Portrait of a budding writer in a young country

Playwright and academic Thomas Kilroy at his home in Kilmaine. PHOTO: Robert Hanvey.
Playwright and academic Thomas Kilroy at his home in Kilmaine. PHOTO: Robert Hanvey.

Lifestyle – After having cataracts removed from his eyes 12 years ago, playwright Thomas Kilroy had a strange experience in which memories from his youth came flooding back. He talks to JUDY MURPHY about the resulting book Over the Backyard Wall.

Thomas Kilroy, who has been to the forefront of Irish literary life for more than five decades, is a man of many parts.  Born and reared in Callan, Co Kilkenny, his roots are in Galway, where his parents were born, reared, fought in Ireland’s War of Independence and were married in 1921 while his father was in Galway Jail.

A fascinating and challenging playwright, Thomas Kilroy’s work is unlike that of any of his Irish peers, yet his Irishness is fundamental to everything he has created.

He’s a world-class dramatist, whose canon includes Double Cross, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, Talbot’s Box and The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche. His only published novel, 1971’s The Big Chapel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As professor of English at UCG in the 1980s, Thomas Kilroy was regarded by students for his superb teaching and his humanity as an examiner. He loved engaging with students, but retired from UCG ahead of time because he hated the administrative work. It was far greater for professors those days than it is now, and affected his creativity.

“Writing is everything and I’m writing all the time in one shape or form,” he explains of his departure.

Thomas’s new book, Over the Backyard Wall, which he describes as ‘a memory book’, doesn’t document his period at UCG, as its remit is from the 1930s to the late 1960s before he moved West.

But it offers a great insight into the post-Independence, post-Civil War Ireland that helped to shape him as a human being and a writer. And his recall of 1950s and 1960s Dublin and its literary scene, reveals a generation of young writers daring to challenge the prevailing world of nationalism and Catholicism.

Thomas was born and reared in Callan, where his father was the local sergeant. His parents, who were originally from Caltra in North-East Galway, had been active in the War of Independence but their views differed when it came to the Civil War, something he captures while describing Éamon de Valera’s visit to Callan during the 1948 General Election campaign.

The vivid picture Thomas paints of his parents’ argument after Dev’s visit, transports the reader back to an Ireland that’s unrecognisable today.

Such incidents left an impression.

As “a child of the Hitler war,” Thomas remembers his father and friends listening to the Nazi propagandist, Lord Haw Haw, on the radio late at night.

In 1986, Haw Haw, and fellow Irishman Brendan Bracken – Churchill’s Minister for Information during World War II – came to life in Thomas’s play Double Cross. Premiered by Field Day Theatre Company, it was recently given a new and much-praised production by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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