Shining a light on rural Ireland

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Award-winning playwright Fiona Doyle’s Coolatully addresses emigration and male suicide in modern Ireland– but there are laughs too, says Shelley Marsden

Coolatully, by young Kerry-based playwright Fiona Doyle, is coming to London’s Finsborough Theatre for a four-week run just weeks after winning the sixth Papatango New Writing Prize, established through the theatre company of the same name.

A deeply resonant, modern look at rural Ireland, where suicide rates among young men are the fourth highest in the world, it asks whether a generation can be saved.

Kilian, played by Kerr Logan of Game of Thrones, Channel 4’s London Irish and The Royal Court Theatre’s current production Teh Internet is Serious Business, was once the pride and joy of the village, and their champ on the hurling field. Now the village can’t muster a team, the country’s shutting down, and his girlfriend Eilish, played by Yolanda Kettle whose theatre credits include Birdland in The Royal Court which she starred in with Andrew Scott, wants to leave for a new life across the ocean. As Irish history repeats itself, Kilian is faced with the demons of the past and must decide whether to stay or leave his homeland forever.

Kerr Logan stars as Killian
Kerr Logan stars as Killian

She has written several plays, but Coolatully is Fiona’s first full production (So Gay won Play for the Nation’s Youth last year, while Abigail was long-listed for the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Productions of her short plays include Rootbound and Rigor Mortis (Arcola Theatre) and Two Sisters (Southwark Playhouse).

“It’s a topical, post-recession play looking at contemporary, rural Ireland”, explains Fiona. “Killian is dealing with the aftermath of the loss of his younger brother Seamus through suicide, and the play starts in early December 2013, eight months after his death, so Killian is still very much grieving.”

But Coolatully explores other themes, like the pull between home and the need, or desire, for emigration. As well as Killian, it tells the stories of his two friends Paudie and Ailish, both of whom are dying to leave Ireland and try their fortunes abroad. But it’s not black and white, and the idea of packing it all in as their community can’t support them anymore affects each in different ways.

Yolanda Kettle and Charles de Bromhead in rehearsals
Yolanda Kettle and Charles de Bromhead in rehearsals

It’s always a brave move tackling something as dark as suicide. It came to Fiona as part of what she describes as a “fully-formed play in my head”, the one and only time a play has presented itself to her that way. Living in a remote corner of Kerry after a decade in the bright lights of London, she believes it’s something whose shadow you can still sense.

“It’s a big problem, particularly during a recession. People talk about Ireland being out of its recession, but in rural areas you don’t get that sense, it’s still lurking there under the surface. Things are improving but there’s a long way to go, and it’s hard not to notice suicide here. You open the paper and it’s nearly always there somewhere.”

The playwright, she recalls, was skimming through a copy of the Irish Independent one day when she came across an article about a village in Clare. Its residents, said the piece, were worried about not having enough young men to line out for the local hurling team as six members had recently emigrated to New Zealand. On the other page, there was an article about suicide and young men in Ireland. Her play sprang out of that moment.

“I don’t think the issue of suicide is in-your-face in Colatooly though, if you know what I mean?” she says. “The friends are dealing with the loss of one of their group but the event has already happened.  It’s definitely there and very real, but it overshadows the play in a subtle way and shapes some of the decisions they now make. It’s a presence that is stronger sometimes than others.

Does she think she could have written a play about modern Irish youth without tackling it? “No, it’s such an important issue. At one point, there seemed to be almost an epidemic here of young men taking their own lives. We might be post-recession now but the aftermath is still being felt. For many, the consequences of the recession are still very real. I see it myself.”

It all sounds crushingly bleak, but Fiona says there is light-heartedness in there too. “God, there has to be!” she laughs. “One character in particular is quite funny. You want to get your message across, of course, but it’s all in the balance. You don’t want to scare people away.”

One thread of Colatoolly looks at the brain-drain of talented young people that Ireland, in greater or smaller degrees, has been coping with for decades. Fiona was one of those people, opting to live in London for ten years until, at the end of 2012, she decided to return to Ireland to concentrate on writing plays.

“I couldn’t write it in London, it was just too crazy”, she explains. “I’d finished a year-long playwriting course in 2012, and was convinced I had to go. I was having to work 24/7 like everyone does in London to keep my head above water and had no time left. So I came back and started writing in earnest.”

For the full feature see this week’s edition of the Irish World

Coolatully is at London’s Finborough Theatre from Tuesday Oct 28 to Saturday November 22. See www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk for more.

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