jimmy Brady that’s scrawled all over this town. Jimmy Brady who bursted that big bully of a bouncer with a headbutt when everyone else was afraid of their livin’ lives of him.......Yeh see that’s the difference between me and Conway. He tiptoes around. I’m screamin’ . Me and Stapler are screamin’. So if you want to join the livin’ dead then go ahead.... (WT, 60)

Leaving is a way that opens possibilities for people to put their mark on the world. When they fail to make the move, they often remain to inherit a legacy of bitterness and disappointment. As Molly in Poor Beast In The Rain says to smitten Georgie on Eileen’s departure for England, ‘welcome to the ranks of the left behind Georgie’. (WT, 120) In contrast to Gar O’Donnell’s agonising departure from Ballybeg in Philadelphia Here I Come! , Roche’s characters beat a purposeful path, reflecting the greater ease of movement that has become a recent feature of Irish life. In Amphibians the angry figure of Broaders leaves suddenly in the middle of the night while in Poor Beast In The Rain Eileen’s departure is stubbornly unceremonious with only her widowed father voicing regret or incomprehension at her action.

Eileen’s father, Steven an elderly and taciturn man who, to the astonishment of the community, married a lively and younger woman but could not hang on to her echoes Gar’s father SB of Philadelphia Here I Come! and his unlikely marriage in middle age to the ‘silly and impetuous’ Maire Gallagher who died a few years later. The contrast between the exits of both wives - the first through death and the second in an adulterous affair - succinctly demonstrates the extent of changes that have taken place in modern Ireland since the sixties when Philadelphia was staged. In his treatment of sexual relationships, Roche takes full advantage of the increased liberalism in Irish society. The number of illicit sexual entanglements in his plays is enormous and only rarely does he present a character who is not critically defined by a disappointing love affair. Roche’s plays conjure an overhanging impression of the failure of the relationship between men and women but they are also marked by an overwhelming absence of shame or guilt in relation to adultery or casual sex.

Poetry, prose and cinema have influenced Roche to the extent that their images rather than traditional values have insinuated themselves into his work. His method of structuring his characterisations and plots around the area of sexuality and relationships matches the perceptions and memories of contemporary audiences. Roche points to Robert Graves’s The White Goddess , as the work that has singularly influenced his writing. The White Goddess embodies the poetic theory of Graves and it is a thorough if highly tendentious study on poetry and primitive religion, harking back to a time postulated by the writer before patriarchy had supplanted matriarchy, to the golden age of the Goddess. For Graves this mythical period representing an end to masculine domination is to be yearned for. The true nature of his scheme is seen in the final chapter entitled War In Heaven.

“The main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man to woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian classicists would have it.
  The true poet who goes to the tavern and pays the silver tribute to Blodeuwedd goes over the river to his death. As in the story of Llew Llaw: ‘All their discourse that night was concerning the affection and love they felt for the other and which in no longer than one evening had arisen’. This paradise lasts only from May Day to St John’s Eve. Then the plot is hatched and the poisoned dart flies; and the poet knows that it must be so. For him there is no other woman ...As Blodeuwedd she will gladly give her love but at one price: his life...." For Graves the aggressive heterosexuality of the White Goddess system is predicated on the notion of the male being helpless to the woman’s attraction and her call. She cannot be refused although inevitably she will be her lover’s ruination. Graves emphasises the cruel side of the Muse - woman as deceiver and inconstant lover, complying with the romantic notion of true love leading necessarily to tragedy. Redoubtable female charms are present in all of Roche’s plays but in Belfry the White Goddess metaphor is unavoidable. Sacristan Artie, a novice in love falls madly for the married but serially unfaithful Angela. Recalling their first meeting, Artie draws heavily on the White Goddess myth.

ARTIE: A man’s life can change overnight yeh know. It does a little somersault and he wakes up one morning to find himself on the far side of the river that he never meant to cross.....For me it was that kiss. It was like a trap door that I stepped on and before I knew I was goin’ around the place like a man possessed, wonderin’ where she was all the time and what she was up to ...’ (WT, 138)

Perfidious females feature in Amphibians, Poor Beast In The Rain, A Handful of Stars and throughout the three generations of The Cavalcaders where what Terry says of his faithless wife could be mimicked by his cuckolded Uncle Eamon and by his young employee Rory who is betrayed by his wife and best friend Ted.

TERRY: I never had any peace with her. Right from the word go I was always wonderin’ where she was and who she was with, and what she was up to and all the rest of it. I mean it wasn’t all Rogan’s fault or anythin’. Not really! (TC, 50)

The myth of the Goddess and her magic leads to an unashamedly romantic and self-confident tone. Where love is concerned, reason is scoffed at, personal ties, loyalties, or moral considerations are powerless to restrain the lovers on their way. The male’s defence against opprobrious judgement is his powerlessness to resist the female’s mystical charms and strange magical powers. But the female, skirting the borders of existence, looking for ecstasy and always endangered is ultimately destroyed. Roche draws on myths like the Gravesian notion of The White Goddess, and Celtic legends like Tir Na Nog and Camelot but camouflages their presence in his work. In contrast to Brian Friel who utilises in a more direct and prominent fashion the Greco-Roman classics in plays like Living Quarters and Translations , Roche’s approach, more subtle and allusive is in the modernist tradition of Eliot and Joyce where myths are activated in a contemporary arena, on their own terms, free from the onus of providing a linkage or reconciliation between the world view implicit in the myths and the social concerns of an intimate community. The myth of Oisin in Tir Na Nog on which Danger Doyle is partly based is a useful vehicle for transmitting Danger’s distaste for his hometown.

DANGER: To tell you the truth Molly I’m half afraid to climb down in case I end up like whatshisname...Oisin. Do yeh remember that story? He came back from a place called Tir Na Nog and as soon as he touched the ground he turned into an auld fella. I’ll never forget the first morning the Christian Brother told us about that and I remember thinkin’ at the time that a man’d want to be a bit soft in the head or somethin’ to come back from the land of eternal youth just because he wanted to see his auld mates again ...He must have had somethin’ else on his mind Molly, Hah? (WT, 117)

The Cavalcaders is inspired by the story of Camelot, where the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere leads to the breaking up of the court of King Arthur, the end of his knights and the Round Table. The gradual collapse of Terry’s world which centres around his singing group The Cavalcaders is precipitated when Terry’s wife abandons him for his best pal Rogan. Her fate like Guinevere’s who died at a convent is summed up by Josie who says ‘she lives like a nun now. I believe she rarely goes out anymore. She tends the garden all the time and nurses him like a nun’. (TC, 30) Uncle Eamon represents a Merlin-like figure, engineering Terry’s inheritance of the Cavalcaders just as Merlin is historically credited with founding the Arthurian kingdom. By disavowing the instructive function of myth and by burying them within the layers of his plays, Roche can both return to them repeatedly and exploit them freely to his own purposes. A femme fatale figure, for instance, is inevitable in all his plays, in line with his own notion that if a work is to succeed it must contain elements of the motif of the White Goddess. Traces of Christian rather than Catholic guilt permeate The Cavalcaders and Belfry. But the avowals of sinfulness are personal and quirky, unburdened by the religiosity or trauma of Catholic guilt especially where sexual matters are concerned.

ANGELA: Our Maude says that there’s only two real choices open to people in life yeh know. Whether to tap the good side of them or the bad side. If yeh tap the good side then all you’ll see is the good in people and the good in everything and you’ll be happy. If yeh tap the bad side of yeh then you’ll be devious and snakey and you’ll never be really contented...Do yeh think I tapped the bad side of me Artie? (WT, 175)

Tom Murphy’s novel of 1994 The Seduction of Morality demonstrates how the triptych of sexuality, Catholicism and guilt endures in Irish literature.

Despite the imaginative handling of the novel’s thematic and the hilarious send-up of the language and rituals of Catholicism during the protagonists’ lusty but equally guilt-ridden fantasies, the novel bears out Maxwell’s observation of how ‘practising or lapsed, the Irish Catholic writer and to a large extent his Protestant fellow countryman, still has from his upbringing a natural access to the Christian symbolism of faith, disbelief, expiation.’ Billy Roche however is more fully absorbed into the secular world and the language and symbolism of religion is noticeably absent from his work. He has also departed from the customary themes in Irish literature where the mean-spiritedness of institutional religion was shown to perpetuate ignorance about sex and prevent normal sexual relations. In Roche’s work religion poses no obstacle to love, nor is it responsible for generating guilt or shame around sexual matters. Roche’s Ireland stands at a great distance from the sexually repressed country about whose population John B Keane remarked, ‘they have a dreadful attitude towards sex in Ireland ...... Men and women concealed the fact that a physical longing existed. It was seen as something to be ashamed at ....’. Despite the level of intimacy and focusing on personal relationships in Roche’s work, all of his plays are set outside, beyond the hearth, the familiar unifying motif in Irish theatre. This seems like a concerted effort on Roche’s part to move away from the dynamics of familial relationships and their limitations and into a wider arena where on some level, social dynamics and power structures can be integrated into the work. The sense of the town is marked in many of the plays with their constant stream of people rushing in and out on personal business. According to Arthur Miller, when a play ‘extends itself out of the family circle and into society, it broaches those questions of social status, social honour and recognition, which expand its vision and lift it out of the merely particular towards the fate of the generality of men’.

Roche tends towards a critical examination of modern life. Although wholeheartedly set in Wexford and within the context of a localised folklore and characters, his plays unlike those of for example John B Keane, another localised commentator on social life, avoid traditional Irish values in their execution, endowing them with a universality that is initially disguised by their strong sense of place. Roche’s characters are as rooted in Wexford town as Brian Friel’s creations are in the fictional Donegal townland of Ballybeg or John B Keane’s figures are in the North Kerry landscape. The profound sense of place in plays from A Handful of Stars to The Cavalcaders is in accordance with Roche’s expressed desire to put Wexford, the town to which he refers as ‘my little Troy’ on the map and also to establish the local see-sawing vernacular native to Wexford town as a tool for actors, every bit as much as the Cork or Kerry accent. We get to know Wexford from Roche in the same way as we get to know the north-western counties from Friel, the west from Synge, Dublin from O’Casey and Joyce.

It is an elusive quality but the ‘spirit of place’ has a shaping influence often unconscious on the imagination of the writer, something that Roche readily acknowledges. ‘If you are writing about the place you know then you are seeing real people, you are hearing real voices. If I found this a disadvantage then I would set my plays elsewhere’, he told the present writer. Roche’s position reflects what E. Estyn Evans considers as the creative writer’s intuitive understanding and interpretation of ‘regional personality’. Evans concludes, ‘their inspiration characteristically springs from intimate association with particular landscapes, local, regional, and national.’ But small town working class life is traditionally a rare occurrence on the Irish stage. With the exception of O’Casey, the native Irish drama has been shaped in the rural. Founded by Normans, Danes or the English and populated by racial hybrids, our towns were historically suspect. As Sean O’Faolain wrote in The Irish, ‘we have always feared towns’.

Wexford’s relative proximity to England has in Roche’s view, conferred on it ‘an Anglo calm. It’s closer to England; temperamentally as well as geographically’. Working in England was not viewed with the same emotional trauma as it was in other parts of the country. It was seen as travelling in search of work, not as emigration. Roche’s characters encompass a range of attitudes like this, moulding their sense of personal and political identity, which are derived from their specific locale. This ‘sense of place’ is a clue to much Irish writing. The use of specific Wexford qualities like dialect tend towards an explanation of how Roche’s writing appears to an extent divorced from traditional Irish themes.

Also the ‘sense of place’ functions in a particular way in Roche’s plays. Because he is engaged in documenting a part of Ireland that has so far been largely absent on our stage- the cramped social conditions and aspirations of small town life - his ‘place’ does not function thematically in the same manner as it operates in plays about rural Ireland or Dublin. Irish audiences have an attachment to the land nurtured in our imagination either from the considerable range of rural dramas we have experienced or from real personal links to the countryside. Wexford in contrast is unfamiliar territory although the ‘structures of feeling’ are present due to Roche’s focusing on modern urban life. Roche in comparison to John B Keane is not drawing on our communal fantasies of the land, rather on the less well chartered dynamic of small town Ireland. If ‘place’ functions as a ‘relationship between the artist and their audience based on a common heritage’ as Sr. Marie Kealy suggests, then in Roche’s work that inheritance must be based on more than ideas about the land or the simplification of characters to present a world identifiable with an audience. In his works the structures of feeling contribute as much to the sense of ‘place’ as does the Wexford locale.

The hints of social inequality and urban restrictiveness that run through Roche’s plays situates them in a ‘place’, in a historical and social milieu that is more modern than traditionally Irish. And it is this universal quality of entrapment that lifts Roche’s work beyond their own time and place into a permanent position, leading the audience to participate in a view of reality that is universal. Regional in the best sense, Roche evokes a relationship with Wexford and its people in whom he recognises a microcosm not just for modern Ireland but for the modern developed world. His thematic concerns rest not solely on a social critique that is specifically Irish but rather on the urgent challenges posed by modern life and the necessity of human relationships. Roche roots the personal frustration of his characters in their family relationships, the claustrophobia of small town life, their nostalgia regret about the past and lost opportunities, their fragile love stories, their thankless employment or unemployment, their faded hopes and disappointments.

The struggle for identity symbolised by the land in traditional drama is embodied instead in motifs of failed authority and failed relationships. Behind the rebels and misfits striding through each play there are casts of frightened, apathetic and disappointed individuals almost in stalemate with everyone wanting change but virtually no-one believing is possible. This almost Chekhovian atmosphere is predicated on many of the changes that have taken place in Irish society in the last thirty years. Emigration may still be a trauma in Roche’s plays but it is not a tragedy and the intolerance and prejudice usually displayed to returned emigrants in the plays of Tom Murphy, Brian Friel and JB Keane is not in evidence in a play like Poor Beast In The Rain . Murphy’s and Friel’s themes are concerned with the advent of the modern tide of change and its effects on a traditional land-orientated society and its peculiar brand of Catholicism, leading both writers to a consideration of history, politics and language in an effort to understand and define important aspects of Irishness and Ireland.

Billy Roche declines to work on that level of intensity. He is not seeking to define the Irish psyche. His men and women are determinedly of Wexford but because they are not defined in terms of traditional values, they could almost be of anywhere.

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