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‘Aftermath’ shines light on human impact of Iraq war

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Date Published: {J}

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen of New York Theatre Workshop made their names as writers for the powerful play, The Exonerated, which told the true story of six people sentenced to Death Row in America for crimes they didn’t commit.

The play toured all over the world, and was translated into many languages while a film version was also made, starring Susan Sarandon, Brian Dennehy and Aidan Quinn.

Among those whose stories featured in The Exonerated was Sunny Jacobs, who spent 16 years on Death Row in Florida, wrongly convicted of murdering two policemen. She now lives in Galway and Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen hope to visit her when their new show, Aftermath receives its Irish premiere at this year’s Galway Arts Festival.

Aftermath, again based on real people’s experiences, is a dramatic retelling of the stories of ordinary Iraqi people who, in the chaos and lawlessness following the invasion of their country, fled to the relative safety of Jordan.

Erik and Jessica travelled to Jordan’s refugee camps in 2008 where they met, among others, a pharmacist, a taxi driver, an artist husband and wife. These were, variously, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians. It is very middle class, says Erik from his New York base, explaining that they couldn’t gather the experience of less well off people because those people couldn’t afford to leave Iraq.

But the men and women they did meet told gripping stories, which husband and wife Erik and Jessica subsequently crafted into Aftermath.

“It was a wringing out your emotions,” says Erik of the interview experience.

Some people they interviewed had hope, others had humour, others had suffered serious damage to their bodies and spirits; still more were the only surviving members of their families.

“The whole gamut of human emotions was in these four-hour interviews,” he says. But although it was harrowing, it “was very satisfying work because the plays were there already, we were just freeing what already existed”.

Among those who shared their story were two artists, a husband and wife forced to leave Iraq because a mullah threatened them after they staged a festival with music. He decided that music was forbidden and they had to flee or face arbitrary punishment.

Erik and Jessica selected the best 10 interviews on the basis of what worked best together dramatically. The resulting piece was directed by Jessica, premiering to rave reviews in New York last year.

Like The Exonerated, Aftermath is a political play, but then Jessica believes all of life is political, with a small ‘p’, her husband explains.

“We take on these issues not to take on ‘hot topics’ but because certain topics are eternal. Power and the abuse of it and people’s relationship with it is eternal.”

For more, read this wek’s Connacht Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Looking sharp as Cœirt approaches

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Date Published: 11-Apr-2013

 Images of books and pencils will be placed outside Tí Neachtain on Quay Street this weekend as a reminder to people that the Cúírt International Festival of Literature is on its way,

Every year Cúirt creates displays of writing tools in venues around the city, reflecting the themes of the event. This year, shop windows in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Dubray’s Books, Busker Brownes and McCambridges will feature. These windows will display headshots of participating Cuirt authors, themes from their books and emblems of authors.

The Tí Neachtain window display will be centred on The Crime Panel, reflecting the strong input from crime writers into this year’s festival. Meanwhile other windows feature literary quotes in vinyl. This year’s Cúirt symbol of a typewriter will also feature prominently.

Cuirt begins on April 23. The official launch will take place in The Hotel Meyrick at 6.15pm on Wednesday, April 24 when President of Ireland Michael D Higgins will do the honours.

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Political gatherings in the west prove stark reminder of contrasting fortunes

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Date Published: 17-Apr-2013

 Two parties held their party conferences last weekend – and both present pictures of deeply contrasting fortunes.

One is on the rise. Another has fallen and the words equine and deceased and flogging come to mind every time you think about its chances of recovery.

We’ll start with the latter first. The Greens held its convention in Galway over the course of the weekend. Not only has the party’s fortunes diminished but it has also taken on a guise of secrecy. It didn’t really publicise its convention and it consequently hardly caused a ripple in the national media. As Connacht Tribune journalist Ciaran Tierney wittily but cruelly tweeted at the weekend, the convention might have been held in the snug at Tigh Neachtain.

Eighty kilometres up the road in Castlebar, Sinn Fein was holding its Ard Fheis. In contrast, it got saturation coverage. You couldn’t switch on TV or open a newspaper without seeing Mary Lou McDonald’s copious new beehive or a full frontal Gerry Adams’ smile.

In 2007 the shoe was on the other foot. Six years ago the Greens held an annual conference in Galway, attended by hundreds of delegates. The party seemed on an upswing then and there was widespread coverage of the conference, with lots of talks of the Greens going into government.

The polls showed that they could add to their six Dail seats and become a real force in Irish politics. By contrast, whatever about the North, Sinn Fein was struggling to assert itself in the south. It had four TDs in 2007 but the polls suggested it was not capturing the public imagination.

As events unfolded, both parties underperformed in the 2007 general elections. Society seemed settled and content then (it was the height of the Celtic Tiger after all) and smaller parties got squeezed as voters plumped for the two established parties.

Labour flat-lined at 20 seats. The Greens went into the election with six seats and emerged with six seats. Sinn Fein saw its total fall from five seats to four. The Progressive Democrats got wiped completely. And the number of independents also fell from 13 to five.

The story of the subsequent years is well known. The Greens went into government with Fianna Fáil and did okay for about two years until the economic crisis was fully felt. Afterwards it was all downhill. Both parties lashed themselves to the mast of a ship sinking in a hurricane and tried to do what they could to keep it afloat.

The party lost all its seats at the last election. What was half forgotten too was that it had a lousy local election in 2009 and lost 13 of its sixteen council seats. And then to compound its misery, the party failed to get two per cent of the national vote. What that meant was that it did not qualify for any State funding.

So when it began to survey the mess in 2011, all it had were three county councillors and it was broke.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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