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  • Selling Tara, Buying Florida
  • Colm Tóibín (bio)

In the first years of the new century the young Irish playwrights wrote about bad fathers. In May 2000, for example,Marina Carr's play On Raftery's Hill, in a joint production by Druid in Galway and the Royal Court in London, was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of a festival of Irish culture. Some in the audience at the opening night were old Kennedy stalwarts; others were loyal devotees of Irish culture. It was a grand occasion. Everyone in the audience knew that Ireland had been undergoing great changes, that the economy was booming, that there was full employment, and that there had been a great process of liberalization. Since this was a new play by a young dramatist, chosen specially to represent Ireland to the outside world at an important festival, there was anticipation that it would somehow deal with Ireland in all its newness and its brightness, even ironically or comically.

But the Ireland on stage, for anyone who had looked at the economic indicators, or read the articles about changes, did not seem new except in its frankness about areas of power and control within a family and its sexual frankness and its raw brutality. The play was a vehicle for the talents of the actor Tom Hickey, who would play an Irish father with immense clarity and relentless ferocity. A father who was already abusing one of his daughters sexually and would now begin, as the drama unfolded, on the other daughter, younger and more innocent.

It was clear from the silences and the gasps and the shocked comments from the audience at the intermission that this Irish father on [End Page 11] the stage was not familiar to them. The kitchen of the Raftery household, where the play was enacted, lacked charm, to say the least. There was no dancing at Lughnasa; there were no wild or comic Irish characters; there was even no bitter melancholy. The language was colorful in ways that did not seem to appeal to the audience. The dark cruelty of the father did not come with remorse, or any wit. Not only incest, but rape, violence, and vicious attacks on animals were all central to the drama. The son of the house, who appeared regularly, was not Christy Mahon, the Playboy of the Western World, or one of the bittersweet characters from Seán O'Casey, or the son who had come all the way to Philadelphia from Brian Friel, or the son of a man who had made a field his own field. This son lived in an outhouse, where his father had banished him with the animals, and he was almost naked and covered in their dirt.

It was an Ireland that anyone who attended to page 4 of The Irish Times, which by the mid-1990s was daily covering cases of family horror, knew and recognized. But for those whose image of Ireland came from their memory or from the glories of The Quiet Man or Riverdance, this dark Ireland was new and strange.

In 2004, three first plays by Irish writers dramatized a world dominated by bad or mad fathers. In these plays, fatherhood was to be mocked, subverted, shown in all its madness and perversion. Stuart Carolan's Defender of the Faith at the Peacock Theatre, for example, was, once again, set in a rural kitchen. The setting was South Armagh in 1986. As in Marina Carr's play, Foucault rather than Freud was the dominant spirit, where power over others was the goal, where mindless control and cruelty lay in a fierce embrace on the hearthrug. Foul statement made a constant raid on the inarticulate.

In Mark Doherty's Trad, first performed at the Galway Arts Festival in 2004 and then in Dublin, Edinburgh, and Australia, the word "Da" became almost a chant in the play, as a mad father, well past his sell-by date, led his dim-witted son into the temptation offered by hideous prejudices, many non sequiturs, hilarious wild goose chases, and bizarre urges and desires. In Take Me Away by Gerald Murphy...


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