Arts

New collection celebrates late Co Armagh playwright Joe Crilly

Acclaimed playwright Joseph Crilly died by suicide last year. As a new collection of the Co Armagh man's work is launched in Belfast, David Roy spoke journalist Ronan McGreevy about editing The Crilly Trilogy and why his friend Joe's talent deserves to endure

Co Armagh playwright Joseph Crilly in his younger days

A NEW collection of work by the late Co Armagh playwright Joseph Crilly aims to remind the public of the award-winning Ballymacash man's talent.

The Crilly Trilogy collects three of the London-based writer, journalist and actor's best-known stage works; his Stewart Parker Award winning debut, Second-Hand Thunder (1998), its companion piece On McQuillan's Hill (2000) and Kitty & Damnation (2009).

Packed with vividly drawn characters, authentic mid-Ulster dialogue and genuinely shocking moments, the first two plays are skilfully sculpted, wickedly funny slow-bubbling thrillers exploring dark hearts and damaged psyches on both sides of the sectarian divide during two very specific periods of the Troubles: the Drumcree clashes of the late 1990s and post-Good Friday Agreement paramilitary prisoner releases.

Finally, Kitty & Damnation takes readers back to the 19th century and the era of Catholic Emancipation for a spirited female-fronted farce spanning rural Ulster, Belfast and London.

The crowd-funded publication has been organised and edited by Joe's long-time friend, Ronan McGreevy. The pair met in London while working at The Irish Post newspaper in the 1990s, where Joe worked as arts editor during his transition from an ultimately unsatisfying stint as an actor (credits included The Bill and Resurrection Man) into writing for the stage and BBC Radio 4.

Crilly and McGreevy kept in touch over the next two decades, meeting up for beers and a blether whenever possible and also embarking on occasional walking and talking excursions with a group of fellow Post heads.

The Crilly Trilogy, three plays by Joseph Crilly, will be launched in Belfast next week and is available to buy online now

"I used to joke that the photographs we took resembled an ageing indie band getting together for one last tour," comments Dublin-based McGreevy, whose last outing with Joe was a walking tour of the glens of Antrim in 2016, by which stage the Co Armagh man was working as a befriending coordinator for London housing charity the Peabody Trust.

"Joe didn't need to discern the colour of the paving stones to know the character of every village we passed through. Like many exiles, he was fascinated and appalled by the north he left behind."

The Irish Times journalist and author will be in Belfast next week to help launch the new book at the Lyric Theatre, where the acclaimed and controversial (for its daring inclusion of gay republican characters) On McQuillan's Hill was originally staged by Tinderbox.

"The purpose of this book is to try and introduce Joe to a new generation of people in the north," explains McGreevy, who hopes sales will help raise funds for Joe's son, Redmond.

"He would have been reasonably well known 20 years ago, but things move on. His plays wouldn't have been re-staged, so he would probably have disappeared from the artistic consciousness without something like this book."

Joe's family, friends, colleagues and fans were stunned when the 55-year-old, who coped with depression throughout his life, died by suicide last May.

They were quick to donate the €5,000 needed to publish The Crilly Trilogy, which is also packed with professional endorsements.

"Joe is very much missed," McCreevy tells me. "He was great company, he was great fun and was really just a brilliant guy in so many ways. That's why, when I went to crowd-fund the book, I raised the money in a couple of weeks without any problem whatsoever."

Actor Hugh Bonneville provides a heartfelt introduction to the book as he recalls meeting the young Crilly at London's National Youth Theatre in the early 1980s and later providing a voice-over piece for Kitty & Damnation – "I was blown away by the tumbling, lyrical flow of language and the relish of telling a tale", he writes – while Dr Mark Phelan of Queen's University Belfast enthusiastically expounds the late Co Armagh man's talent and his deserved place among the greats of our literary scene.

"He was self-taught," says McGreevy of the former St Michael's Grammar Armagh pupil.

"He didn't go to university but was brighter than the vast majority of us. The tributes that are paid to him in the book are sincere. When you see someone who's such a serious guy like Dr Mark Phelan writing such a comprehensive essay about Joe and his work, then you realise that there are people who take him seriously.

"You need to have people like that who are saying, 'listen, this is a guy who's worth investigating'. Without people agitating to try and get his name into the public conciousness again, his work will be lost forever."

He adds: "I hope that the book will encourage theatre producers to consider re-staging his plays in the near future."

The Crilly revival is already gathering momentum: shortly after his death last year, a group of his actor friends including Ciarán Hinds, Ruairi Conaghan (who also contributes to the book), Trevor Cooper and Amy Molly came together to perform Kitty & Damnation at London's Landore Theatre by way of a tribute.

The show was a sell-out, and there are plans afoot to stage readings of his work at QUB following next Friday's book launch event at the Lyric.

If you've yet to discover the dramatic nous and sly wit of Joseph Crilly, The Crilly Trilogy offers an ideal introduction to his work and indeed the playwright himself.

As Hugh Bonneville writes, "taste the writing, savour the man".

:: The Crilly Trilogy will be launched on Friday November 9 at the Lyric in Belfast at 5pm and is available to buy online now at Orpenpress.com/the-crilly-trilogy.html.

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