Gary Mitchell: 'Working-class Protestant boys aren't judged on brains'
The playwright, driven from his native Rathcoole, laments the intellectual decay of his community.
Q. You grew up in Rathcoole – what was it like spending your early years in an area which was often gripped by civil unrest?
A. Growing up, Rathcoole, in your mind, was the safest place to be because we were all Protestants and we were all living together. The idea was that if you left Rathcoole the Catholics would get you. So why would you want to leave and put yourself in danger?
When I was nine I went up to a barricade at the edge of Rathcoole. I wanted to visit my friend who lived in Rathfern. I was stopped by masked men and they asked where I was going. They said I couldn't leave. I was basically told if I got past the barricade there was a thing called Catholics and they would get me and kill me. So I had this image when I was nine that there was a monster in the world called Catholics, who were to be avoided and to be feared, and eventually as you grow older to be hated.
Q. You left school with very few academic qualifications?
A. I left with nothing. It's strange because in primary school I excelled. I passed the 11-plus. I didn't go to grammar school but went to Rathcoole Secondary School. We did mid-term exams and I was first in almost every subject. But people wouldn't play with me. I wasn't allowed on the football team. I was on my own.
I got this idea in my head that I could be bottom of the class in every subject if I really tried hard, and believe me coming bottom in some of the subjects was very difficult because they got really low scores. But I managed it, and I became popular.
I realised that learning things was a bad idea, and being dumb was a good idea. Being stupid was the smart thing to do.
Q. So what happened when you left school?
A. I was unemployed. I spent six or seven years out of work. Then I got this job with the Civil Service. I was an assistant to an administrative officer, which is the very lowest job you could do.
I was so depressed and so disappointed, but I learned a lot about life. Life doesn't always make sense, it isn't fair, and you have to work to get what you want.
I got it into my head that if I could become a famous actor, I would be able to pull the girls, and that was my main motivation.
Q. So how did you get into writing plays?
A. I was so bored and frustrated that I phoned the Arts Council and asked them how I could become a famous actor. They told me to join an amateur dramatics group in Belfast. I did that, and I went every Saturday.
I started talking about the plays we could do, because I wanted to be the hero, and the best actor on the stage. Unfortunately it didn't seem to be working that way.
I remember one play, and I had questions. I started questioning the director about things. For me to play the role as accurately as possible, I needed to know certain things. And he said to me: "Just say the f****** lines".
I knew this wasn't going to work. So I got this idea that if directors couldn't help me, that I could help myself. If I was to get a play, and I could play a guy like me – a Protestant, heterosexual male – I could be the hero. But there wasn't any. I was told, if I really wanted to do it, to write it myself.
Q. And so you did. How did your first play come about?
AI had this job minding files in a warehouse. There were hundreds of thousands of files, and me. Every few days someone might come down to get a file. The rest of the time, I was just sitting there.
So I started writing my play.
Q. So it was a simple transition?
A. No, because when I wrote the play they wouldn't do it. So I had this play which no one would put on.
But then someone told me about a competition for plays on BBC radio. I entered the competition and one day while working in the Civil Service I got a call. There was this English voice telling me my play had been shortlisted for a UK award for best young playwright.
I thought it was someone messing me about, but it was true and that was the start of it.
The play got picked and won the prize, but most importantly it got me commissioned to write another one. So suddenly I had a play on the radio and another one commissioned, which would also be on the radio.
I had gone from working in the Civil Service to having two plays on Radio 4, with six million people listening to it.
Q. It was opening doors to you?
A Yes, I started meeting actors, some of whom had their own theatre companies, like Tim Loane from Tinderbox, and they were asking would I ever think of writing something for stage. I was back to where I wanted to be – writing plays for stage.
I was later approached by Stuart Graham, who was acting at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and he asked could he take my play and see if they wanted to put it on.
It was commissioned, and I had a play on at the Peacock, which is part of the Abbey, and it won best play at the Irish Times theatre awards in 1997.
The BBC then commissioned TV stuff, so it was going well.
Q. But it also brought some problems?
A. There were little things which I probably should have picked up on. In 1997 going and winning an award in Dublin was probably a silly thing. There were rumblings from some people.
But then I was writer in residence at The National in London, which took me out of Northern Ireland for a year.
Q. In 2005 you were back home and your home was attacked by loyalists. Can you tell me about that?
A. Things were going great – I had a family, plenty of money, plenty of opportunities and plenty of work. Everything seemed perfect. In fact, I remember standing outside our house one day with my wife, and she told me it was like heaven. Nothing ever went wrong – just before everything did go wrong.
There was a build-up which I should have been aware of.
David Ervine, who was a friend and really loved my plays, spoke on my behalf to renegade paramilitaries.
He came back and told me I was really a victim of my own popularity. I was famous, and I shouldn't be. As it was put to me, who did I think I was?
People, for their own insane reasons, started to think I must be to blame for something. If all these Catholics liked me, I must be doing something wrong.
My car got blown up, my home got petrol bombed.
I had to leave my home and go into hiding for years with a really young family.
Q. How long were you in hiding for?
A. About five years. Then the peace process kicked in and all the nonsense seemed to die down. Hopefully, now that we all live in peace, it is okay to kick-start my career again.
Q. But you still don't live in Rathcoole?
A. No. I was back for my grandmother's funeral, but it wasn't a nice experience.
My whole family was told to leave Rathcoole and everyone did, except her.
I got a bit of stick when I went back for her funeral. Someone shouted a few nasty things. It was very unpleasant.
Q. Were you scared by the experience?
A. Not really. Maybe I was stupid but growing up in Rathcoole you got used to things like this.
You can forget very quickly that others – your children and your family – haven't experienced this.
To me it was an ordinary day – people being assholes, throwing a petrol bomb into your car and running away and so on.
The bizarre thing was the people who did it were wearing Rangers scarves. At the time it happened I was actually watching Rangers on TV.
Q. At that time you had stopped writing?
A. It was very difficult. I got commissions, I was writing three movies at the time but they never got made and nothing ever happened.
Q. But you returned to writing plays in 2010?
A. Kevin Reynolds from RTE started commissioning radio plays and tracked me down.
He said I needed to get writing again, and so I started writing for him.
It was like getting this fantastic second chance to begin my career but with all the knowledge and experience to do it better.
Q. Your new play, Demented, is currently on show at the Lyric. Without giving too much away, what is it about?
A. It's a comedy about a man suffering from dementia. His son – played by the magnificent Ian Beattie from Game of Thrones – looks after him, and has been told that over the next year his father's mind, skills and so on will deteriorate.
The father is very fearful that he will end up sitting in a chair, unable to remember his own name. At this point he decides to risk the few months he has left by robbing a bank, and living it up for the rest of his life.
He is all alone with nothing to look forward to but sitting in a chair reflecting on all the hard work that brought him nothing. It's time to get his reward.
Next door is a man in a wheelchair with a young girlfriend, and they also plan to rob a bank. Their motive is revenge, because the man was knocked down by a bank manager and lost the power of his legs.
They recruit the elderly man to their gang, and the play is about convincing his son to help them plan and carry out the robbery.
Q. You said it was a comedy?
A. It is! There is also a moral issue here – desperate people living in desperate times, and you have to decide what is right and what is wrong. A lot of people are prepared to break the law a wee bit – a speeding ticket or a parking fine and so on. This pushes us to really decide, if you were in this situation, what would be the right thing to do, not necessarily the legal thing to do.
Q. There is a problem with working-class Protestants and academic underachievement. Looking back on your experiences at school, are you disappointed this is still the case?
A. I read how working-class Protestants entitled to free school meals have some of the lowest scores in the UK.
They are bluffing. They're smarter than that. Protestant working-class boys are doing exactly what I did. They are hiding their intelligence.
Q. It's sad that all this is still going on, 40 years after your own experiences?
A. It's very sad, but it's a macho culture. People are judged on how good at fighting they are and how good at intimidating people they are, certainly not how good their brain is or how good they are at passing exams.
Q. It was suggested recently that paramilitaries are the only role models for young men – is that something you agree with?
A. If you have this idea that you can look inside your own community, at people who seem to be running the community, where the law is doled out by people rather than the police or the justice system, then you would be inclined to lean towards that type of thinking.
For young, working-class Protestants – what other role models do they have?
Q. How do we address it?
A. We all have our part to play, and I'm trying to play my part. We have to create better role models and better opportunities to give people something to aim for – but it has to be tangible.
Making fun of working-class Protestants or suggesting that they are all idiots is not going to help. There has to be a greater sense of identity. People have to look at their image and admit it.
Come outside of Rathcoole, the Shankill and East Belfast and see how the rest of the world sees it.
It's like looking in the mirror. If you're not happy with it, change it.
When people take a hard look at themselves, maybe they will think we should change our identity, we should change our image.
Otherwise, it's just going to get worse and go down hill, and is there a lot more of the hill left to go down?
Q. Concerns have been raised as to whether the arts is doing enough to reach out to working-class people, particularly Protestants – do you agree?
A. I can understand it, but just by saying that it's not for us isn't going to get you anywhere. It comes down to involving yourself, as people are going to have to do.
You can't change it by moaning about it from the outside.
I think the working-class people have to change themselves, let's be honest.
It would be interesting to do a survey and see how many working-class Protestants would actually want to go to a theatre or see a work of art.
Q. Why is that?
A. I can only talk about my experience and for me, growing up, the arts was a very Catholic or a homosexual thing. I don't really see how that has changed much.
If I tell people I've a play on, young guys will look at you strangely. If you say movie, they think you're cool, but if you say it's a play, it is completely different.
There is this perception, and it isn't going away.
Part of it is education. If people just think the theatre is Shakespeare and men running around in tights, then how are we going to break down barriers?
I know from my experience that when they come and see my stuff, they walk out happy.
Q. That aside, Northern Ireland is quite a small place, yet we seem to produce a lot of talent?
A. We have incredible actors and incredible talent.
We go all over the world and make inroads everywhere.
It also helps to come from such a bad place, where people want to get out and be better.
I think some of our talent is amazing and they have an incredible future.
- Demented, written by Gary Mitchell and directed by Richard Croxford, runs at the Lyric Theatre until May 24