The perils of getting Glutened

New play by CaitrĂ­ona NĂ­ Chonaola shines a funny and insightful light on coeliac disease

Actress Caitriona Ní Chonaola. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Actress Caitriona Ní Chonaola. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

AMONG THE many sparkling offerings in this year’s Galway Theatre Festival is Glutened, a new play written and performed by Caitríona Ní Chonaola, which shines a funny and insightful light on coeliac disease.

An estimated one per cent of the Irish population suffer from coeliac disease – but just what does it mean to be ‘glutened’? Ní Chonaola’s comedy delves deep into the belly of one Lizzie O’Malley, a Connemara woman en route to New Zealand who describes her travails with coeliac disease. We follow Lizzie through often hilarious misadventures, where, what started as a journey to Heaven, somehow ended up in the bowels of Hell. She may have bitten off more than she can chew but the truth may be harder to digest.

Caitríona, from Camus, in Connemara, has written songs, stories, and ‘agallamh beirte’ to aid learners of Irish. She has written one previous play, Incubus, which was staged at An Taibhdhearc. Glutened is her first play in English and it draws on her own personal experiences.

“I found out in 2006 that I had coeliac disease,” she tells me. “I was after spending nearly 12 years wondering what was wrong with me and seeing different doctors and trying different therapies trying to find out or treat what was wrong with me. I used to often get mouth ulcers and frequently feel tired. I’d have ‘brain fog’ and be clumsy – I was constantly getting bruises from bumping into things. Eventually I found it was coeliac disease.

'A restaurant may say a dish is gluten free but a crumb could easily get in it in the kitchen and just that is enough to make me ill'

"In one way I should have known because my mother is also coeliac, but her symptoms were very different to mine. I assumed that meant I’d just have to avoid things like bread and I knew from my mother’s diet what kind of foods to avoid. What I didn’t know then is that, for me, even the smallest amount of gluten can provoke the same reaction as if I’d eaten a whole loaf of bread. That’s one way my condition differs from my mother’s – not every coeliac will have the same symptoms or responses. I used to be a keen foodie; I loved travelling and trying out new foods, the more exotic the better but all that was not possible anymore.

“It has impacted hugely on my social life; I’ve nearly become a recluse,” Caitríona continues. “Even in Ireland I have a problem because a restaurant may say a dish is gluten free but a crumb could easily get in it in the kitchen and just that is enough to make me ill. I used to eat out but I always got sick afterward and it would take me up to 12 days to get better. So I just stopped eating out; I can’t relax in a restaurant and the show makes a lot of comedy out of that predicament.”

Gluten free

Caitríona ouitlines the content of the show: “I had so many funny encounters down the years due to people’s lack of understanding of the condition and that got me thinking there was a play in this. So Glutened follows the story of Lizzie wondering what’s wrong, finding out and then the things that happen after that. The show doesn’t lecture people or preach about coeliac disease, it’s a comedy from start to finish. I’ve also written two songs I perform in the show, one is ‘Jack the Baker’ and the other is ‘Glutened’. When gluten gets into my food, I feel like I’ve been ‘glutened’ which is a term I come across a lot in online coeliac forums.”

I ask Caitríona about the type of comic encounters she works into the show. “I was having reflexology once in Vietnam and I had unwittingly eaten something with gluten in it the previous day,” she relates. “My tummy was all swollen out, reacting to the gluten, and this little man who was tapping my feet doing the refloxology suddenly pointed to my belly in alarm and started saying ‘You have baby, you have baby’. He refused to continue with the reflexology because he couldn’t treat pregnant women – and nobody would believe me that I wasn’t pregnant at all. Another time I went to a house party and when they answered the door I said ‘Hi I’m coeliac’ and then I was introduced to everyone as Celiak, they thought it was my name!”

Glutened is directed by Ronan Demspey and runs from May 9 to 12 at the O’Donoghue Centre , NUIG. The first two performances are at 8pm and the second two at 6pm. Tickets are €14/12 via www.galwaytheatrefestival.com and the Town Hall Theatre (www.tht.ie, 091-569777 ).

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