Maire A Woman of Derry

Carmel McCafferty bids farewell to a favourite role

Carmel McCafferty’s performance as Maire is a tour de force, so impassioned and heartfelt – feisty and defiant at times, at other times achingly tender and moving – that it is difficult to envisage Maire being played by anyone else.

Friday at the Millennium Forum gives the people of Derry~Londonderry a chance to celebrate one of their own, in her last performance in Brian Foster's play. The well-earned and sustained standing ovations – there are two of them – and the single spontaneous cry of ‘Well done, Auntie Carmel’ at the end let us all know that this is a personal as well as a public farewell for McCafferty in a role she has made her own.

Foster’s play has Maire, a 50-something homeless alcoholic who spends her days in Guildhall Square, reliving the downward spiral of her life through a series of colourfully dramatised flashbacks. She tells it all as she sees it. 'Warts, farts and broken hearts.'

But, although the play is set in Derry’s Creggan estate, Maire’s story has a wider resonance. Maire’s re-enactment of her labour – making fun of her husband’s attempts to empathise with her ‘pain’ – draws laughs of recognition from an audience made up mainly of women. They can identify with this gutsy woman despite of, or perhaps because of, her various swear words and blasphemies.

The play takes us through Maire’s brief courtship and marriage to postman Tommy McLaughlin, a miscarriage, and then – 'The worst day of my life’ – the cot-death of her much-wanted son, Patrick.

From an unromantic, post-coital proposal – ‘Marry me, Kiddo’ – through the chaos of her wedding day and their first cramped flat beside the Brandywell, we see how Maire’s life, deprived as many would think it, had its own rhythms and patterns. Aspirations are low – 'Six wains, two greyhounds and a deep-fat fryer’ – yet there was an acceptance, a happiness and contentment in those early years of marriage.

She recalls those she met along the way: Tina the Scrounger, Jimmy the Tadpole, the hairy ape-man from Strabane, and posh Maisie. All characters that McCafferty brings to life in this one-woman show. Her story is set against the backdrop of the Troubles – Bloody Sunday in particular, and its aftermath. She recalls ‘the smell of fear and death’, and how her own husband metaphorically died on the streets of Derry.

Following Patrick's death, Tommy withdraws into himself and becomes increasingly dependent on sleeping pills, and then the opiate of religion. Their marriage deteriorates, with separate bedrooms and Maire’s increasing sense of desperation and isolation. ‘It all came to pieces as easily as it had come together,' she laments.

Maire’s story is laced – literally – with alcohol, which, she says, ‘allows you to be who you want to be and to forget who you are’. As the play progresses, punctuated by her swigging away at a half-bottle of Mundie’s wine, Maire's intoxication becomes more apparent, her words more slurred. She is woman caught helplessly in the throes of addiction.

Clearer, too, are the reasons for her drinking: loneliness, her sense of isolation as her friends die or drop away, the failure of her marriage. Despite this, however, a saving humour prevents the piece from becoming maudlin, as in Maire’s description of herself as a philosopher on life – ‘Aristotle on the bottle’ – and her ‘conversations’ with Norris the garden gnome, who ‘comforts’ her in her loneliness as a drinking mother at home with a young baby.

But as the events of Maire’s life finally unfold, she relives her anger at the death of her ten-month-old son, which she sees as the central tragedy of her life. In her drunken haze, Maire’s final words – ‘Night, night, Patrick', delivered as she gazes upwards – draw the audience into her own private world.

Marie: A Woman of Derry has toured intermittently throughout Ireland, England, Canada and America during the last 12 years, with writer Brian Foster as director, and this production – brought back to Derry due to popular demand during the UK City of Culture celebrations.

It is a fitting end for Carmel McCafferty in the role that she will be remembered for the most. And for those not lucky enough to have witnessed it, it was recorded for release as a DVD and will be released via the Millennium Forum before Christmas.

Visit the Millennium Forum website for information on forthcoming events.