Thursday 21 February 2019

How a random act of kindness by a stranger helped change my life

Playwright Eugene O'Brien recalls the simple twist of fate that sparked the completion of his acclaimed play, Eden

Success: Don Wycherley and Catherine Walsh as Billy and Breda in ‘Eden’ at The Abbey in 2001
Success: Don Wycherley and Catherine Walsh as Billy and Breda in ‘Eden’ at The Abbey in 2001

Eugene O'Brien

I can't actually remember his name. I met him only once. A friend brought me to his house for a drink. The aftermath of a dinner party. The man was successful, had a nice home in a fashionable Dublin area. He was from the North, married and he was very good company.

I then learned that our journeys through life had been very different. He had spent time in prison. He had been an IRA operative in his youth. Sent to England to plant bombs. But he was to do me a small but very generous act of kindness.

He had grown up during the height of the Troubles. I don't remember the details. But a world away from my childhood. I had a privileged, loving home in the midlands. The family business was supermarkets and then property and also a cinema in the town square.

I was obsessed with movies and the Saturday matinees we attended week after week. Disney and children's fare but more often than not, adult violence in the form of tough spaghetti westerns which we loved. I played at guns and violence... re-enacting the bloodbath at the beginning of the The Wild Bunch as we ran from the cinema across the town square. Our imaginations fuelled for another week.

But violence in his life would have been all too real, I presume. On the street. Raids on his home. Us and them. Anger and fierce resentment and then granted an opportunity to strike back. He was sent to Britain on a letter bomb campaign. He was arrested and served a considerable sentence.

Again I can't recall the details. The important thing was that when he got out of prison he had rejected all notions of violence and was determined to have a go at life. To work and to help people whenever he could. To atone for what he'd done.

So I sat in his house that night, drinking wine, and he asked me what I did. I told him that I was a jobbing actor who just about made a living out of it. I had done time on an RTE soap opera, plays, and small parts in films. I had no responsibility. I shared a house with two other actors. It was in the days of cheap rent. Money went further. Drink, pork chops, more drink, and Tin Tin's Chinese for sweet and sour chicken balls was the diet. Our flat's address was 82 Northumberland Road... or Club 82 as it was known for the amount of drinking that went on in it. But lately I'd been trying to write a play, I explained. I had locked myself away in my room while the music and roars blared from the rest of the flat.

I had written before but this was something else. Something I had to get down. It was just two characters, Billy and Breda from Edenderry, and their unhappy marriage and a world of characters and spake of the town like the local ladies' man being known as James Galway, the man with the golden flute!

It would turn out to be about loneliness and lack of communication and sexual dysfunction but I didn't know that then. I just kept scribbling and Billy and Breda's voices were getting stronger.

These voices were doing things independently of me. It happens rarely in writing when the character seems to take over for a moment. I experienced this for the first time in my messy bedroom in Club 82 and it spurred me on, but I was writing all of this in long hand. And not really sure whether I'd ever show it to anyone. Scribbling in short bursts but not taking it completely seriously.

That night in that man's house, as I told him and the others about the play, they seemed to be really interested and the man looked at me. He wanted me to finish it. He wanted me to take it seriously and the first thing I needed to do was get a computer. He offered to give me one. He had a secondhand word processor Commodore thingy that he could gift me. I stuttered out the standard: "Ah Jesus, I couldn't accept that... ah no..." but he insisted.

More wine and shite talk followed and I woke up the next day in 'Club 82' not fully poisoned but near enough. The door bell was ringing. Nobody was alive to answer it. I stumbled down the corridor. I opened the door and the man was standing there with a computer at his feet. It took me a second to register who the hell he was. But he hadn't just been giving the drink-fuelled big Irish promise that never materialises in the light of day.... It was real. He was very serious. He lifted the computer inside. He wished me luck with the play. I thanked him as much as I could. 'Just finish the play' was all he wanted. So I did. I sat in front of the new machine and typed and edited and finished it pretty quickly and I named it Eden.

The Abbey took a punt and it kind of took off. Played in the West End, won awards and has been translated. I've seen it in Romanian, Dutch, German and Catalan.

It gave me great opportunities to work with great people and to be able to write for a living. In short, I suppose the play changed my life.

The old computer got left behind in 'Club 82' when the Celtic Tiger kicked us out and I bought a Mac with the proceeds from the play's first run.

The man, I hope, is happy and well but won't know how much his act of kindness meant to me.

Billy and Breda continue to thrive. Just got an email from the agent that someone wants to do Eden in Naples.

Sunday Independent

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