I was thinking, how will I get through this

A play inspired by the Ann Lovett tragedy in the 1980s comes to a stage in Cork this week. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the writer and actress behind ‘Mary and Me’, Irene Kelleher, about the selfpenned, one woman play, the death of her father, the #MeToo movement and more
I was thinking, how will I get through this

Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me. Picture: Denisa Photo.

ACTRESS and writer, Irene Kelleher, took on the biggest challenge of her career when she performed her self-penned one-woman play, Mary And Me, at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, just after her father died from cancer.

Irene, originally from Ovens, is looking forward to performing her show, inspired by the Ann Lovett tragedy in 1984, at the Everyman from March 6 to 8. And she is glad she took to the stage at Edinburgh at that difficult time of her life.

Irene’s show garnered two five star reviews and she brought it to London after Edinburgh, having been invited to take part in a new festival there featuring the work of women writers.

Irene’s father, to whom she was very close, had cancer and passed away after she performed her show for a week. She went home and with the encouragement of her mother and two siblings, Irene returned to Edinburgh to perform the last weekend of her show.

“It was tough but in a way, it’s what saved me at that time,” recalls Irene. “By going back to Edinburgh, I was kind of running away because I didn’t want to be at home without my father. There were so many people around and I was so lonely.

“I have no doubt that going back to Edinburgh is what dad would have wanted. I remember standing at the side of the stage about ten minutes before going on. I was thinking — ‘what am I doing, how am I going to get through the next seventy minutes?’.”

Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me. Picture: Denisa Photo.
Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me. Picture: Denisa Photo.

Irene says she is neither particularly spiritual nor religious but she had “a chat” with her father, asking him to help her get through the performance.

“I feel closest to dad when I’m performing because I know that’s what he loved. He was the one who really inspired me to write. He thought it would be a great way of taking back control and empowering myself as an actress. He was so right. I lost myself in those seventy minutes. It was very peaceful. Afterwards, I felt emotionally drained but it saved me in that I threw myself into the performance.”

Irene wasn’t even born when the tragic death of Ann Lovett, aged 15, happened after she gave birth beside a grotto in Granard, Longford. The official line was that nobody knew Ann was pregnant. With the Kerry Babies scandal from the 1980s back in the news recently, it is a reminder of old attitudes towards unmarried mothers and their secret pregnancies.

But Irene was surprised at how her play, set in 1986, resonated so strongly with audiences. “It’s not the exact story of Ann Lovett. But when young people came to see it, they said they could identify with it.

“At a Q&A session after a performance at the Hawkswell in Sligo, there was a 19-year-old boy who said he could completely identify with the character’s worries. I thought it was really strange. Ireland may not have changed as much as we think.

“The most important line in the play that really resonates with people is that ‘we need to talk about these things’. That is changing. We are talking about things now that we wouldn’t have talked about before.”

Irene says that thanks to social media movements such as #Waking the Feminists and #Me Too, “people have got the courage to come out and talk about things they may have repressed for years.”

“I think that whole thing about being quiet and all that secrecy was, for a long time, ingrained in our Irish DNA.”

What interests Irene as a writer is the way a community impacts on an individual, and the fact that everybody has a part to play in their community.

Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me. Picture: Denisa Photo.
Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me. Picture: Denisa Photo.

“Obviously, the Ann Lovett story was tragic in itself but what is even more tragic is that nobody knew about it as it was kept a secret. It’s hard to believe she delivered the child (who died) at full term. That secrecy is a huge theme in Mary And Me. In the play, the word ‘pregnant’ is never used. The play is told through a series of confessions. The first time the character, 15-year-old Hannah, comes to the grotto, she is desperately looking for help to pass a maths test. She discovers she likes talking to the statue. It’s easier than talking to a friend. The grotto becomes her safe place. She finds it easier to tell her secret to the statue of Mary. Audiences know she is pregnant. The play goes right up to the final day. But there’s nothing graphic or too uncomfortable in it. The ending isn’t what you’d expect. It’s hopeful and uplifting. But the story is very much about a girl growing up in the ’80s and her struggle.”

Audiences in Edinburgh and the Omnibus Theatre in London didn’t all know what a grotto was.

“But they found the play really relatable. They were fascinated by it and the fact that it’s inspired by a true story. Some of them were asking if Ireland is still like that.”

As an actress, Irene is weary of auditioning for “one-dimensional characters, females who were a daughter or a lover of somebody. All the casting briefs that were coming in were for rape victims and victims of abuse. They were not defined in their own terms.”

It’s what spurred her to write. Mary And Me is Irene’s first play to be staged and she is currently working on another.

The #MeToo movement is something that Irene welcomes.

“I have yet to meet an actress or a female technician or director who hasn’t experienced (abuse) on some level. Not necessarily sexual abuse but some level of abuse of power or demeaning behaviour.

“Now we have better language for it. We can say that something isn’t right whereas before, abusive behaviour was normalised.

“I remember the times I got a big role and people would say to me, ‘who did you sleep with to get that?’ My response then was to laugh it off whereas now, people have the confidence to say that it’s not OK to say that.”

A graduate in drama and theatre studies from UCC, Irene is thrilled that her play is going to be published by Oberon Publishers in the UK. It will be on sale at the Everyman. After the Cork run, the play will tour around Ireland.

Tickets cost €20/€18/€9. There will be a post talk show on March 8, to mark International Women’s Day. See www.everymancork.com

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