Lockout at the New Theatre – Interview with Writer Ann Matthews

Currently playing at The New Theatre, I got on to the play’s writer Ann Matthews about what really set this production apart from all the ret.

Why do think it is such an important stage in our history?

ImageIt is only during the last two years that any interest has been expressed in the Lockout, by historians and the general public and it is to the credit of Pádraig Yeates and the Dublin City Archive who Published Capital in Conflict (this year) that the Lockout has been brought to the consciousness of the public.

More Importantly, Anthony Fox of the New Theatre saw the importance of this aspect of Dublin Working class history and he has created a space whereby the voice of working class women could be heard for the first time.  Both of us were motivated by the idea of a strong woman battling her way through the Lockout while using actual text written and spoken by  Connolly and Larkin. Fox then asked me to weave the powerful speeches of the Union leaders and weave it into a realistic story that encapsulates the experience of the 1913 Woman.

The Dublin working class of the early 20th century is generally seen as one-dimensional. In my play, I have used my family story and especially that my grandmother Ellen Byrne as a conduit to explain some of the many complexities of a rich and interesting working class of Dublin 1913.  Just two example, many Dublin working class men did not drink and many of them were avid theatregoers.  A fact little known about James Connolly and James Larkin is the neither of them drank, indeed they actively abhorred alcohol and did not allow it into Liberty hall. (They would I think be horrified by Arthur’s Day).

This year marks the centenary of the lockout, but do you feel that there are other reasons why Ireland should be commemorating the lockout at this time? Are there any similarities in our current state? 

 The most obvious similarities are the need today to provide food like the Penny Dinners for thousands of families who are struggling in the current recession to feed their children. Repossessions were rife in 1913 and, presently in Ireland Food Charities are supplying over 100,00 meals every day to families and the homeless, more then was supplied to the poor in 1913. Just two weeks ago, the Troika ordered the Irish Banks to speed up repossessions, and evictions, echoing the situation in Dublin in 1913 when thousands were evicted by landlords more interested in profit than humanity. Today, just as a hundred years later families face the terror of possible homelessness.   What Progress?

Do you think society has learned anything from the lockout? 

Once the Lockout ended, it was forgotten except by those who suffered through the months of misery and want. Many children suffered stunted growth as semi- starvation took its toll on their young bodies.  In the wake of the Lockout, the ITGWU bought Liberty Hall, but many of the workers, men and women had to leave Dublin to find work in the industrial cities of the UK, in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham. Others joined the British Army. Once again, we are witnessing the emigration of our skilled workers.

What do you think are the biggest differences for women between the 1913 situation and today?

 Women today have the vote, they can buy their own homes, they are highly educated and in that sense, their lives could not have been imagined by women like Ellen Byrne in 1913. She would be amazed that her granddaughter (me) has a PhD, and has published books on women in Irish History, while her great- granddaughter is an engineer.  However, in the current economic climate, there are mothers who wake up every morning not knowing how they are to feed their children, and this daily nightmare is added to by the threat they may lose their homes, just like Ellen Byrne and her contemporaries 100 year ago.  This threat of losing one’s home exists across Irish society, as humiliation is once again heaped on working people.

Has it been difficult to represent the enormity of the lockout in a stage production?

The Lockout was a multifaceted event. In my play ‘Lockout’ I used my grandmother’s experience as the conduit to explain, and create insight and understanding of the experience of thousands of working class mothers in Dublin. The play is essentially a vehicle through which an audience can grasp how they coped, as they and their children were reduced to the point starvation, and how they kept their some of their children alive through a living nightmare. They were the heroes the Lockout, because they kept the next generation alive.  

Lockout plays at the New Theatre until October 19. More info here. 

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