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Art seen: A Play On Words

My family were Republican revolutionaries, so 100 years ago they learned Irish to aid the revolution, and we kept on going.

I was brought up with Irish. My brother and I started making travel documentaries in Irish, and I started writing books in Irish (and English), and two years ago I made a programme called No Béarla, a series seeing if you could travel around Ireland and survive just speaking Irish. The concept was that I wouldn't be speaking any béarla -- any English. It was made for RTÉ, but it was on TG4, and it caused quite a stir. I didn't think it would at the time.

As part of the research for the show, we found that the Abbey, which was founded to safeguard the Irish language, over the past ten years had put on 74 English plays and four Irish ones. Also at this time I was talking to Hollywood directors who made movies in Mayan and Aramaic -- Mel Gibson, particularly -- people who made movies in semi-dead languages, and all this got me thinking: "Could you make a play in Irish that an audience would be interested in?"

So I decided that, since no one else was doing it, I would try. I believed that people didn't really speak Irish, so I decided that I would have to write a play in Irish that was completely understandable to English speakers. So I wondered, could you put on a play that was maybe 60% Irish, but was completely understandable? The result was Broken Croí/Heart Briste.

I knew I was going to have to set it in a language class. I wanted a simple story, with the teacher as the main character who would be played by me, trying to teach the audience and the young girl, played by Eva O'Connor, an Irish lesson. Through the course of the lesson we learn more about the history between the teacher and the young girl, and the more words the audience learns, the more we learn about their history.

I'm playing on the whole issue of how uncomfortable everyone feels in any language class, but particularly in an Irish class, and then, using simple, basic phrases -- "I am happy", "he is stupid" -- we build quite a relationship between the two characters. Unfortunately, my acting is atrocious, but Eva is extremely believable. My acting hasn't improved, but the show doesn't require me to act much; I'm sort of more or less myself, and the fact that I look uncomfortable on stage adds to it, makes it more intense.

The reaction has been amazing. It ran for a week at last year's Dublin Fringe, and people were charmed. They had never seen anything like this -- and it seems such an obvious thing to do, to make a strength of the fact that it's difficult to communicate in Irish, and we don't understand each other in it. My idea was to make it 100% understandable; the English and Americans who come to see it get about 65% of it, and the rest they just need to watch as if it's an opera.

I wouldn't have thought about a future in theatre, but my head's been turned by being nominated for so many awards [Best New Play and Best Actress -- Theatre Awards 2009, Fishamble New Writing Award and Bewleys Café Theatre Award]. I've been commissioned by Project for Fringe 2010, and I'd adore to put something on the Abbey or the Peacock Stage, again using the language, playing with the language, and it not being in any way sacrosanct.

Broken Croi/Heart Briste runs in Project Arts Centre from Tuesday to March 20th. See www.projectartscentre.ie