Sara Keating, ‘Born with storytelling in his blood’, interview with Tom Mac Intyre, in The Irish Times (25 April 2009), Weekend, p.9.

[Source: The Irish Times online; accessed 20.08.2010.]

Playwright Tom Mac Intyre is convinced that if he stopped writing, he’d be dead in six months – a belief he has carried with him from an early age, writes SARA KEATING

To pay a visit to Tom Mac Intyre is to step back in time, to an era when being a writer was a vocation as profound as, calling to the church. In fact, his stories are full of epiphanies and quasi-religious references, while his speech is peppered with Latin exclamations, like he’s used to saying Mass, and French and Irish phrases that describe abstract mystical themes which sound somehow too fanciful in English: things like ghosts, and souls, and visions in dreams.

Even my journey to meet him has been something of an act of faith. Over the phone the directions to his remote house on the banks of Lough Sheelin in Co Cavan seemed faultless, as reliable as directions can be. But as miles of open road fly by, the promised churches and graveyards and castles fail to appear. No one is answering the Mac Intyre phone when I call for guidance, so I drive on and, passing a low stone wall that looks old enough to be a castle, decide to pull in.

The gods must have been smiling, because a gardener tending shrubs in what turns out to be the grounds of a castle tells me I’m in the right place, and he directs me to the gate lodge where Mac Intyre lives. From the road the place looks not quite deserted, but certainly as if there is nobody home. The gate is locked and there’s no sign of a car.

I try the phone again, but there’s still no answer. Then a third time; still nothing. So, I go around to the side of the house and climb through a gap in the garden fence and try the doorbell a few times. Again, there’s no reply. Around the side of the house there is no visible sign of life.

I have just decided to return to my car to take stock, perhaps to head home, when a tall lean shadow of a man emerges from the house looking slightly dazed, a tea cosy hat pulled tight down on his head and a pirate’s patch covering one of his eyes.

It is Mac Intyre, and I appear to have caught him off guard. After taking my measure with his faraway gaze, we volley some awkward preliminaries back and forth. “I thought it was tomorrow,” he mumbles when I apologise again for disturbing him – from meditation? From slumber? “And the phones around here have all been dead for the last few days. I meant to call to let you know, but, well, the phones are down, and, anyway, something in me decided ‘Sara will get here’.” In that, it seems, he was right.

§

Mac Intyre is one of the lesser-known playwrights of a particular generation, who, writing in the 1960s and 1970s, used the theatre to challenge the legacies of de Valera’s Ireland. Where Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy and Tom Murphy put alternative Irish realities onto the stage, Mac Intyre was interested in looking beyond reality all together, in seeking a symbolic space in which the unconscious desires and needs of those repressed and repressive years might be explored and maybe satisfied.

For the most part, his uncompromising image-based plays are more performative than literary – surely one of the reasons why he has not achieved the international reputation of his contemporaries. However, to hear him speak is to travel back decades, to Yeats, or whole epochs to the world of the wandering bards, so maybe if he had indeed belonged to a different age, the canon might have thought of him differently. “I like to tell people I’m a hundred,” he jokes. But certainly his talk reveals a spirit that seems centuries old. Mac Intyre talks about “being born to be a storyteller. It’s my way of breathing. It’s my health. It’s my daily conversation with the unconscious. If I stopped doing it I’d be dead in six months, and I’ve known that since I was young. They were always telling me back then I would be a writer, everybody: my family, the neighbours, even the chemists in the village, and in those days they’d a whiff of alchemy about them, so you’d better believe it. If you have a gift, I believe, to fail to pursue it is a grave, grave sin, and the psychic scar of turning your back on it will cause a lot of trouble.

“It was when I was eight, nine, 10, though, I managed to get this near mortal affliction. I think I wanted to die; various pressures, the weight of dicey soul stuff pressing on the growing child – I think if there are five kids in the house, one of them will always want to die. But I was in the Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital for nine months altogether, and I was fascinated by all the adult shenanigans going on. I call that experience there my university, because I came home and all I wanted to do was write plays.”

When I ask him about his attraction to the theatre, he continues: “Why plays? Well, the world around me was alive with performers, with the extravagances of language, especially in east Cavan, with our strange version of English which was riddled with Gaeilge. I mean the Irish just have to be writing plays. I would argue that one strange result of the English taking our language from us was to set up a fiercely competitive revenge campaign, directed towards achieving more eloquence than standard English will ever achieve. English sounds, as they say, like people fighting in the kitchen. It was killed by the industrial revolution. En passant , it’s now in the hands of the bankers.”

The leavings of different dialects and the grandeur of foreign tongues that he spices his own conversation with proves his point. “And what about the word toxic? I mean, you never hear people going around talking about how beautiful a language English is.”

The men and women who foretold Mac Intyre’s artistic fate when he was a boy, also taught him about the spirit of writing, a lesson that Mac Intyre has held close to his own creative philosophy. “‘Let’s put it this way’, they’d say”, he tells me, ventriloquising as if in communion with their ghosts. “‘If you’re going to be a writer you have to haunt us, so keep that in mind sonny boy. And, remember, here’s the vital thing: we can’t haunt you unless you haunt us.’

“There are two kinds of writing,” he continues, by means of illustration. “There’s front-of-the-head writing, where it’s just here and now. But then there’s the writing which has a door open to another place, where wonderful, beautiful, dangerous things happen; where you are taking your cue from the creak in the door that goes between the two worlds. But to get access to that zone, to the unconcious – well, gold, as they say, is the price you pay. You don’t get access to it without giving away everything, and what I mean is this: you know the one thing that you are loath to give away – some connection, maybe, like your love of the collective; that you always want to be marching the same side of the street as everybody else. Well, if you want to be a great storyteller, you should try the other side of the street, and look out for trouble, a lot of trouble. Bear in mind you’re taking your life in your hands, because there’s nothing more dangerous in terms of the personal choices that you will make.”

At my peril, I ask him to be more specific, my literalness an affront to his mystical musings, I fear. “Look, put it this way,” he explains impatiently, “the storyteller’s deference to the unconscious is that everything you write comes from a dream. It’s like a constant conversation in the dusk with your shadow. With powerful presences, yes. But above all with a woman. Our literature is full of that woman – she’s the aisling, the spéirbhean. You will meet her in your dreams and you must tend to her with devotion, but you don’t go there without someone holding your hand, someone who has some sense of the weather. And it is difficult to get there.

“I was brought up in a fiercely puritan, sectarian atmosphere. I was subjected to a de Valera, Gestapo-style education. I was told again and again – in this Hitler’s Ireland, in de Valera’s Ireland – ‘you don’t have permission to breathe unless I say so’, and it’s quite a job to shrug off those strictures. But once you step on the ladder there’s no turning back. The conditions may be savage, but they’re enormously exciting.”

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Women have certainly  haunted Mac Intyre’s work: real-life women from the past like Bridget Cleary or Kitty O’Shea demanding through his work that their voices be heard; or the archetypal women in Snow White or Dance for Your Daddy, who, through their roles as mothers and daughters, investigate what it is to be female.

In fact, in his latest play, Only an Apple,  which opens at the Peacock Theatre on Tuesday night, the protagonist, a fanciful taoiseach, finds himself being ghosted by three female spirits, Queen Victoria and Grace O’Malley, as well as his own neglected wife, who – despite phantasmagoric appearances – are all very real, to the taoiseach at least.

However, they also represent the archetypal Three Fates of Greek mythology, who, with serpents curling from their breasts and tempting poisoned apples, lure the taoiseach to his death. “It is surely a dream play,” he says. “And as such it is choc-a-bloc with the energies and motifs and symbols of my dreams. But if you call the whole thing surreal, you have to admit that it is as real as the cup in your hand as well.”

As I’m leaving I notice a large plate on his worktable, holding three wooden apples and a plastic snake. I can’t help wondering which came first, the image in the play or the dream.


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