My English Tongue, My Irish Heart

Martin Lynch tells a contemporary cross-border love story set against the backdrop of departure and based on the book The Literature of the Irish in Britain

As part of the 2015 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Martin Lynch’s newest work, My English Tongue, My Irish Heart, covers ground both familiar and new at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. Based on The Literature of the Irish in Britain, Dr Liam Harte’s important scholarly study of Ireland’s diaspora within the borders of its nearest neighbour, this is a stodgy treatment of an otherwise fascinating topic. 

As a playwright, Lynch may never be accused of misunderstanding his audience. The accessibility of his writing has long defined him as one of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable dramatists, a man capable of tackling many subjects in an honest manner, free from cynicism or artifice. He wears his heart on his sleeve and, in this case, that heart is unashamedly, inescapably green. 

If his intention here is to educate — the play is co-produced by the University of Manchester, Harte’s employer — then this potted history of emigration across the Irish Sea to Britain serves as a comprehensive, if unwieldy, lesson on something which is largely misunderstood, a subject laced with centuries of political strife, religious friction and the glowering sense of antagonism best summed up by that infamous stipulation: 'No blacks. No dogs. No Irish.'

For two islands sharing so much, there is a great deal to set them apart from one another, and Lynch is keen to explore the similarities, as well as the distinguishing features. 

At the play's centre sits a contemporary tale of cross-border, cross-community connection, marriage and family, one set against the backdrop of departure. The Irish are a restless people, goes the oft repeated message, proud of their heritage, yet sick of their country.

Gary (Cillian O’Dee) is a Catholic from Mayo, Susan (Kerri Quinn) a Dungannon Protestant. They meet as students and before long are planning a life together. Susan is desperate to head for Australia; Gary simply wants to live close to his roots. Eventually they settle in Manchester. Their hectic relationship plays out, loud and unsubtle, over the course of two packed hours.

Beyond that main strand, Harte’s book provides an almost endless stream of period anecdotes and historical accounts of the immigrant experience. They are used by Lynch as brief subplots – performed by a five-person cast, including O’Dee and Quinn – in a rough chronological order, weaving through time from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Initially interesting, they soon begin to grate, cluttering up the narrative and sitting awkwardly alongside the Gary-Susan relationship with which they appear to have little connection (though, of course, the couple is adding its own ingredients to the great diasporic brew). 

The actors offer enthusiasm, chemistry even, but their dynamic lacks an emotional connection. For all the broad humour and occasionally frank language, the personal tragedies and declarations of love, theirs is a plot sodden with story, replete with increasingly irritating expository dialogue – ‘Gary, look, we’re at the Cliffs of Moher!’.

It is haunted by the spectre of Susan’s long-lost, Bolton-based, never-glimpsed, great-aunt Alice, a Sasquatch-like figure pointlessly invoked throughout. By the end, it all feels rather comical.

What a pity. Directing from his own script, Lynch possesses the kernel of a fine idea. There are serious issues to discuss, questions of identity and nationhood. How can you be Irish and English, he asks? What is it about this places that tugs at our hearts, regardless of time, irrespective of natural human displacement? These themes poke through from time to time, though the overall heavy-handedness affords them little room to breathe.

The black-clad troupe work hard to digest a dense script, serving more as teachers than thespians. Keith Singleton and Margaret McAuliffe embrace their supporting turns. Ross Anderson-Doherty is the outstanding singer amongst all five performers.

Strangely, however, there is next to no Celtic edge to the myriad folk tunes, belted out like stage-show numbers, that often feature as mere extracts. Surely 'The Parting Glass' deserves a traditional airing from a production placing Irishness at its core?

Presented in the round, with the actors rarely leaving the vicinity of Niall Rea’s somewhat spartan set, My English Tongue, My Irish Heart sags much more than it intrigues.

My English Tongue, My Irish Heart runs at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, until May 9. It will tour select venues in Ireland and Britain from May 12-31.