Belfast Telegraph

The Crilly Trilogy: Collection of late Co Armagh playwright's work to launch in Belfast's Lyric Theatre

Despite frantic efforts by close pals to help the critically acclaimed writer, he took his own life in a hotel room in France last May. Tomorrow a collection of his best-known plays will be launched at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Ronan McGreevy, who edited The Crilly Trilogy, tells Ivan Little how proceeds of the book will support Joe’s son Redmond

Troubled talent: Joe Crilly
Troubled talent: Joe Crilly
Happy times: Ronan McGreevy (second from left) with Joe Crilly (back right) and friends
Super troupe: Joe Crilly (third from left) with fellow Field Day Theatre Company members in 1984 (from left) Mark Lambert, Des McAleer, Ciaran Hinds, Veronica Quilligan, Stephen Rea, Hilary Reynolds, Nuala Hayes and Killian McKenna

Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville has paid a moving tribute to an award-winning Co Armagh playwright in a new book celebrating his friend's life which ended in his tragic suicide last year.

The English actor, who played the Earl of Grantham in the hugely popular TV series, was a contemporary of Joe Crilly at the National Youth Theatre in London in the Eighties and also did a recorded voice-over for one of his plays Kitty & Damnation in the English capital in 2009.

Hugh, who also starred in the Paddington Bear movies, has written the preface for a new publication, The Crilly Trilogy, which consists of three of Joe's best-known plays.

One of them, Second Hand Thunder (1998) won the Stewart Parker award for new writing and was loosely based on the Drumcree stand-offs in Portadown.

Another, On McQuillan's Hill (2000) was set in Northern Ireland around the time of the early release of prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The third play, Kitty & Damnation, featured a love story from the era of Catholic Emancipation in the 19th century.

In the book Bonneville recalls with obvious affection his time at the NYT alongside Crilly in a production of Macbeth in 1982. He says he wrote the piece with a picture of Joe beside him which was taken at a rehearsal for Macbeth and in it Joe, in the role of Malcolm, was preparing for a sword fight with actor Nathaniel Parker, who was portraying Macbeth.

Bonneville says: "Summers of our youth are often painted sunnier by the passage of time but I remember an awful lot of laughs with Joe: his acid wit flattening a pompous comment here; there, his deadpan stare buckling into a wry grin and a head shake, conceding with a smirk - but also with a double take that had a whiff of danger - that maybe life needn't be taken too seriously after all."

However, Bonneville says Joe took his theatre and his writing seriously and, referring to Kitty & Damnation, he writes: "I was blown away by the tumbling, lyrical flow of language and the relish of telling a tale."

Describing the dialogue in the play as raw, piercing, adventurous and full of mischievous glee, he urges readers of The Crilly Trilogy to "taste the writing, savour the man," adding a message to the late writer "Rest in peace, my friend."

The new book, which will be launched at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast tomorrow night, was edited by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy, who was a close friend of Joe Crilly, whom he got to know in the late Nineties when they both worked on the Irish Post newspaper in London.

Ronan says he was always aware that Joe, the paper's arts editor, was a playwright.

But he never saw any of his plays because he was never in the right place at the right time for any of the productions of his work in Ireland or England.

"But I feel as if I know them because having read them the language leaps off the page," says Ronan, adding that some of the plays were so highly-regarded that Joe was profiled in the Irish Times and in the Guardian.

Joe had started his career as an actor with parts in movies like Resurrection Man and TV series like Children of the North but friends say he became disillusioned and frustrated, turning to writing instead.

As well as the theatrical productions, in Belfast and London, a number of his plays were broadcast on the BBC.

But Ronan says Joe didn't keep up the momentum of his creativity and only dabbled with writing in later years and that, according to his friend, was "because the real world intervened".

Ronan says: "I think he'd lost a little of his inspiration as a writer. There was a sense that he believed he'd done everything he could.

"But for years he did try and develop a musical approach to Gulliver's Travels but it never got off the ground."

Away from his writing Joe devoted himself to his young son and his work in the charity sector in London where a plaque was recently unveiled in his memory.

Joe had been a befriender for the Peabody Trust reaching out to elderly people who were having difficulty accessing services in London.

By a bitter irony, however, the befriender was having more and more problems of his own and they surrounded his mental health.

Ronan says he and the rest of Joe's circle of friends were aware that he suffered from different levels of depression down the years. But Joe hit the depths of despair last year and when he flew to Barcelona, alarm bells started to ring among his friends after it was established that he'd left his phone behind him.

On social media anxious friends who hoped Joe might find another way into the internet pleaded with him to look after himself and he was eventually tracked down by Spanish police who accepted his assurances that he just needed time and space to "sort himself out".

The Spanish police had no power to hold him and 55-year-old Joe took a train across the border into France where he took his own his life in a hotel room in Perpignan in France on May 23.

Ronan says: "I never believed he would ever do what he did. None of us did. He was very open about his mental health.

"He always assured us he was taking his medication and that everything was under control."

It wasn't, however, and Ronan McGreevy says he constantly questions if Joe would still be alive if he'd done things differently.

He'd been planning to call with him during a trip to London from Dublin but decided not to meet up with his friend because he feared he'd wake up the next day with a hangover and he had work to do. Ronan also wonders if his friend might have opened up to him if they'd had "one of their intense conversations" but it wasn't to be.

He was among the mourners who attended Joe's funeral in his home place of Derrymacash on the shores of Lough Neagh and it was there that the idea for the book of his plays was born.

Ronan's aims for the publication were threefold. The first was to pay homage to Joe's work; the second was to raise funds for his son Redmond, and the third was to hopefully encourage theatres to stage one or more of his plays for new generations.

"I would love to see his work on stage especially in the north," says Ronan, who clings on to precious memories of Joe and their get-togethers with other friends from their Irish Post days.

"We used to go on walking holidays and the last one was in the Glens of Antrim the autumn before Joe died. We had a lovely time."

Ronan says Joe may have spent more than 30 years in London but his heart was still on the shores of Lough Neagh where he grew up. The youngest of seven children, his father PJ Crilly served as an SDLP councillor, and the area where he grew up often featured in his work. In an interview Joe had described himself as a "Loughshore boy". He went on: "Our area is a patchwork of loyalties. The immediate area is pretty much Catholic, but there are pockets of Protestant communities as well: good country Prods, fair-minded folk."

After Joe's death a number of his actor friends, including movie star Ciaran Hinds, performed a reading of Kitty & Damnation in tribute to him in a London theatre.

It's understood rehearsed readings of his plays may be held in Belfast as a follow-up to the launch tomorrow night when Joe's brother Kevin Crilly will be among the speakers honouring the playwright who friends said had no time for sectarianism or its perpetrators in his homeland.

Among the other contributors to the book was Stephen Wright, who directed Joe's first play Second Hand Thunder for the Tinderbox Theatre Company at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, before becoming a successful TV producer on dramas like The Fall.

Actor Ruairi Conaghan, from Magherafelt, who also had a role in Downton Abbey, has written the introduction to the trilogy. Redmond Crilly has written a tribute to his father and in a 6,000 word treatise, Dr Mark Phelan, a drama lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast argues that Joe was a "significant dramatist whose work deserves to be taken seriously".

The Crilly Trilogy is available to buy online at If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 800

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