It all comes back to me and Offaly
Eugene O'Brien tells Donal Lynch why his own insecurities and birthplace feature so heavily in his plays
Being vaguely aware of his gilded provenance (midlands merchant family, father drove a Rolls Royce), I'm imagining Eugene O'Brien to be all starched collar, entitlement and Anglo-Irish vowels. True, the man waiting for me in a hotel off Merrion Square doesn't have that flat Offaly drawl that you might expect of the villagers of the realm, but with his scruffy coat and down-to-earth cheerfulness he's as far from my son-of-a-peerage fantasies as it's possible to get.
As one of Ireland's most talented playwrights, O'Brien has quietly carved out a career far from the plethora of business and property interests of his family in Edenderry.
But even though he's been gone from there for 23 years now (at 40 his hair is just getting its first flecks of grey) the town, bleak even by midlands standards, serves as a backdrop for most of his plays, including of course, the acclaimed Eden.
"I guess with Cowen the county has been in the news a lot in the past few days," he tells me. "And it's incredible the amount of prejudice that comes out. People have all these misconceptions about Offaly people, the main one of course being that we're thick. The other counties had the glamour and Offaly was somewhere poor that you passed through."
He remembers coming up to Dublin and enrolling as a student in Rathmines Senior College. "And Dublin guys were sort of amazed that I had any notion of indie music or what was cool. But we were listening to the same radio and reading NME, just like them."
O'Brien tells me that he draws heavily on his own "life and insecurities" for his plays and you can trace many of his anecdotes back to his work. Savoy centres on a cinema in Edenderry -- his own father, he says, was a huge film buff and passed the passion on to Eugene. America '87 deals loosely with elements of a rather epic road trip that O'Brien and a friend took during a college break.
"We were determined to meet William S Burroughs, we just thought he would be the most interesting person in the world to talk to. We arrived in Lawrence [Kansas], went to meet him and ended up meeting this mad film lecturer who talked all the time about Oliver North.
"And he gave us Burroughs's editor's number and he picked us up in front of this trendy pub in Kansas and it was very hip and everyone was smoking dope. And we were brought in to meet the man himself and got locked with him."
O'Brien went back to New York after that and ended up, "hanging out in an East Village community with Loni Anderson and Lou Reed". He still couldn't get over his audience with Burroughs, however, and once asked the editor why the audience had been granted. "He sort of sighed and said, 'Well everyone wants to meet William and they've written a novel and they're very arrogant and looking for their 15 minutes and I knew he wouldn't be interested in them but you guys were so hip in a square kind of way', and I suppose we were."
He came back to study acting at the Oscar School Of Acting in Mountjoy Square, Dublin, and acknowledges that his family's wealth gave him certain freedoms.
"The class of 1984 mostly had to leave to find work. I had more opportunities. I lived in a big flat on Northumberland Road with another few lads. It's difficult enough to forage to find work when you're an actor but I did all right. I found work soon and the last few years I was always in work."
He always wanted to write, however, and in that period wrote a play in his bedroom. "It became Eden and I had a reading of it in the household with about 10 friends and people really liked it. And I had the advantage of being in the business. I had someone with a good trained eye to read it. I had contacts. It was shown to Ben Barnes, who was the artistic director in the Abbey at the time. Conor McPherson became involved (he directed) and it was put it on at the Peacock in January 2001." The play earned rave reviews and after that O'Brien remembers, "Things were never the same for me again."
More work followed and he has been writing full time since, including the television series Pure Mule for RTE, several more plays, as well as a screen adaptation of Eden.
"I suppose all of my writing has dealt with my own emotional hang-ups. The two characters in Eden were bits of me, both the man and the woman. I'd have had lack of confidence in areas of my life and [wanting] to be comfortable in my own skin. Everyone goes through that I suppose. The edges of some things get bevelled when you write about them." Subsequent plays haven't been as successful as Eden, "but, you know, there's a lot of pressure to follow up on things and you learn from that too. There isn't much money in theatre but you can make a decent living writing for television."
At the moment he's in a five-year relationship. "She's studying theatrical make-up. Things are going well. It's pretty serious. I presume I will get married at some stage, but I never know what's going to happen year-to-year. You're conditioned to be like that in this business."
Next up for him is a speaking slot at the Celtic Film Festival in Galway, which will take in films from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. And then it's back Stateside to the TriBeCa Film Festival, in which the film version of Eden is due to be shown at the end of the month. "Even things like Once, which I liked, have had a knock-on effect for us. We're in a narrative competition with 12 other films. It'll be great for us," he says. "They'll know nothing about Edenderry. And it'll be great to go back to New York and bring a bit of the midlands with me."
Eugene O'Brien will be speaking at the Celtic Media festival in Galway on behalf of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on Thursday