Last year playwright Alan O’Brien won the PJ O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama with Snow Falls and So Do We. rabble sent Sean Finnan along to chat to Alan about the play and why he refused RTÉ permission to broadcast the drama.
So I guess to start with, what’s the play about?
It was inspired by the death of Rachel Peavoy. When that happened I was amongst many that were just appalled by the whole thing. Having experienced living in Ballymun, our empirical knowledge tells us that it’s impossible to die by hypothermia once the heating is on cause the heat was so intense you used to have to have the windows open. You dried your clothes on the floor.
A guy I used to run a youth club with, Mick Dunne, he was one of the first people to move out to Ballymun and he used to go into Moore Street with him and his brother and they used to get their fruit and veg and the women used to say to them “Go back to Ballymun’, ‘how’d ya know I’m from Ballymun?’ ‘No colour in your face.’” So the heat used to have everyone bleeding drained. So it was absolutely impossible for anyone to die from hypothermia once the heat was on.
So the play’s main character is Joanne Boland. She isn’t Rachel Peavoy but she lives in Ballymun and suffers the same fate as her.
Well Joanne Boland is a cacophony of mothers and female voices from Ballymun who have resonated with me through my time living there, growing up there. It would definitely not be right for me to say that Joanne Boland has any resemblance to Rachel Peavoy’s actual life. The only concrete resemblance they have is the tragic nature of their deaths.
Exactly. In 1840’s this was what they were saying. It’s the Irish’s fault. In the 1840’s they were going around with Reverend Malthus’ Treaty of the Population which basically said that during times of famine, that was God’s way of dealing with avarice amongst the peasantry. Now there was an English Republican called William Hazlitt who ripped the treaty to shreds.
However, Malthus’s Treaty was doing the rounds around Westminster in the 1840’s, William Hazlitt’s wasn’t. I wanted to juxtapose the attitudes of the ruling classes in Ireland of that time with the ruling classes now cause not much has changed in the way they view people, we are subhuman, you know.
The thing about Irish literature and the Irish media more generally is that there are few Irish women’s voices, especially female working class voices coming out. This is surprising as it has been Irish working class women who have been hit hardest by austerity but also that they are the point of most resistance to austerity.
Yeah absolutely. I have issues with that myself. My character wanted to show that… she talked about not having the words. She had the words but she hasn’t got the confidence and that’s what’s wrong. Working class voices, ok, Alessandro Portelli, this oralist, said that people from non hegemonic classes use intonation and emphasis rather than vocabulary when communicating. So our accents are more complex as it takes more sensory recognition, you have to pay attention to stresses, you have to pay attention to body language, it is more complex than middle classes. What Portelli said is that hegemonic classes learned to mimic the monotone of the written word where we use expression. I like telling them that ‘cause working class accents are the natural ones, it comes from the people, from the actual land. The other one is constructed.
The actor playing Joanne Boland was superb. The voice was so engaging, almost mesmerising throughout.
Yeah, Melissa is a superb actor and a Beckettian scholar. She is involved or runs (I don’t know the extent of her responsibilities) with Mouth on Fire productions who specialise in Beckett’s work. I had seen her in numerous productions both small and big and she impressed me greatly. She asked for the script which I promptly sent her. Within an hour I had a message telling me that she will take this part. Melissa is also working class herself so knew the complexities of the natural Dublin vernacular with its expressions, intonations and emphasis. For instance the way balcony is pronounced in Ballymun was with a silent c, ‘bal’ony. Her input was utterly fructifying.
What happened with RTÉ? The play won the PJ O’Connor Award for best Irish radio drama and part of that prize was for the play to be broadcast on the station. Yet that didn’t happen. What happened there?
I don’t want to get into my experience with them. It was a really bad experience with them and it marred the whole enjoyment of winning the award. They went and made it and what they made was unrecognisable. The producer took out every single sound effect and took out some key lines and changed the ending to that she actually didn’t die.
You can listen to Snow Falls and So Do We on Soundcloud. It’s also broadcasting on Dublin Digital Radio at 9PM today. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Ballymun Communications