Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy: 'I joined a protest over our right to wear pyjamas... it inspired my play'
In a revealing interview, Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy tells Lee Henry how finding herself homeless as a young mum set her on a new career path which tackles difficult social issues
When Fionnuala Kennedy was a young mum with a two-year-old daughter, her life suddenly took a turn for the worse, forcing her to live in a Belfast hostel. Her drastic move followed the break-up of her relationship with the toddler's father.
With a new production of autobiographical play, Hostel, which was first commissioned by Choice Housing and the Simon Community, due to open at the Baby Grand, Grand Opera House, Belfast on June 12, she says that difficult time is a constant source of inspiration in her work.
Fionnuala (33) is keen to reveal just how she came to seek shelter in a hostel on Belfast's Falls Road back in 2007, with her two-year-old daughter in tow, as a means of raising awareness and potentially giving strength to those who find themselves in similar positions.
She says: "With more than 50 individuals declaring themselves homeless in Northern Ireland every single day, and over 18,600 households presenting as homeless in the last year alone, it is a problem that has gotten much worse since I found myself destitute a decade ago."
Fionnuala's circumstances were relatively secure. Having done well at school and attended college, she was living with her partner and their daughter in a flat in West Belfast when the pair separated. "And I suddenly found myself homeless.
"I moved out of the house we were in and moved in with my mum. That was difficult as the house was already full. When it became too much, a friend offered us her spare room and we lived there for a few months."
While she found herself part-time work, the effort to raise funds for a deposit and first month's rent on a flat was just too great.
Providing for herself and her young daughter, coupled with the stress of living in another person's home, placed a great burden on Fionnuala's young shoulders. She was 23 at the time.
"When you're living like that, from one day to the next, as a parent, feeling like a burden in someone else's family space, and being unbelievably skint, it's near impossible to begin to rebuild your life," she adds. "Everyone, parent or not, needs a stable base.
"I never realised until years later that sofa surfing is homelessness. It's a temporary solution that prolongs difficult circumstances, that delays progress, that fuels depression, anxiety, stress. Living with family is also only a short-term solution, while lots of people don't even have family to rely on."
Eventually, inevitably, Fionnuala began to search for sheltered accommodation in her native Belfast. It was not as easy as it might sound.
"The rent I would have to pay was huge," she reveals. "People think it's free to move into a hostel, but it's not. In fact, it's ridiculously expensive because of the support services charge. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed."
When she did find a suitable establishment, Fionnuala moved in immediately with her daughter and recalls, on that first night, feeling "a mix of relief that I was no longer a burden to anyone, or reliant on anyone to house me, combined with shame that I lived there, that this was my life. It was never part of the plan.
"Loneliness was palpable and I was terrified. For the first time in my life, I felt I had no control over my own future, that it was in someone else's hands."
That sense of shame initially led her to keep her situation secret from friends and family.
"At the beginning, I never told people I lived in a hostel, mostly because it was awkward dealing with their reactions, and pity would have infuriated me."
She found strength, companionship and support from the other residents, however, whom she remembers as coming from all sorts of backgrounds and differing social circumstances. "It was a hostel for young families, but it was mostly girls. There were a few couples there, but the majority were single mums. There were people who had been in the care system. There was a woman who had been burnt out of her home. There were women like myself.
"You sort of become institutionalised. As soon as I made friends, it was easier. We were a support to each other and had some really good times. Most of the staff were great. My key worker, Kevin, was brilliant and always encouraged me to keep my chin up.
"The hostel creates friendships that probably wouldn't happen in any other place. Sadly, once you're out, you're out, and you suddenly don't have the time to go back, or when you do, you're afraid they won't care about you anymore because you've left. But I remember all of them with such fondness because their friendships got me through a difficult time."
Fionnuala spent a total of one year in the hostel before taking up the third of three relocation offers that saw her move into a two-bedroom flat. "I was delighted to finally have somewhere to call my own, and began to build a life with my daughter, who started nursery just after we moved out."
The idea for her play came about before she shipped out, following a protest held by residents after hostel staff banned them from wearing pyjamas outside of their rooms. A local newspaper got hold of the story and spun it as "benefit-slob single mums rock about in their PJs".
"And it was humiliating," she recalls. "Everyone ate it up. The initial point wasn't that we wanted to wear our pyjamas, it was that even though it was temporary, the hostel was our home. Here we were being told that it wasn't. So, we all decided to write a letter of complaint as a group.
"I knew then, as a young woman, that it wasn't right, and that inspired me to write the play, to let the general public know that they also judged us and that their judgment had an impact on us."
Looking back, Fionnuala says that her time in the hostel made her realise "the importance of owning your life experiences, of being proud of making them work for you. It informs all of the work I want to create".
It ultimately also led to her finding employment with Kabosh Theatre Company, with whom she has become synonymous over the past number of years.
Fionnuala says that there is still a huge stigma associated with homelessness, a prejudice informed by ignorance that can have "dangerous consequences" for the most vulnerable members of society.
"Now more than ever, people who are homeless are often viewed as exaggerating their situations to get a free house, as drug-addled wasters who don't want to work or help themselves," she adds. "Young mums are still being labelled as feckless, benefit-stealing slobs living the dream on nothing per week. This stigma can really impact negatively on the individual. The welfare system should be designed to support."
Kennedy is quick to encourage young women and mothers who find themselves cast adrift to sign up for benefits and seek out the assistance of organisations like the Simon Community, which helps thousands of homeless people across Northern Ireland every year, as well as individuals like academic and activist Gerry Skelton.
"I am not ashamed of having been on benefits," says Fionnuala. "As I made the leap from not working to working part-time and finally full-time, benefits supported me and obviously decreased as my career grew. If we actually want young mums to be able to progress, we need to give adequate benefits, training and support, and most importantly, affordable childcare to support all women to continue in employment."
With regards to the homelessness situation in Northern Ireland, she believes that adequate housing is the key to eradicating the problem. Consecutive governments, she claims, have failed to supply the obvious demand.
"The Northern Ireland Housing Executive no longer builds houses. Housing associations and homeless charities are stretched. Vital services have been reduced or stopped altogether. With the number of deaths of people living on the streets increasing, we are not getting it right. In fact, we're getting in very wrong."
Today, Fionnuala sees herself as one of the lucky ones, an individual who was able to seek out help and, as a result, turn a negative into a positive. "My daughter doesn't really remember us living in the hostel," she says, "but she remembers the little park that was out front. She had a great time, really. There were always lots of kids to play with and the staff were really good to her.
"I continue to have an interest in homelessness and I want my play to offer hope in navigating and surviving this sometimes brutal system, showing that compassion and understanding can make all the difference."
That is why, two years ago, she co-created Macha Productions, a company dedicated to "democratising cultural expression" and giving voice to communities and individuals on the fringes of society.
She adds: "For me, theatre is a vehicle. A means of telling stories that need telling."