Calling for change, one stage at a time
Ahead of his Arts Centre show, the 'Love/hate' star opens up on depression, discrimination, Peter Casey, and Wexford's attitude to travellers. Interview by Padraig Byrne
As a youngster growing up in the working class areas of Coolock, Belcamp and Darndale in Dublin, the thought of becoming a professional actor never really entered the head of John Connors. As is probably more commonplace with young traveller boys, he dreamed more of strutting his stuff in the boxing ring than treading the boards of the country's best loved theatres.
However, all the time he took note of what was going on around him. How travellers were treated in Irish society; the plight of the downtrodden working class; families' battles with addiction. Now as a successful actor and writer, this insight is invaluable and it forms a central part of his works like the film 'Cardboard Gangsters' and his brand new play 'Ireland's Call' which hits the Wexford Arts Centre stage next Wednesday, March 20.
The battle with depression and mental health issues form a central part of John's story. At the age of eight his father died by suicide. He was to endure his own battle with depression years later and it was this that led to him starting out in the world of acting aged 20.
'I never really thought of being an actor when I was younger,' he said. 'It didn't even register with me. It wasn't on my radar. Then I was going through some mental health problems and trying to deal with depression and my brother suggested going to an acting class. It worked and it became a great outlet for me. I absolutely fell in love with it.'
Once he committed to acting, John's rise to prominence was what some might call meteoric.
'Well I never really thought about it as a career or anything like that at first,' he said. 'I just saw it as being good for my head. Then I was cast in the lead role of "King of the Travellers" which was only a year after my first acting class. Nine years after that first class and here I am and it's now my career and my life.'
'I try to go about everything with energy and just throw myself into things and just say "yes",' he continued. 'I just threw myself into it and I knew I'd find a way and I'm still trying to improvise my way through life.'
The role which made the name John Connors a household one was his portrayal of Patrick Ward in Stuart Carolan's hit crime series 'Love/Hate'. Things blew up quickly and John looks back on that period fondly.
'I was surprised by the reaction to it I suppose,' he said. 'I knew it was a great show, but when I was in it the reaction was mental! It was very intense. It was like being a f**king Beatle! You're still unknown in England and that, but in Ireland, everybody knows who you are. It was a great time; it was all good.'
As a member of the travelling community, the acting business can be a difficult one. With discrimination still rife, John feels that he is not afforded the same opportunities as other actors. In his infamous speech after collecting an IFTA for his movie 'Cardboard Gangsters', he stated that the film board dismissed the project and he couldn't get an agent to represent him or casting directors to look at him.
'Nothing has really changed since then,' he says. 'It's not improving. But basically now I'm in the situation where I have to create my own work and be as independent as possible. I don't want to be dependent on somebody else giving me a go. I'm making my own way in this world and making my own career and I'm in control of my own destiny.'
The issue of discrimination is one which Connors feels strongly about. As a traveller, he's had to deal with discrimination and racism throughout his life and he has since made documentaries with RTÉ about traveller culture.
'Obviously I feel strongly about it,' he laughed. 'These are my people. This is my life. It's my whole identity. It's who I am. Travellers have always been treated like second class citizens and I'll never be happy with what happens to us and what we have to go through.'
Last year, discrimination of travellers came to the fore in spectacular fashion following controversial comments made by Presidential candidate Peter Casey - a man who subsequently went on to finish runner up in the polls to Michael D Higgins.
'It was predictable really,' John laments. 'Once he came out and made those comments, I knew he would finish second. If he had've done it six weeks out, I think he might have won it. Let's face it, this is not the first time a politician has made a negative reference towards travellers. In fact, in the past they've said much worse. Unfortunately I think we'll see this kind of thing more and more now that people have seen how successful it can be.'
While he's looking forward to taking his new show to Wexford, a place he concedes he's looking forward to taking a look around, John has been critical in the past about Wexford's relationship with the travelling community and it's treatment of travellers. This particularly came to a head for him around the time of the funerals for the victims of the Carrickmines Fire back in 2015. Eleven people perished in the blaze, five of whom were buried in Wexford.
'You only have to look at how Wexford treated the family members of those who died in Carrickmines,' John blasted. 'They shut down everything and refused to let these people in. This was the family of eleven people who had been burnt to a crisp. If you just listen to the Pecker Dunne song "Wexford Town", it'll tell you all you need to know about Wexford and travellers. It's always been the same.'
'Having said that, I wouldn't say that Wexford is more heavy-handed on the racism than lots of other towns,' he added. 'Unfortunately it's something that's common all over the country.'
Despite his criticisms, John is greatly looking forward to taking 'Ireland's Call' to the Wexford Arts Centre stage.
'I haven't been down in Wexford in a long time,' he revealed.
'I'm really looking forward to it. It's not somewhere that I've spent a lot of time so I'm looking forward to visiting the place and taking the show before a Wexford audience.'
Written and performed by Connors and drawing on all his experiences growing up in working class areas, the one man show is a real insight into life on the margins. Told through the voice of Coolock native James, it follows the lives and family histories of three young men as they grew up on Dublin's north-side. With it, Connors aims to hold up a mirror to Irish society and examine issues of class, religion and identity in an exploration of the Irish psyche.
'I started writing this because I felt I had a lot of things I wanted to say about Ireland,' he said.
'I wanted something personal. There's some comedy in it, young lads wanting to head off to Ibiza after seeing "Kevin and Perry", and then there's more serious aspects, focusing on things like heroin addiction.'
'It looks at class, religion, abuse and state policies against the working classes.'
While 'Ireland's Call' deals with serious and often challenging themes, John says there are quite a few laughs in there too, something which he feels is symptomatic of Irish storytelling.
'There's laughter in there, but there's also tears,' he noted. 'That's the great thing about Irish storytelling isn't it? It'll punch you in the stomach and then give you a nice hug afterwards.'
'Ireland's Call' will be staged at Wexford Arts Centre on Wednesday, March 20, at 8 p.m. A limited number of tickets are still available to purchase for €16 from www.wexfordartscentre.ie.