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How Roisin Gallagher's chats with dying dad inspired moving play

Following her beloved dad's diagnosis of advanced cancer, Roisin Gallagher began taping their conversations out of fear that she might forget how he sounded. Now, as she tells Mairead Holland, she is preparing to bring her play inspired by the recordings to stage

Roisin Gallagher
Roisin Gallagher

When Belfast actress Roisin Gallagher's father Daniel received a shock diagnosis of cancer, she began recording their conversations.

It was her way of ensuring that she kept him close to her and that her greatest fear - of forgetting him - would never be realised.

What she captured on tape was her father's unwavering sense of humour, his resilience and his enormous strength and courage.

The recordings also planted the seed for an idea that will come to fruition this Friday and Saturday in the form of a one-woman show at The MAC in Belfast.

Natural Disaster, which has been produced by Tinderbox Theatre Company, is billed as a play about holding on and letting go.

Lasting just 55 minutes, it is a performance with very few words - "I find it hard to articulate what grief feels like," explains Roisin - but rather uses the powerful imagery of a storm to narrate the journey through her father's illness, bereavement and its aftermath.

Roisin, who celebrates her 32nd birthday tomorrow, has an impressive acting CV, which includes parts in Northern Ireland-based TV dramas, The Fall and Come Home, as well as theatre and radio work across Ireland and the UK.

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However, this weekend's show will undoubtedly be her most emotionally challenging to date.

Her dad, who died on December 18, 2017 at the age of 67, had always been a very active man with a strong work ethic.

He was just settling into retirement and he and his wife Pat were making plans to go to South Africa for their 43rd wedding anniversary when he was told he had a large tumour in his bowel.

Says Roisin: "He had major surgery within the first week, but looking back now, it had already spread.

"He passed away within six months of being diagnosed.

"Mum and dad were a very happy couple. I always took a lot of inspiration from the way they communicated. They taught us how to compromise and listen to the other person.

Roisin was very close to her father, who died in 2017
Roisin was very close to her father, who died in 2017

"Daddy was born on a farm in Tyrone and had his sights set on farming, but he met mummy at a dance in the Dunadry Hotel.

"She was a nurse in the Royal, the Troubles were kicking off and her work was important, so daddy moved to Belfast and drove an oil lorry for most of his working life."

The father-of-five and grandfather-of-eight was "very handy, a fixer and a bit of an inventor" and Roisin laughs as she recalls a joke he made at her wedding about his relief that he had a son-in-law who knew "the business end of a hammer" (Roisin's husband Craig is an electrician).

He never lost his love for the land, animals and the environment and was an early 'eco-warrior', installing solar panels on the family's Andersonstown home long before many people had even heard of them, and diligently making sure that his wife and children put the waste in the correct recycling bin.

"I might be biased, but my daddy was a bit of a legend," says Roisin.

"He was very active in the parish. He would have mowed our lawn and then he would have gone and mowed the neighbours'. He just liked helping people out.

"He would never have walked past anybody in need. He used to build things. He was due to start a big project for my nephew Conor, who wanted a tree house. Daddy asked him what tree he wanted it built on and Conor said, in all innocence and all faith in Granda Dan, that he didn't have a tree, but that Granda could build that as well.

"One of my other nephews, Patrick, said that God must have needed an awful lot of things fixed up in Heaven."

Roisin's voice catches, and 15 months after her father's death it is clear that the grief is still very close to the surface for her.

"I have been listening a lot to the recordings of our conversations in rehearsals and they are all funny. If I thought he was a legend before he was sick, I really realised the strength of him when he was sick because he didn't complain.

"On the days he was fit enough to talk, he would have been making jokes. He never felt sorry for himself or said he was depressed. He had such a great sense of humour, and thankfully that's what I captured, that's what I have forever."

In fact, Roisin's dad had always been a great storyteller and she had often thought of recording him telling stories of growing up on the farm, or of his exploits in boarding school. His illness was the spur she needed to make that happen.

Roisin Gallagher with her father Daniel on her wedding day
Roisin Gallagher with her father Daniel on her wedding day

His voice runs as part of a soundscape to the play and Roisin has nothing but praise for the team at Tinderbox, who took what were a collection of recordings and an idea and helped transform them into a piece of moving theatre.

She explains: "Tinderbox Theatre Company were seeking submissions from artists for ideas to make a play as part of their Take Away Theatre project, and I feel very privileged to be a part of that.

"The fear of forgetting is the theme. I am really afraid that I am going to forget him. I have this compulsion to save as much of him as I can.

"I only taped daddy on my phone - it was nothing fancy - so Isaac Gibson, the sound engineer, cleaned up all the recordings.

"I have never written a play before, but director Patrick J O'Reilly understands the work so well and has been instrumental in getting it to where it is now.

"I didn't come in with a script. It's a devised piece of theatre, where you are working from instinct and impulse."

The Natural Disaster of the title is an impending storm (her father's illness and approaching death), her preparations for it, what happens when it arrives and the aftermath.

"It's about how you live with the loss of someone you love," she continues.

"My hope in doing this is that other people might find comfort or hope in knowing that you do keep on going, you just find a different way to live.

"It's a shared experience on a universal theme. As a society, I don't know how brilliant we are at talking about grief.

"Having it tied up as a metaphor will hopefully spark up a conversation for those who need to talk about it. I don't know how I would have coped if I hadn't had this way of responding and exploring it, artistically."

Roisin points out that she is still dealing with grief and loss, but that hope is there. "The storm comes, but it will pass. The sun comes out and it goes in again as well. I am exploring how things come and they go. A lot of it is about acceptance. It's not tied up in a neat bow. It's not a linear narrative, there is no ending to my story," she adds.

Without giving too much of the play away, the mother-of-one finds the essence of her hope in the form of her young son.

Donal, who is almost two, was just seven weeks old when Roisin's father received his diagnosis.

"I have a lovely photo of Donal lying on daddy's tummy, and in the recordings you can hear him talking to Donal," she says.

"The brilliant thing about having Donal then was that I was off on maternity leave when daddy was ill and I was there every day with him."

Her father spent his final weeks at home surrounded by the love and care of his close-knit family - one of Roisin's sisters is a doctor and another a nurse, like their mother.

"One of the things he said when he was nearing the end was that he felt very lucky," says Roisin. "His words were: 'I don't regret the last few months because I realise how much love I am surrounded by. I am so proud of my family'.

"Daddy was passionate about education and pushing us on," she says. "We all followed different career pathways - medicine, teaching, computer programming - but I was the only one who took a creative direction."

Educated at St Genevieve's High School, drama was the only thing she ever wanted to do, and she trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

"Daddy was immensely supportive of me," she says. "While the thing your parents want most for you is stability, there is no guarantee of that when you are an actor, but he used to say to me: 'You are doing all right, stay with it. If this is meant for you, put your faith in it'.

"Daddy had a very strong faith in God and in things being meant to be. 'Pick up your challenge. Do it with resilience and strength and have a laugh and a joke - don't take yourself too seriously'. That was his way.

"I hope he would have enjoyed watching this show. He came and watched all my plays. The first one I did without him was The Man Who Fell To Pieces. I kind of looked for him in the audience; I still do sometimes."

Roisin's mum and her four siblings will be in the audience at The MAC, as will "a whole busload" of her dad's family, who are coming from Tyrone.

A passionate GAA and Tyrone supporter, Roisin recalls how her dad never missed a match. "The day Tyrone were in the all-Ireland final was the same day he and mum were leaving me over to Scotland to start drama school and he somehow managed to find a pub in Glasgow, so he didn't miss it," she laughs.

Roisin has also been "overwhelmed" by the support from her many colleagues in the industry for her play, including her cousin Eileen McClory, a dancer and choreographer, and dramaturge Hanna Slattne, who has helped her mould the idea into a story.

"Friends, family and colleagues have been messaging me, telling me they are so proud of me for telling this story," she says.

After Natural Disaster, Roisin will be appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed by The Real Housewives Of Norn Iron, both of which will be staged in Belfast.

"I have been really lucky at home. I have found my place doing work here and it's such a variety of work. I love doing comedy," she says.

"Doing this play, I feel like daddy is here. I have faith that he has not disappeared, his spirit is with me and lives in me, and Donal carries it too."

Natural Disaster, produced by Jen Shepherd and designed by Ciaran Bagnall, opens at 3pm and 8pm this Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16. For tickets, tel: 9023 5053 or visit https://themaclive.com/event/natural-disaster

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