A NEW play based on research into men of Irish descent in Tyneside has revealed that religion plays an increasingly small role in their lives.
One-man theatre piece, Under Us All goes on tour of the North East this November and was inspired by academic research into the Irish community there, conducted by social geographer Michael Richardson, a PhD student and Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University.
Michael told the Irish World: “What was clear as we went down through generations were decreasing levels of attachment to religion and Irish national identity. From the older man to the younger man, and even younger man again, levels of attachment to religion – and Ireland in general – are less, particularly in the case of young men that have left school. For instance, they haven’t got the day-to-day interaction with priests, particularly Irish priests, in the way their fathers and grandfathers before them might have.”
However, Michael’s research for the play, which focuses on one family living in South Tyneside (a grandfather, father and son discuss how industry, family, work and community have changed over the decades) also revealed elements within the community that have remained largely unchanged.
He explained: “This play is a story of social change, but also of continuation. Where a connection to Ireland has remained is where there have been living family members ‘back home’, which often leads to regular return visits to Ireland. That keeps the sentimental connection alive. It’s easier to feel attached to a community and belong to that community when there are physical ties.
“Connections within the diaspora become expressed more for those where there is cultural participation of some kind; be it through music, dance, language or genealogy. Those interests create an environment in which that feeling of belonging can thrive.”
Following the tradition of verbatim theatre, Under Us All was constructed word for word from the narrative of one particular Tyneside-Irish family. Michael transcribed all his interviews and then worked with the Cap-a-Pie Theatre company director Gordon Poad (who also performs the play) to come up with Under Us All.
“It’s a really interesting piece of theatre as there’s absolutely no fictional element to it; it hasn’t been created by a scriptwriter or artist – it’s been created by everyday men of Irish descent”, he said.
Michael spoke with 38 men of Irish descent during his research, the vast majority born in Britain and whose Irish ancestry, in some cases, goes back as far as eight generations.
Recruited through local press and radio, various Irish Centres across the North East and world-of-mouth, the men he recruited were at random and their stories, he says, reveal shifting attitudes from one generation to the next and reflect wider changes in Tyneside.
One case study, which is depicted in the play, is an older man named Victor who told Michael he felt his ‘Irishness’ was recognised internationally, something the researcher found fascinating.
He said: “When this man went across the Atlantic as a young man to work, he found himself in Newfoundland in Canada. He was very far from home, but felt his Irishness was recognised through certain distinctive qualities, like an Irish sense of humour and fair play, and that it was recognised by others of Irish descent, socially and in the workplace. National identity for many isn’t about flag-waving; it’s often an unspoken set of attachments, particularly for the diaspora who may have an Irish-sounding surname but that’s about it. “
In addition, Michael found that there was no set pattern from respondents on who “felt” more Irish. For instance, he discovered in one case that a fifth generation Irishman that went back there regularly, felt much more Irish than a second-generation man who never visited the country of his ancestors.
He explained: “That sense of Irishness can depend on a family’s individual circumstances. There is no straightforward, linear change where the further you go down the generations, the less ‘Irish’ you feel. The men in this play are actually fifth, six and seventh-generation Irish; they’re not a family that stepped off the boat over twenty years ago. It’s a great comment on living heritage.”
Cap-a-Pie’s Gordon Poad, himself from Newcastle, said: “We have always wanted to make theatre that is useful to society and is made through engaging with people. We want to build bridges between universities and communities resulting in exciting theatre, inspired by the latest thinking.”
The show will be visiting Newbiggin Maritime Centre, November 6– 7.30pm, Box Office – 01670 811 951; Northern Stage, November 7– 7pm, Box Office – 0191 230 5151; Customs House, November 8 – 2pm, Box Office – 0191 454 1234; and Teesside University, November 9 -7pm, Box Office – 0164 273 8649.
Alongside the show, workshops will be running in all venues giving local people the opportunity to explore their stories through performance.