Entertainment TV & Radio

Tuesday 23 January 2018

It's time to Gather everyone

Fionnula Flanagan on how The Gathering could be a healing opportunity to open our arms not just to loved ones abroad but even 'despised ones' – you know, the ones who you were glad to see leave

Fionnula Flanagan
Fionnula Flanagan
Fionnula as Blanche in Noel Pearson's production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.
Fionnula in The Guard
Fionnula starred in the cult TV show Lost.
A scene from the film Waking Ned
Fionnula in The Others in 2001
Fionnula presenting TV show 'The Gathering'.

Fionnuala Flanagan

If the historians are to be believed, early on we left in high-prowed small boats stuffed with monks and their concubines to found schools of learning in Iceland, the Scottish isles and the far-flung continent of Europe.

As one of the conditions of the Treaty of Limerick, we left into exile with our tribal leaders and joined the armies of France and Spain, rising up the ranks, distinguishing ourselves by our courage and tenacity in battle and enduring to find dynasties among the royal houses of Europe.

Fleeing starvation, we left in coffin ships, carrying our few belongings, our sorrow, our rage and our hope to the New World. Deported by the Crown, we left in prison barks for Australia and Tasmania where, waist-deep in icy water, we were condemned to build the cells in which we would rot and die.

In two world wars we left in droves to fight for king and country, many uncertain as to which, if either, was ours. We left to defend the Spanish Republic in the late 1930s and those of us who returned were rewarded with excommunication and isolation by an increasingly conservative Catholic Ireland.

Fionnula with Hellen Mirren in Some Mother's Son.
Fionnula with Hellen Mirren in Some Mother's Son.

Throughout the grey 1950s, fleeing poverty, unemployment and a repressive church and State, we left with shabby cardboard suitcases on the Liverpool boat for work in Britain's hospitals, in her factories, in her underground tunnels and on her building sites.

With entire families to see us off, we left Dublin and Shannon on planes for relatives in America, the distance and expense making it unlikely we would ever return. And then the boom times came and we left for the weekend on the same planes for shopping trips to New York and Paris and Milan and the illegals began leaving Boston and New York, coming home, confident of opportunity and a future in the newly prosperous Ireland.

Until now. Sadly, the recession generated in the death throes of the Celtic Tiger has reintroduced the brain drain from Ireland. Young, eager and educated, they are leaving daily by the hundreds. Government quotas abroad, however, have narrowed the options and opportunities for immigrants, making Irish emigration less available as a national solution.

Living as I do in the United States and having been involved in the efforts to gain legitimacy for the Irish illegals there, I watch with concern as I see borders being tightened and stricter rules being introduced to limit the inflow and opportunities of all immigrants, the Irish included.

What are they to do now but enter illegally, keep the head down and try to gain a toe-hold in the melting pot of urban America?

And what are their families at home to do, as they wait and worry, their financial circumstances severely curtailed by recession, struggling to keep homes, businesses from going underwater?

No money now for the quick trip to Boston or New York to see how Mary or Brian are doing, their hard-earned degrees in architecture and economics qualifying them to work as waiters and bar tenders – if they are lucky.

My own entry into the US was easier. It was 1968 and I was invited by Hilton Edwards – who had directed the original production of Brian Friel's 'Lovers' in which I had played Maggie, the young schoolgirl – to go to New York along with the late Anna Manahan and Eamon Morrissey to play in the Broadway production. We had entered the US on special H-1 visas, which only permitted us to work in that production and expected us to leave when that play closed.

During the Broadway run I applied for my green card and assembled the requisite number of letters from the producers with whom I had worked who, bless their hearts, were willing to state in writing that they believed I would never be a burden to the American economy.

In the many visits I had to pay to the offices of the Department of Immigration – now more frighteningly renamed the Department of Homeland Security – then in the Wall Street area, it seemed to me each time I saw the same sad families sitting patiently, murmuring softly in languages other than English, their children clustered around them, faces from all the ends of the earth, weary from endlessly waiting on bureaucratic decisions which could give them a shot at a new life or send them by instant deportation back to their home countries, to who knew what poverty, hunger, repression or even death.

I think of them still. Sometimes they come into my mind's eye in incongruous places. When I'm on the red carpet being asked some question about Your Career or What You're Wearing or some such. I think of them then and it puts it all in perspective. They are the ones who left. And somewhere back in their country of birth they have parents who wait and worry and struggle with poverty and illness and ignorant repressive regimes, secular and religious, with no way to hop on a plane and follow to see how they are doing. They are us.

Then along came an Irish government initiative called The Gathering and spokespeople came from the Irish government to Los Angeles to promote it. It was originally conceived as a plan to help the Irish economy by encouraging Irish people living both at home and, like myself, living in the diaspora, to invite their relatives abroad to make a return trip to Ireland, to increase tourism and open up possibilities for financial investment by the visitors.

With 43 million people in the US claiming to be of Irish descent, the potential pool from which to draw tourists seemed like a mother lode.

I thought it was a brilliant initiative. I still do and have tried to lend it support where I can. To be sure it is not perfect – what plan conceived by government is? – and lacked the kind of funding which could have pushed it into international significance as an initiative.

But it has within it one great element: it makes an appeal to Irish families at home to extend an invitation to those who left to come back. This is good if it is exercised because those of us who left, and particularly if we 'made it' abroad, are held in a certain suspicious contempt at home, as if we have in some way betrayed our national birthright.

Believe me, I know. I feel it aimed at me along with the admiration and congratulations whenever I come home. And my strongest evidence for its existence is that I myself, prior to leaving Ireland, used to keep a store of it handy to pour like confetti at a wedding, on the unsuspecting heads of returnees.

I realised, when I was preparing to take part in the television programme on The Gathering, that the families were being encouraged to invite back their 'loved' ones. All well and good, I thought, but what about their 'despised' ones? The ones they were glad to see leave, the trouble makers, the difficult ones, the ones they made leave, the ones who shamed them?

Might they not be invited back to invest? Many of them surely had 'made it' abroad and surely their shilling or lira or dollar is as good as the next? And even if they didn't invest money, could not a healing take place that would invest good will and the opportunity to grow relations and partnerships of many and varied designs?

And isn't it time to start such a healing? The rifts and divisions within Irish families, my own included, are legendary. They are sources of great shame, secret and never mentioned, of course, and sources of great pain and suffering and loss.

And shrouded in secrecy. Not to be spoken of for fear the world might get the idea we are not the jolly, funny, amusing, generous bunch we wish we were if we could only shake off forever our suspicion and treachery and shame.

Perhaps The Gathering, if exercised in its broadest, most generous sense, can enable such a healing. Or at least open the door to a dialogue about it. As a way to come home at last for all of us. Those who are here and those who left.

Fionnula appears in 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' on Wednesday, July 10, in the Friary Church, as part of the Kinsale Arts Festival. With no director, no set and a different guest each night, this unique play sees some of the biggest names in Irish theatre and film reading a script they have never seen before in front of a live audience. 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' is a play in which the story and the outcome are as much of a surprise for the performer as the audience. It forms part of a superbly curated event that includes film, theatre, music, visual arts, food and family events. For more, see kinsaleartsfestival.com

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