This Is What We Sang

Playwright Gavin Kostick on writing about a community close to extinction. Watch a video tour of the Belfast Synagogue below, led by Adrian Levy

In 1992 I settled down to write my first play, The Ash Fire, which was set in Dublin’s jewish community in the 1930s.

From childhood, I had known that my father’s parents were jewish and they had emigrated to Dublin from Poland in the 1920s, with little more than my grandfather’s toolbox. My grandfather himself, Nat, was a cabinet maker and had set up a business on Capel Street. I also knew a few other bits and pieces of family legend – the family had shifted from orthodox to liberal to allow Dad to box on a Friday. Nat made the confessional boxes for St Joseph’s in Cabra (this was considered hilarious for some reason), and had gone to Belfast with a friend to drive an ambulance during the Blitz.

But Nat had died, long before I was born; my father had a distant (at best) relationship with his mother, Gavin Kostickand he had married out, too. Dad quietly kept Yom Kippur in his own way, but very little was made of the family history, or indeed of his jewishness. So the writing of The Ash Fire was really an act of discovery of my own family history.

When Paula McFetridge of Kabosh Theatre Company asked me to write a piece based on the lives of the Belfast jewish community, I felt immediately attracted and somewhat hesitant. Attracted because it felt very compelling, after 17 years, to try to tell a story which could be a kind of companion piece to my first work, and to examine the similarities and differences of the Northern Irish experience compared to that in the Republic. Hesitant, because I felt something of a fraud (perhaps all writers feel that to some extent), and did not want to pretend to be more knowledgeable than I was.

Kabosh set about the project by making many interviews with members of the Northern Irish jewish community, both in Northern Ireland and in places to which they had since emigrated. A selection of these will subsequently be made available as an oral archive.

Listening to these was the first step in the process and it gave me a real sense of excitement and mission. For one thing there were the little jolts of recognition throughout – my family’s story was not so unique, and yet, some things were very different. Then there was such variety in the testimonies. The stories seemed to form a pattern of absolutely individual lives, bound up with a sense of place in community. The lives seemed so similar and yet so strange. And I was reminded of the great, playful tone present in so many jewish voices, even when talking about extraordinary things.

When it came to writing the play I kept a few things in mind. I wanted to keep the sense of testimony. I also wanted to tell a story that began with the immigrants of the 1880-90s and ran to the present. There needed to be male and female voices. There needed to be an outside voice. The play needed to be personal and yet grounded with the public events that touched all members of the community.

In attempting to do this, I wish to stress I have created a work of fiction. The family, as presented in This is What We Sang, is made up, and therefore on a personal level gives me scope to go where the story led. I have, however, tried to embed that personal fiction, within a credible and real portrait of a society – jewish and non-jewish – which is recognisably specific to Belfast through the 20th century.

Paula, Jo, Hugh, Fionn and all at Kabosh have all been tremendously supportive and encouraging in the making of this work, as have all members of the jewish community. I hope the public enjoy it.

Gavin Kostick

This Is What We Sang runs in the Belfast Synagogue (Somerton Road, north Belfast) on 22, 25 and 29 of October at 8pm, with a matinee on October 28 at 3pm. Check out Culture Live! events listings for information on all Belfast Festival events.