Playwright Tom Kilroy: 81 and still unrepentant
Tom Kilroy has never been afraid to excoriate post-independence Ireland and its hypocrisies, writes Emer O'Kelly
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
At 81 years old, the playwright Tom Kilroy seems eternally young. He looks lean and spry, his bespectacled face mild and mildly interrogative: a man interested in all around him.
He doesn't look like an "artist": more like an academic at the height of a distinguished career. Actually he has been an academic - twice.
He was a senior lecturer in English, and Anglo-Irish literature and 18th-century drama at UCD as far back as 1965. He had already begun to write, and after spectacular successes with his first major play, and his novel The Big Chapel -which won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1971 and was nominated for the Booker Prize in the same year - he took a break from academic life to concentrate on his writing.
His "passing" was mourned deeply by his students.
But UCD's loss was to be UCG's gain in 1978: he was appointed Professor of English there, a post he held until 1989, when he again resigned and, this time, allowed playwriting, his first love, to take all his energy.
Kilroy belongs among the elder statesmen of our most eminent "living Irish playwrights", cited with Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Frank McGuinness. But where Friel, for instance, sees post-independence Ireland as a place of decency, however flawed - in part because it is not Britain and has rejected everything to do with it - Kilroy acknowledges what he generically refers to as "the big house" as part of our cultural mix, and admits to being fascinated by its influence.
Many of his plays excoriate the independent Ireland rather than the colonial one, as in his 2010 play, which was in his head for more than a decade: Christ Deliver Us!
Set in a small town in the 50s, its characters are a group of youngsters awakening to their sexuality with tragic and terrifying results. It actually is a re-working of Frank Wedekind's German classic Spring Awakening, but its cruel resonances are even more ghastly for being part of the mid-20th century: the original was written and set almost a century earlier.
Sexuality and its repression features in much of Kilroy's work, possibly because he is fascinated by violence, which he believes usually springs from repression, and both, he believes, are inherent in the Irish character, partly due to our schooling system.
He has said ruefully that as the scholarship son of the garda sergeant from Callan, Co Kilkenny, he arrived as a student at UCD in the early 50s, "gauche, insecure and inhibited". Even at that, the university atmosphere was a far cry from his intensely political home in Co Kilkenny. Both his parents were veterans of the War of Independence, his father in the IRA, his mother in Cumann na mBan.
His father was sentenced by a military court to life imprisonment in 1921, after a raid in Caltra, Co Galway, in which two policemen were shot. From within Galway jail, the elder Kilroy led an effort to burn it down, after the Treaty had already been signed, and apparently always told his son that it was the Treaty that saved his life: a few months previously, he would undoubtedly have been executed. But he was badly beaten.
But having signed up to the post-Treaty unarmed police force, he never wavered from its path, telling his son of the speech he heard made by Michael Collins, in which the new recruits were told that they would enjoy the support of the people because they would be "their guardians, not their oppressors".
Years later, the sergeant heard another speech from Kevin O'Higgins, then minister for justice, in which O'Higgins said: "You must serve with imperturbable discipline any executive which will come to power."
Within months of those separate speeches, both of the men who made them died violently in the name of an Irish republic.
Tom Kilroy says, with satisfaction, that in 2015, "socially and in terms of religion, something big is being dismantled". He does not claim to have assisted in the demolition, but those who have seen his plays would certainly give him credit as a large literary cog in the wheel.
Re-reading his first stage success, The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche, in the months after the referendum on gay marriage (the result of which he exults in, laughing admiringly at his daughter Hannah and her friends flying home from various countries to cast their votes), it's hard not to wonder how, in 1968, he escaped lynching by both Church and State (as well as by devout audiences, many of whom would have also been suffering the inhibited sense of repression with which he himself claims to have entered adulthood).
Premiered at the Olympia Theatre in 1968, the play damns Irish religiosity and its sanctimonious bigotry to destruction, as a group of drunken men, their own sexuality variously ambivalent, turn on a civil and polite homosexual, and apparently leave him for dead before heading off to Mass. With the staging of Mr. Roche, Kilroy has said, he effectively finally "came out from under the soutane", and vowed never again to be bullied by the system. He did, of course, take a bath in some fairly hot water, but even then was unapologetic.
The Field Day production company, which was founded jointly by Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea in 1980 in Derry, staged his play Double Cross in 1986, and it later transferred to the Royal Court in London. It's one of his less well-known works, and concerns the World War II balance between two immensely different Irishmen: the notorious William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and Tipperary man Brendan Bracken, Churchill's close friend and his Minister of Information during the war years.
At a conference in the Abbey Theatre last year, Stephen Rea, who along with Friel brought Kilroy into Field Day (he joined the board in 1988, but later resigned), blamed "the South" and its lack of interest for the fact that, according to him, the play sank without trace. He also pointed out that Kilroy's work can be singularly noted for its absence of nostalgia and sentimentality.
It is mercifully true, but Rea added that his friend is also "unforgiving of audiences who merely want a good night out". That's a lot less than just, as any follower of Kilroy's career will testify.
The Kilroy humour is frequently sly, but his plays are full of it. In 1976, he wrote Tea and Sex and Shakespeare, a riotously surreal piece, part farce, part sex comedy, of a hapless writer suffering from writer's block. It was staged at the Abbey, and had a re-worked revival by Rough Magic a few years ago. It's still uproariously funny.
Kilroy has referred to Ireland as "this benighted country of ours"; but he is anything but unforgiving. Fascinated by the "what if?" of history, at 81 he has lived to see some of what constitutes "if".
"There is no semblance [today] of the Ireland I was reared in," he says with a kind of peaceful gratitude.