Arts

Author's search for 1992 child actors from The Lost City of Belfast

It is 25 years on from a pivotal moment in the life of Derry-born children's author Shaun Traynor but he tells Gail Bell why now is the time to find his 'lost' children of Belfast

The photo of a cross-community group of young Belfast actors that author Shaun Traynor hopes will unlock memories

AN EVOCATIVE image of an excited group of Belfast children stepping down from an Ulsterbus coach clutching plastic bags of belongings and bags of crisps is one that is forever etched in the mind of Derry-born poet and author Shaun Traynor.

It is an image frozen in time, a nostalgic, unpolished but powerful mnemonic of a real event from 25 years ago, captured in a grainy photograph, overlaid with unspoken hopes and dreams for a more enlightened future.

The motley group of young cross-community actors from diverse communities such as the Falls, Shankill, Divis and Duncairn, had just arrived back in Belfast after bringing Traynor's children's novel, The Lost City of Belfast, valiantly to life in a stage adaptation in Co Dublin.

An ambitious project for its time, the play, adapted by fledgling Playboard and the Scarecrow Children's Theatre Company, had already toured the north before the children – aged from five to 10 – headed across the border to stay with host families in a Tallaght housing estate for a groundbreaking performance in south Dublin.

Now, its originator wants to know what happened to the young thespians after they returned to their "partitioned" areas of Belfast.

Did they ever see each other again? Did this "deliberate anti-sectarian project" have a lasting impact on their lives or inform a wider world view?

Born in Aghadowey but based in London for most of this adult life, Shaun Traynor admits to a privileged upbringing of his own, having attended Belfast Royal Academy, later Queen's University, and later still, Kingston University in London where he qualified as a primary school teacher, specialising in special needs.

He has published three collections of poetry to date and, in addition to The Lost City of Belfast, is author of several children's books, including Hugo O Huge, the Children's Giant, and its sequel, The Giants' Olympics.

Also, as a casual contributor to newspapers, he most recently was asked for his opinion on Brexit for a piece in The Irish Times. As a fair-minded, "middle-of-the-road" type citizen, he recounted a "sense of anger and betrayal" and how he felt that "old hound dog, insularity" was "chasing" him again.

Editor of The Poolbeg Book of Irish Poetry for Children and member of the Society of Authors, Traynor still goes back to school "occasionally" to take workshops on creative writing and storytelling, as he asserts "teaching children – but more importantly listening to them" inspires many of his books and characters.

"I have always wondered what happened to those wonderful child actors and what their own stories are," he muses from his home in London. "And, as it is exactly 25 years on, I thought it would be interesting to find out.

"The early 90s were full of examples of sectarian abuse and violence and my novel, The Lost City of Belfast (Poolbeg Press) was an exploration into Irish history to try to find out what it was all about."

The plot centres on a girl called Kate who travels in time through an archaeological dig, taking in episodes like the Famine and the Battle of the Boyne.

"The really interesting thing," he expands, "is that when it was adapted as a play, the producers got parents' permission for children from both sides of the community to rehearse together and for the Catholic children to play Protestant parts and vice versa.

"I remember awful sectarianism in Belfast; if you were from the 'other side', it was like you had two horns in your head. Tragically, it is embedded in the culture and it still is.

"You can see that in the politicians today and the newspapers in London are full of what is happening now with the DUP deal with the Conservatives. I don't know if we have moved on that much at all."

Some might suggest it would be a good idea to bus the entire Stormont Executive down to Dublin and make them play their opposite number in a play but, for now, the author – whose latest publication is entitled Van Gogh in Brixton – would be happy just to discover some good news from the class of '92.

"I heard one of the children may have gone on to become a professional actor, but I don't know for sure," Traynor adds. "I look back and wonder how their lives may have turned out.

"They would be in their 30s now, perhaps with children of their own. I wonder what their stories are; if what they experienced changed them a little or a lot and if they cared that their own children mixed with others from a different religion and background.

"I would love to discover the end of the story."

:: Anyone involved in the Lost City of Belfast project or who can help put Shaun Traynor in touch with the young actors from 1992 can contact him via email: shaun.traynor@googlemail.com

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