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Putting mental health centre stage

Going Out

DUBLIN DEBUT ‘The Birthday Party’, written and performed by Mayo artist Áine O’Hara, will be staged in Dublin as part of Smock Alley Theatre’s Scene + Heard Festival.

Interview
Ciara Moynihan

Mayo performance artist Áine O’Hara’s self-penned play ‘The Birthday Party’ will be staged in Dublin’s oldest theatre, Smock Alley, next week. An exploration of mental health and the stigma surrounding mental illness in rural areas, it features two characters, a granddaughter and grandmother – both played by O’Hara.
The 25-year-old artist, who has a BA in Visual Arts Practice from the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and an Masters of Fine Art in Stage Design from Trinity, also co-runs 4D Space, an arts collective she founded with fellow artist Tara Carroll. 4D Space holds performance and live art events around the country and also publishes a zine called ‘Taibh’ – a showcase of performance and live art happening around the country.
Last October, O’Hara left Dublin and returned to live in Carrowmore-Lacken, the townland on the north Mayo coast where she grew up, and where her family have lived for over four generations.
Here, she chats about ‘The Birthday Party’ – its inspiration and its subject matter, and about Ireland’s changing attitude to mental health.

CM ‘The Birthday Party’ is your first play. How did you find the process of writing?
ÁO’H It was a difficult process … especially as I was exploring a very personal subject matter. I had to make sure to take extra care of my own mental health while researching the piece. I had to be careful not to push myself too far.
I’ve previously been involved in collaborative projects like ‘(Not) Belonging’, a show exploring youth subculture and growing up in Ireland, which I co-wrote with Sorcha Flanagan and Robyn McQuaid O’Dwyer for the Dublin Fringe Festival 2015. I also work as a practicing performance artist, so I had a lot of experience writing and developing live art for a gallery context, which definitely helped me to prepare for this.

CM Can you tell us a little about the plot?
ÁO’H In ‘The Birthday Party’, I play two roles, one a version of myself and the other my ‘grandmother’.
Both characters tell stories about growing up, about experiencing anxiety for the first time, about how others react. We tell stories about fictional people in the village who have experienced anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. We tell stories about what happened to people like us in the past and what is happening to us now.

CM What inspired you to write about the subjects covered?
ÁO’H I have suffered from anxiety and depression for most of my life. I’m really passionate about speaking up and not being ashamed of my illness. I’m so fortunate that I live in a society and a time where I won’t be locked away for speaking up and I’m very conscious of that privilege.

CM Do you think Irish attitudes have changed towards mental health, and what other changes you would like to see happen?
ÁO’H Irish people have become more accepting especially in the area of depression. People make an effort to understand and to help if they can. I think there is still a long way to go, especially in relation to people’s attitudes to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Education helps.
There is a lot to be done in making treatment available to people from all socio-economic backgrounds. This is where the government and funding allocation comes in. It’s often only possible to access suitable and necessary treatment if you come from an affluent background, and we need this to change.

CM Do you think there are any traits peculiar to Irish people that make us, as a society, less able to cope with mental illness? How does ‘The Birthday Party’ reflect these traits?
ÁO’H I think for a long time Irish people have been ashamed and afraid of mental illness. Speaking about it is still taboo in some families. For more than a hundred years we were taught to hide these things away. A lack of education on the subject often exacerbates this. It’s still present in some of our language surrounding the subject, and in The Birthday Party I use a lot of this language of shame. The character of my grandmother ‘Maisie’ uses terms like ‘The Big House’, ‘that place’ and ‘Castlebar’ to describe the mental hospital or asylum as it was called then. It was and is a language of shame, and I have tried to show that in my writing.

CM Are you hoping to bring the play to Mayo at any point?
ÁO’H I would absolutely love too! We have so many fantastic arts centres in Mayo, I’m especially fond of my local Ballina Arts Centre and the beautiful Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar.

‘The Birthday Party’ will be staged in Smock Alley, Essex Quay, Dublin, at 6.15pm on Thursday and Friday, February 16 and 17, as part of the venue’s Scene + Heard Festival 2017. Book tickets at www.smockalley.com, where full programme for this year’s Scene + Heard Festival (February 14 to March 4) can also be found.
For more on 4D Space, visit www.fourdspace.tumblr.com.