Meeting Martin Naughton

Galway's acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Christian O'Reilly tells us about his latest work, No Magic Pill, inspired by Spiddal's Martin Naughton. The play opens in Galway later this month.

Galway-based Christian O Reilly, writer of No Magic Pill. Also pictured cast member Paddy Slattery, director Raymond Keane, and cast member, dramaturg and disability consultant Peter Kearns. No Magic Pill is at the Black Box Theatre, Galway, 27-30 September. Photo by Kamyla Abreu

Galway-based Christian O Reilly, writer of No Magic Pill. Also pictured cast member Paddy Slattery, director Raymond Keane, and cast member, dramaturg and disability consultant Peter Kearns. No Magic Pill is at the Black Box Theatre, Galway, 27-30 September. Photo by Kamyla Abreu

I have wanted to tell this story for 27 years. It started when I replied to a job ad in the DCU newsletter, which had been placed by the Centre for Independent Living (CIL ). I was invited to an interview at the Royal Dublin Hotel. Soon, the door was pushed open and a bearded man in a wheelchair rolled in. A fishing hat sat on his head, a cigarette hung from his lips and he wore a smile on his face. ‘Shake the thumb,’ he told me. This was my first introduction to Martin Naughton.

I soon learnt that CIL was a disability-rights organisation founded by and for disabled people. My perception of disabled people as passive and dependent was shattered by the angry, militant gang of wheelchair-users I met through CIL.

Martin put me to work as a lobbyist and it became clear that he relished in the act of throwing people, disabled or not, into the deep end. He was our charismatic, driven leader, a visionary in pursuit of equality, who could ride roughshod over the feelings of his own people when campaigning for change.

After two years, I left to return to writing, but time passed, savings ran out and rejections built up. I joined Metropolitan Films as an administrator and one day, over a pint, my boss James Flynn asked me what script I was working on. I told him the story of Spiddal native Martin Naughton, who had returned from America to fight for a personal assistance programme, transforming the lives of numerous wheelchair-users by giving them independence for the first time. I saw this as the War of Independence for the Irish disability movement and Martin as Michael Collins in a wheelchair.

James was fascinated by the story and we agreed to develop it as a film project with the title ‘No Magic Pill’. But the script ultimately went in a different direction, for a variety of reasons, and I felt like a failure.

Martin has entrusted me to tell his story and I had let him down. The title was changed from ‘No Magic Pill’ to ‘Inside I’m Dancing’. ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ became a hit in Ireland when it was released on DVD and I felt pride at the part I had played in bringing a story about disability to a mainstream audience. But it bore no relation to the story I had set out to tell.

I moved onto other projects, but I couldn’t shake the sense of regret.

In 2015, I was preparing a funding application to write a new play, but hadn’t settled on an idea. Jane Daly, a mentor of mine in Galway, asked me if there was any story I wanted to tell that I hadn’t yet told. I thought of ‘No Magic Pill’, but dismissed it on the basis that it had too many painful associations and that I was scared of failing again. Jane argued that these were the reasons I needed to write this play. When the Arts Council awarded me funding, my decision was made.

I contacted Martin in September 2016 and was shocked to learn that he was gravely ill and in his final days. I promised him I would finish the play.

‘No Magic Pill’ has since evolved into a stand-alone piece of theatre – a play about a flawed, driven character who yearns for a normal life, but feels compelled by a sense of duty to the cause of disability rights. Neither angelic nor inspirational, Martin plays against disability stereotypes by being arrogant, impatient and domineering, while also trying to conceal his own vulnerability and need for love. He fights with everyone, including disabled people, but he is a hero worth fighting for. It is a story full of heart, humour and surprise.

The production will break new ground in Irish theatre by casting physically disabled actors, drawing on their lived experience of disability and bringing authenticity and a previously unseen aesthetic to their performances.

As we approach opening night, there are always fears – some irrational. But there is also hope that the production will be a line in the sand for Irish theatre, showing that disabled Irish actors deserve to play disabled characters; that Martin Naughton will start to get the recognition he deserves; that it will start a conversation within wider Irish society about the need to include disabled people not just in theatre, but in everything.

I’ll leave the last word to the character of Martin in ‘No Magic Pill’:

“If you’re a wheelchair-user, you’ve got a simple choice.: either you suck sweets in a corner and watch television all day or you try to change the world around you. There aint gonna be no magic pill in my day.”

No Magic Pill will premiere in Galway with performances at The Black Box Theatre Tuesday 27th – Friday 30th September. For further details www.tht.ie / 091 569 777."

 

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