Radicals on both sides were wrong says young star of Martin Lynch civil rights play

Theatre actress Emer McDaid takes on a double challenge in new play, We'll Walk Hand in Hand – here she tells Gail Bell why she was prepared to be dragged across the stage for her art

Actress Emer McDaid, who appears in Martin Lynch's We’ll Walk Hand in Hand Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

A GRITTY new play marking the 50th anniversary of the civil rights campaign in Belfast is set to open in the Lyric Theatre this month, leaving no tricky topic unexplored according to one of the actresses among a talented 17-strong cast.

Emer McDaid (26), from Warrenpoint, plays two main characters in the production, We'll Walk Hand in Hand, which comes from the prolific pen of Belfast playwright Martin Lynch – who also steps into the shoes of director for the 10-day run.

A co-production by Green Shoot Productions in partnership with Queen's University and the Lyric, the play – also featuring Maria Connolly and Conor Grimes – opens in 1968 when Belfast students, Catholic Vincent and Protestant Lesley (McDaid), find themselves at the centre of an explosive student reaction to the civil rights movement.

In the second act, the story leaps forward to 2018 when the couple's granddaughter, Michaela (also McDaid), presents the older Vincent and Lesley with a different kind of civil rights challenge when she becomes pregnant and decides on the unmentionable: an abortion.

"The play explodes in an entirely different direction at this point and explores what civil rights meant in 1968 and what it means in 2018," explains McDaid, a Warwick University graduate who says she first caught the acting bug as a "wide-eyed five year-old" watching her dad direct with the Newpoint Players, Newry.

"There is definitely a lot going on in this play and it has been a challenge, but a very exciting one," she says. "When the story opens, Lesley is living in a sort of hippy bubble, she is educated and it is a time when the older generation have to pull back a bit.

"But she still has to deal with opposition on all sides when she falls madly in love with Vincent – although she digs her heels in and they get involved with the civil rights movement.

"It's an intense time, with their involvement leading to confrontation with disapproving families and, ultimately, to conflict with each other."

Apart from not having been born when the real drama was unfolding in Belfast's streets, the other challenge the actress faced when mentally preparing for the dual role, was developing a Protestant perspective on events.

"I was brought up Catholic, so I made a point of reading up on history and trying to understand what a Protestant 19 year-old might have been feeling at that time," she says. "I also asked a lot of questions so I could go into the role seeing the other point of view.

"It made me see that while the Catholic community was being oppressed, there were ordinary Protestant families being attacked by radicals too – and I believe the radicals on both sides were wrong."

When the audience is transported to 2018 and her character faces a new challenge for rights, McDaid becomes quite the passionate protester for real: "Abortion rights is a modern day struggle and I think portraying it through the arts really opens up the debate," she reasons. "I had friends at university who found themselves in a similar situation and they faced financial difficulty and shame. It is time the abortion law in Northern Ireland was fairer to women."

For the English and Drama graduate – who has acted professionally in West End plays in between teaching English in schools in Sri Lanka and Spain – it is a dream double role, despite having to endure some theatrical hair-pulling on stage.

"We'll Walk Hand in Hand is hard-hitting at times" McDaid adds, "and I do get dragged across the stage by my hair and have to scream a lot, but there are bright and funny moments too.

"Humour helps us all survive the dark times – if theatre was dark the whole way through, no-one would want to go."

:: We'll Walk Hand in Hand runs at the Lyric from March 22 to 31.

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