David Hennessy spoke to actor Daragh O’Malley and playwright David Ireland about Yes So I Said Yes, an ‘important piece of writing’ that deals with the Northern Irish Troubles.
Currently showing at Finborough Theatre, Yes So I Said Yes is a dark comedy play about the difficulties of leaving violence behind in a Northern Ireland that has known nothing else for decades.
The play centres around Ulster Loyalist Alan Black, played by Daragh O’Malley.
Known as ‘Snuffy’, Alan is kept awake every night by his neighbour McCorrick’s dog barking. To add to his difficulties, McCorrick refuses to acknowledge that he even owns a dog, let alone one that is creating a disturbance.
Not recognising his surroundings anymore, a disconsolate Alan can see only one person who can help him. The only person he can trust- and with the authority- is Eamonn Holmes.
Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland, Yes So I Said Yes comes from David Ireland, the multi award-winning playwright of Cyprus Avenue.
Daragh O’Malley is well known from his iconic roles in Withnail and I, The Long Good Friday and alongside Sean Bean in the long running Napoleonic wars saga, Sharpe.
Owen O’Neill plays McCorrick. Well known as a comedian, O’Neill has featured in films such as The General and Michael Collins while his stage work includes reworks of The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The son of politician Donogh O’Malley, Daragh was born in Dublin and grew up in Limerick and feels taking on the role of a Loyalist and seeing the other side of the argument is important as Ireland moves forward.
Daragh O’Malley told The Irish World: “This is a serious piece of writing from David.
“Anybody who has any interest in Irish theatre should see this, any person who’s interested in Irish history.
“I think it will give all Irish people a chance to see the other person’s point of view.
“And I think that’s important now. If never before, it’s important now.
“But I think it’s a very important piece of Irish writing.
“If I had a wish, it would be that all the inhabitants of Ireland were able to see Yes So I said Yes.
“I think it’s important as we move forward. An education even
“And I feel very, very lucky to be part of this. Very lucky.
“The whole play is a dream of a former UVF hitman who feels his identity in his own country is being eroded by Catholic doctrine and successive Dublin governments.
“It’s about the erosion of unionism and the fact that they felt they were raped by the Good Friday Agreement.
“The whole allusion to rape is that, saying yes if in agreement and then saying no, no, no, and then agreeing to yes under having their arm twisted.
“This is a significant play. It’s brutal, and honest and straightforward. And London hasn’t seen anything like this in a long, long time.
“I’m an Irish, Southern Catholic from Limerick.
“When I look at this, I’m educating myself and seeing the other person’s point of view, which we in the south don’t often do.
“I’m happy to be part of it because I do think that the Unionists have been raped by the Good Friday Agreement.
“And I do think that successive Dublin governments are trying to obliterate northern Ulster Protestantism, and they’re aided and abetted still by the Catholic doctrine.
“David’s play is very much about the erosion of identity. The fact that was written 10 years ago is pretty incredible really.
“One of the lines of the play is, ‘Rape has always been referred to as a weapon of war. Here in Ireland, we can now refer to it as a way for peace.”
With the tagline, ‘It’s harder to kill people when there’s a peace process going on’, playwright David explains the play is about the difficulties of leaving conflict behind: “The central character ‘Snuffy’, is someone who has lived a violent life, has done violent things, and he can’t really adjust to the peace process. He can’t adjust to life, he doesn’t really have a purpose anymore.
“And I think that’s something that that we saw happening after the peace process.
“A taxi driver in Belfast was telling me that a friend of his, who had been a loyalist paramilitary during the troubles, had never, ever left his house.
“He got out of prison, was glad to be out of prison, and went back to his house and just really never left his area, never left his house, never even went into Belfast City Centre for fear that someone from his past would see him.
“So it’s still kind of relevant.
“I was writing this ten years ago. It’s interesting that that generation, the generation that were involved in the troubles on both sides, they’re all getting older and they’re going to be dying off soon.
“People often ask me, ‘Why do you write about the troubles so much?’
“But we’ve never really dealt with it.
“We’ve never really dealt with it or spoken about it properly, so every time I write, it’s kind of an attempt to do that, to really confront it.
Daragh continues: “The Troubles haven’t really been addressed in any understanding from both sides.
“I mean, I grew up kind of in a very political Irish family in Limerick being kind of beaten up with the intransigence of unionism, and here am I, on this beautiful day in November in London, trying to convince an audience to please try and understand this person’s point of view.
“And that’s where we are today.
“I know that it’s a serious piece of writing and certainly will within time be regarded as such, if not now, hopefully now.
“We’re slow to look at the other side of the argument.
“I mean, what chance had I in Limerick?
“I was an altar boy.
“There was a Protestant school 200 yards away from my home, Villiers school in Limerick, and we weren’t even allowed look at the girls from there, because they were so bad.
“So that’s what I grew up in.
“This can also be an educational piece for a lot of people who should try and come and see this. They’ll have a good time.”
David continues: “’Ulster Says No’ is in there.
“I grew up in that era. I grew up when there was the ‘Ulster says No’ posters everywhere and it had a sort of very formative effect on me as a child.
“I always was fascinated. There was there was a reaction at the time and the media sort of depicted Ulster Protestants as being people who say no, and all that.
“Even as a kid I thought, ‘But surely it’s okay to say no, if you don’t want someone to do something. It’s okay to say no, no can be a positive thing’.
“As a kid, I remember being taken to the ‘Ulster Says No’ rallies, the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
“It was a very dangerous time. It felt like everything was going to explode.
“That’s always stayed with me and in my work, I’m always sort of dealing with that. Writing is a kind of therapy for me.”
David lives in Glasgow now but a recent trip home to act in Derry Girls led to a profound realisation some 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
David says: “It’s funny. I was acting in Derry Girls recently and we were filming last week in West Belfast, in Ballymurphy.
“It just struck me- I’ve lived on and off in Belfast and Glasgow for the past 20 years and I know so many parts of Glasgow,.
“That was the first time I’d ever been in Ballymurphy, and I’m 46.
“And I was saying to my wife, whose Glaswegian, that never happens.
“Scottish people know every part of Scotland and know every part of whatever city they’re from but in Belfast, people tend to stick to their own.
“They don’t know different parts of the city and it’s very sad.
“And I think that relates to not really understanding the other side, you know.
“I find it very hard to write about anything other than Belfast, to the point where people are sick of hearing it and I’m not sick of talking about it.
“I grew up in Belfast at the height of The Troubles. I came from a very political family so it’s just natural for me to write about that.
“I do write about other things but it always feels a bit strange.
“When I’m writing something I go, ‘Why is there no mention of The Troubles yet or any of that?’”
Daragh came to London to study acting in the seventies, ‘times he described as ‘very hard’ to be Irish in London.
He says, “I was so young, my mother wouldn’t allow me get an apartment and I was placed in the Irish club in Eaton square.
And I lived there for two years and that coincided with Gerry Fit, John Hume, Austen Currie, Paddy Devlin, and all those taking their pitch for the first time in Westminster.
“I remember the two years that I was there, they were there regularly.
“They were very nervous taking their seats and there was a lot of trouble in London at that time.
“Then I moved to America so I lost touch but I remained friends with John Hume. Although we didn’t kind of exchange letters. Whenever we bumped into each other, we made time for each other.
“It was very sad (when he died). He was one of the good guys. He loved Ireland. Austin Currie certainly did too.
“There’s so much happening, we’re missing an awful lot of it because the media are focused on what appear to be bigger things.
“This little play would have gotten more attention if there wasn’t COVID and there wasn’t Brexit.
“The ‘northern problem’, it’s on the back burner.
“It should be front and centre, what Johnson is doing to Ireland, doing to the unionists, doing to the south.
“This is unbelievable what he’s doing and there’s only Micheal Martin, Simon Coveney and Leo to stand up to him. He would blow them away in a heartbeat.
“The daily life was very different than it is now and people were very.
“I was always stopped at the airport. I was arrested four or five times.
“I was going home for Christmas. And I was up in Marylebone court.
“I just gave the wrong answer at Heathrow and I was charged with drunk and disorderly but I hadn’t had a drink of any description.
“I remember one night a police officer at Marylebone Police Station banged an ashtray on my finger and said, ‘There’s no c*nt like an Irish c*nt’.
“So it wasn’t easy.
“That taught me a lesson for my future travails with the London Police.
“It was very difficult in the 70s and 80s, up to the mid 80s being Irish in London.”
O’Malley famously played an IRA man and an angry Irish drunk in The Long Good Friday and Withnail and I.
There were plenty of these kind of roles for Irish actors in that time period.
“The troubles were great news for Irish actors. There was lots of IRA men, it was a cottage industry.”
David had a different experience.
The playwright and actor says: “I had the opposite experience. I sort of got into the business because I wanted to play terrorists. I wanted to play hard men.
“I kind of fancied myself. Loyalist paramilitaries were the guys I looked up to a lot.
“I didn’t get to be one. I said, ‘I’ll play one, I’ll become an actor’, because I loved stuff like Goodfellas, and The Godfather.
“I was like, ‘I’m gonna play a tough guy’. But I never got those parts.
“I got typecast as doctors and nurses. That was what I always got, you know?
“So I eventually asked a friend of mine, a playwright friend of mine, to write a part for me of a terrorist. And he did so I got my dream of playing the hard man.”
David describes Yes So I Said Yes as “a very strange, sick, twisted play.”
He hopes Eamonn Holmes reacts kindly to being referred to in it, or at least better than Gerry Adams did in his previous work.
“When it was performed in Belfast, the reference was originally (BBC NI television presenter) Stephen Nolan.
“The character Snuffy is at a point of crisis and he’s looking for someone to help him.
“So he goes to a television studio, looking for Stephen Nolan to try to help them.
“Of course, we realized when we came to London here, lots of people haven’t heard of Stephen Nolan, he wouldn’t be as well known a name or a cultural figure.
“So we thought well, ‘Who would be a good replacement for him?’
“And we thought Eamonn Holmes was the best option.
“I would hate to think that Eamonn Holmes would be offended by this.
“I really like Eamonn Holmes.
“So I hope if he hears about it or sees it that he’s not offended. It’s meant to be affectionate.
“When I wrote my play Cyprus Avenue, it was about a man who thinks that a baby is Gerry Adams.
“Somebody at the theatre sent a copy of the play to Gerry Adams before we went into production.
“He did not respond well.
“I think the person thought that Gerry would like it, he would enjoy it.
“But he made it clear that he did not enjoy the play, that he would take legal action if we went ahead and produced it.
“So I don’t know to this day whether or not he saw that play, but thankfully he didn’t sue me.”
Early performances of Cyprus Avenue, which opened at the Royal Court with Stephen Rea, saw people walking out.
Another of David’s plays Ulster American, has also provoked walkouts. Some have suggested the plays should contain warnings.
These things don’t bother the playwright too much.
“If people want to walk out, that’s their right.
“Walking out of a theatre is such a huge gesture but if you’re watching something on TV, you just turn it off.
“It’s no different than turning off the TV.
“I don’t think anybody should be forced to watch any theatre that they’re not enjoying, so I don’t get offended if people are offended or walk out, but I do feel it is a shocking play. It is to some people offensive. It does depict some extreme things, but it’s also very funny.
“It isn’t just shocking for the sake of it.
“I’m trying to make a serious point here.
“It’s not for the easily offended, let’s say.”
This play has already provoked a fierce reaction when it played in Northern Ireland.
“It was really divisive. People who loved it really loved it. People who hated it really hated it.
“People were shocked by it.
“It went on a brief tour of Northern Ireland and there was a church group who came to see it in Omagh who were deeply offended by it and stuck around afterwards to let the actors know they were offended.
“Then they contacted Radio Ulster the next day. They did a programme on it and the producer of the play had to go on and defend the play.
“It was kind of interesting because the character ‘Snuffy’ in the play, goes to seek help from Radio Ulster, and this person goes to seek help from Eamonn Holmes- It was kind of like life was murdering art.
“There was also a car crash.
“I think the actors were so kind of flummoxed by being attacked by the audience that they crashed the car.
“So it was a very dramatic, very dramatic tour, and a very dramatic response.
“But I remember the audience were really hungry for it.
“They really liked that somebody was talking about this stuff and talking about it so frankly.
There’s a sort of relief that it’s actually being talked about.
“It’s cathartic and when it goes well, the audience experience that kind of catharsis.”
Having not done any theatre work for many years, it was a decade ago that Daragh returned with the role of Father Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa.
He says: “I didn’t do any stage for over 20 years because I just found if you are taking a drink and you were on the high stool, it was very difficult to do a play.
“So I stopped drinking about 12 years ago.
“And I looked at doing a play and I did Dancing at Lughnasa. I played Father Jack on a tour of Dancing at Lughnasa.
“A lot of actors won’t go near the stage.
“A friend of mine, Sean Bean did the Scottish play at The Mermaid Theatre.”
In a perfect Sean Bean impression, Daragh says: “I don’t think I’ll be doing another one of those’.
“Several actors who came to see me in plays came around afterwards and said, ‘I don’t know how you do that’.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy.
“It certainly changed my life.
“In the ten years, I’ve done about seven or eight plays here and in America and they’re still drawing me back.
“I’d still love to do some of the O’Casey plays.
“The big thing that worries me, and for your Irish World readers, is that what seems to define us around the world where I go and I’ve been from the barstools and battlefields of southern Crimea to the desert sands of Western Rajasthan is that Ireland is now defined by Riverdance, Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Conor McGregor.
“Really, after all that? Regardless of fighting for a rag on the pole, that’s what defines the Irish?
“We really need to get some culture going again.
“It’s in serious decline from what I see.
“I turned the donkey for home about two years ago and went to Kerry and it’s a shock going back after 45, 50 years. A big shock.
“How can Kerry not have a professional theatre company?
“It’s incredible. Two million visitors and then an American asks, ‘Where can I see an Irish play?’
David adds: “On the subject of not drinking and acting, I stopped drinking on my first job.
“It was in 1999 and I was 23 years old.
“I was at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, King Lear and I was understudying David Tennant and I was missing rehearsals and not turning up and all that. I kind of felt that was normal, acceptable behaviour.
“This old English actor, a really posh guy, took me aside and said, ‘Don’t be another drunken Irish actor. We have enough of them’.
“It was a slap in the face but it woke me up.”
When he was once having lunch with Stephen Rea at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Richard E Grant stopped at their table and asked the playwright to write something for the two actors.
When is he going to write that Rea/ E Grant vehicle? “Maybe I should do a sequel, Withnail and Son or something.
“Writing something for Richard E Grant and Stephen Rea has always been on my mind.
“I have a lot of other plays on my mind, too. So I’ll get around to it someday.”
Daragh famously told the actor he would ‘murder’ him and his friend played by Paul McGann in the iconic Withnail and I.
Does he often reminded of this role? Daragh says: “Actually a guy this morning on a Murphy truck, when I was walking down Earls Court Road, roared out his window, ‘Perfumed ponce!’
The tough times that Daragh has spoken about go some way towards explaining this character.
“He’s being exploited by (well known construction firms).
“They were they were the slave traders of my era.
“I came here in the early 70s when I was 17, which was ’71. It was hard being Irish for sure so the Irish stuck together a lot and there was a dreadful slave trade going on of the uneducated Irish.
“Most of them turned to alcoholism and had mental health problems, I saw that and I knew a lot of them.
“The disintegration of fine men who didn’t take a drink before they came to London, but (the construction firm) insisted that he paid them all by cheque and the cheques had to be cashed in Betty Sugrue’s in Shepherds Bush.
“The cheques were given at six o’clock and Butty would tell them the cheques couldn’t be cashed until 11 so they would stay in the pub for six hours.
“I witnessed the slave trade for years.”
Yes So I Said Yes is showing at The Finborough Theatre until Saturday 18 December.
For more information and to book, click here.