Meet the Writers of Arrivals2

'Racism is a knife sharpened on the whetstone of sectarianism.' Daragh Carville, Fionnuala Kennedy and Maggie Cronin on writing about the intercultural experiences of minorities living in Northern Ireland for Terra Nova

Daragh Carville – The Presence

Over the course of the last year, the incidence of racially-motivated crime in Northern Ireland has risen by over 50%. According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there are on average two racially-motivated offences reported in Belfast every single day, and that’s only the cases that are actually reported to the police. It is estimated that some 80% of race hate crimes go unreported. 

It is happening day in, day out: racist graffiti daubed on walls, cars being burnt, families forced from their homes, immigrants brutally assaulted in the street. It has become part of the background hum of the city, the static in the air. But not everyone is content to stand by and let it happen. 

Thousands marched against racism in Belfast in 2014. Supporters rallied round Alliance Party member Anna Lo when she was considering leaving Northern Ireland and politics, and the PSNI, for their part, has set up a dedicated helpline for the reporting of racist incidents.

The arts community, too, has voiced its solidarity. Terra Nova Productions is Northern Ireland’s only intercultural theatre company, dedicated to working with people from different cultures and celebrating diversity. Last year they produced Arrivals, a set of short plays about the experiences of minority communities in Northern Ireland.

I saw it at the Market Place Theatre in my home town of Armagh and was riveted by its picture of a new Northern Ireland, a changing Northern Ireland, a place that is, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, ‘busy being born’. So I was delighted to get the chance to work on Arrivals2

I don’t think any of us are under any illusion that writing a play is going to stop a single racist attack. But Arrivals2 is part of a much wider conversation that is desperately, urgently needed in Northern Ireland; a conversation about identity and belonging, about who we are and what we share, about how we define ourselves. I wanted to add my voice to that conversation. 

One of the codes we use in Northern Ireland is to talk about ‘sides of the house’. ‘Which side of the house is he?’ ‘He’s the other side of the house.’ In my play for Arrivals2, a group of people from a range of different cultures gather at a house that is in and of Northern Ireland. And they find they are not alone. There is something in the house. And it has something it wants to say… 

Fionnuala Kennedy - Hatchet

Our brief for Arrivals2 was to write about people from Northern Ireland who are second generation. I didn’t want to write a play about racism. My idea was of celebration – I love Belfast, it’s who I am. 

I thought, ‘I’ll write a lovely play about people from Belfast who love the city as much as me, but because of the colour of their skin, the perception is that it’s more my city than theirs.’ I would interview all my multicultural friends. I had my wonderful Belfast questions, imagining great responses of favourite locations, what they meant to that person. I would use soundbites in the actual play, have real voices. It was all going to be so good.

Then, the interviews. 

I asked a friend whose parents are from China to be interviewed. You’d swear I’d asked her to run naked down Castle Street. I interviewed a second cousin aged six whose father is Nigerian. 'Won’t it be great to have a child’s voice?' She told me everyone in the class wanted to touch her ‘fluffy’ hair. I could tell by her beautiful brown eyes that it made her uncomfortable. And there I was, shoving a microphone in her face making her feel even more ‘different’.

Then I interviewed a man I was sure would give me what I wanted to hear. He is well-known, well-liked, well-respected, passionate about arts, vocal about politics. He is more Belfast than I am. He was born here, to an archetypal hard-working Belfast mother and a father from exotic lands.

From the interview poured endless experiences from childhood to the present day of being made to feel different; from offensive comments made by neighbours and teachers, to out-and-out racial abuse. I was ashamed, angry, heartbroken. Our interview ended with him saying, ‘I find it hard to forgive. The work is done. I’ll never feel properly within this society. I’m an associate. I’ll never truly feel part of it.’  

I don’t think I’ve written a play about racism, but it rears its ugly head. It is unavoidable. Endless news reports will tell you we are a messed up little country, fearful of ‘the other’. Being an eternal optimist, I’m hopeful for the city I adore. Change can happen, and intercultural arts like the Arrivals2 project can be a huge catalyst for bringing change about. 

Maggie Cronin - The Ties That Bind

Northern Ireland, to the outside eye, can seem very monocultural. Well, a monocultural duo culture, if you like. Twain. Alike and not alike. 

We are more than happy to share certain feasts with each other in our predominantly white ‘Christian’ society. We eat the same food, endure the same weather, dress similarly. Mordant wit, equal helpings of generosity and kindness can be found either side of the divide. We part company, however, for other high days and holidays, celebrations that serve to exclude ‘the other’. Over more than 30 years of the Troubles, our differences were underscored in the most brutal and bloody way.

Now we live in a ‘post-conflict’ society. Well, post-conflict for many. Not all. The old hatred hasn't gone away, you know. It has mutated, found new targets, along with the old favourites. Racism is a knife sharpened on the whetstone of sectarianism. 

We know we must be extra vigilant, because of our history. The anti-racism rallies held last year in Belfast are testimony to the growing call for tolerance. We’ve had far too much experience of enforced separation. We have to find common ground and we have to share it with more than just the ‘old enemy’.

The Arrivals2 workshops gave all of us a chance to listen to and tell our own stories, to hear the good and the bad of living here, about the bureaucracy that threatens to rip families apart, the experiences of being subjected to racist language and embraced as ‘family’ within the same day, the evidence of grace under pressure, resilience and fight, the evidence of those who are barely surviving and those who are thriving here.

As people from around the world settle and rear their families in Northern Ireland, what do they keep from home? What do they embrace from the new? What do they jettison? Who are they now? Who are their children? The new ‘Northern Irish/Irish/British’ are building homes, making friends, enduring the weather, mordant wit, food, on the shifting tectonic plates of a place that is trying so hard to find an inclusive definition of itself. That is cause for hope, I think. 

Arrivals2 runs in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast from March 11-14 before touring the country, and also features two short plays by James Meredith and Deirdre Cartmill. Visit the Terra Nova website for full listings.