IT IS 1988 and all eyes are on the western skies. Wide-eyed, wild yet innocent, they watch the jetstream trails over Brandon Mountain. Soon they will be up there on one of the planes bound for a new life across the Atlantic. Big dreams, work hard, get rich, and someday maybe...if things get better they will come back home again.
It is 2013 and all the talk is of The Gathering. Twenty-five years is a long time however. People change. Some return. Some do not. Some are still dreamin’. Jack Flynn has flown home solo from the east coast of America in a single-engined aircraft, a dream he has had since first landing on US soil.
His old companions gather in the community hall to welcome him home for what should be a celebration, but the ordinary can be extraordinary. Can Greg and Mags re-kindle their childhood love? Can Brendy and Josie stop their marriage from falling apart? Will Jamesie find the truth about his son lost on the streets of Brooklyn? The past is a powder keg waiting to explode. The only question is who will strike the first match?
This is the setting of Beyond The Brooklyn Sky, the acclaimed new play by Michael Hilliard Mulcahy, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre next week in a production by Red Kettle in association with Garter Lane Arts Centre.
“This play is my first production,” Hilliard Murphy tells me over an afternoon chat. “I had one earlier play called Waves which won an award a few years back but it’s never been produced. I moved on from that and kept writing so Beyond The Brooklyn Sky is my debut proper.
“I had sent some work in to Red Kettle and an actor friend of Ben Hennessy [Red Kettle’s AD] had mentioned to him that he’d read my work and liked it,” he continues, explaining how he hooked up with the Waterford-based company. “Then Peter Sheridan [who directs the play] and Pat Moylan and a few other people with some status in the industry liked what I was doing and recommended me to Ben as well so then he decided to come and meet me and it went from there.”
Given that the play takes its title from Brooklyn, I ask Hilliard Murphy whether he has been there himself.
“I’ve never been to the US,” he answers, to my surprise. “Maybe it’s more telling that I didn’t go. I remember during that period everyone I knew went so I heard a lot of their stories. I spent a little time in London and I had a visa for New York but for whatever reason I didn’t make it.
“Perhaps that’s why the play came about. It was all about that time, New York in the late 1980s. Maybe there was a regret in me for not going and that spurred me to write the play. Certainly the stories I heard back and the connection between the west coast of Ireland and the opposite side of the pond is a very strong one and I wanted to bring those two worlds together.”
Hilliard Murphy also observes: “The 1980s wave of emigration hasn’t been touched on at all. Friel wrote about emigration in the 1960s in Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Tom Murphy in the 70s with Conversations on a Homecoming, but for me the story of the 80s generation hasn’t been told. Emigration is with us again today now and in the play the youngest character, Shannon, is planning to move to Australia so it kind of comes full circle. That notion of emigration seems to be ingrained in us but I do think we’re a bunch of wanderers anyway.”
The playwright describes the effects of emigration in 1980s Kerry: “I’ve seen communities wiped out, football teams emigrating en masse. There were places in New York that could have fielded five teams while there were none here. It was a hard time. There were virtually no young people in rural communities, they were decimated.
“All that’s in the air again and I think that’s why people are drawn to the play, it resonates. Another aspect of the play is that it’s set in Brandon which is linked with Brendan the Navigator and look at the journeys he was supposed to have gone on! It’s something I wanted to explore and it’s a kind of ongoing thing.”
Not only does the play feature one character, Jack, who has flown solo across the Atlantic, Jack’s old friend Brendy is preparing to single-handedly sail across the ocean.
“Jack has done well in New York. It was always his dream to become a pilot and he wanted to fly a single engine aircraft back home and a guy I knew actually did that,” Hilliard Murphy explains. “The strands of the story are pulled from real situations and real people’s lives. When Jack arrives home he learns that one of the old gang, Brendy, is preparing to row the north Atlantic.
“I went to school for a while with Damian Foxall the world champion rower and sailor so that was probably an inspiration. We’re adventurers. I don’t know why it is, maybe it is because here in the Dingle Peninsula we have the ocean on two sides of us and a mountain range in between, the adventure is ingrained in us somehow.”
Two of the play’s cast-members have themselves written successful plays about Irish emigrants. Aidan Dooley, who plays Brendy, will be familiar as the author and performer of Tom Crean, Arctic Explorer, while Malachy McKenna, who plays Greg, wrote Tillsonburg about the adventures of two Irish lads picking tobacco in Canada.
“Aidan and Malachy certainly ‘get’ the play’s theme of emigration and they are both great in it,” Hilliard Murphy acknowledges. “It’s funny actually, at one point in the play Aidan’s character Brendy mentions Tom Crean and it always gets a laugh.”
The cast also features Jamie Carswell (Jack ), Una Kavanagh, Rosanna Purcell, Sorcha Fox, and Vincent McCabe.
Beyond The Brooklyn Sky is at the Town Hall on Monday October 21 and Tuesday 22 at 8pm. Tickets are €20/16 and are available through 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie