Darkly comic drama highlights hardships of life for women in rural Ireland

Life on the Cooley Peninsula in the 1970s comes under the spotlight in a new play by west Belfast native Joe Brennan. Jenny Lee finds out more about The Blue Boy of Glenmore

The Blue Boy of Glenmore is a dark comedy set in the Cooley Mountains in the 1970s, a time when women were treated as second-class citizens
The Blue Boy of Glenmore is a dark comedy set in the Cooley Mountains in the 1970s, a time when women were treated as second-class citizens

SIXTY-two-year-old west Belfast man Joe Brennan certainly has had a varied career which included working as a barman, in clothing sales, as a joiner, meat factory worker, watchmaker, construction worker in London and property developer. He even set up a fish factory in Warrenpoint.

But it's his career as a playwright which has brought him most satisfaction. Inspired by his son Gerard, a published crime-fiction writer, five years ago Joe co-wrote The Sweety Bottle with his son. Based on a shebeen in west Belfast, the play was directed by Tony Devlin of Brassneck Theatre Company, had a successful Irish tour and was the first play ever to transfer from the Baby Grand to the main stage in Belfast's Grand Opera House.

Writing seems to be a trait in the Brennan family, as Joe's sister Patricia Gormley, who also started writing late in life, recently enjoyed great success with her play I’ll Tell My Ma.

"It is never too late to start writing and everyone who has an idea or a story should get it down on paper and get it out there," says Joe, who believes that being able to draw on the diversity of his life and experiences gives him the edge with his own writing.

His second play, and first solo effort, The Blue Boy of Glenmore, is once more produced by Brassneck Theatre Company, and directed by Tony Devlin. It has received standing ovations at each and every show on its tour so far.

The play tells the story of Co Louth farmer Jemmy John McArdle, whose nickname is 'the blue boy'. He lives with his sister Colleen in the family farmhouse. While Jemmy is content to work the farm, tending the cattle and the sheep, and wants nothing more, Colleen does not share his outlook and wants a better life.

She has taken to studying but Jemmy is having none of it. This sibling rivalry is the catalyst that ignites the shocking events that follow.

Joe, who currently lives in Warrenpoint, was inspired by his Omeath-born wife Rosemary's childhood and his time living in Omeath in the 1970s and early 80s.

"I would drive through Glenmore on my way to work in Dundalk every day and remember vividly the beautiful scenery in the mornings and on misty winter evenings the eerie ambience of the place. It is a perfect setting for a story. There was a farmer there who had a similar nickname to the play, but other than that the rest is complete fiction."

While The Sweety Bottle was a madcap escapade of jokes and laughter, The Blue Boy of Glenmore is a more haunting, suspense-filled dark comedy, which carries some serious messages for those struggling with depression and anxiety.

"In the 70s women in Ireland and particularly in rural Ireland were dealt a very poor hand. In the 70s women who worked in the Irish civil service and the banks would be forced to resign if they got married and it wasn't until 1976 women were granted equal pay.

"The husband had the sole right to collect the family allowance and it was only at his behest that the mother could do so. A woman would be branded a disgrace if she went in to a pub unaccompanied and if a woman asked for a pint she would be refused and given two half pints," says Joe, who witnessed this on countless occasions.

"It was only when the day-trippers came from Belfast would you ever see a woman in the pubs down there," he adds. "The hill farmers in Ireland are a tough hard-working breed, but when times were hard it was the women who were the backbone of these communities. Sadly a lot of women found themselves in difficult circumstances and relationships and could not bring themselves to do something about it until it was too late."

Although dealing with a bygone era, Joe believes his play will speak to contemporary audiences, who are still dealing with the stresses of life and feeling trapped and hopeless.

"I would like to think that my play addresses these matters and that it might help someone in a bad situation to consider their position and do something about it before it is too late, " adds Joe, who is currently working on two more plays set in Carlingford.

:: The Blue Boy of Glenmore is on tour across the north of Ireland, with forthcoming dates in Antrim and Omagh, before finishing it's run in Belfast's Lyric Theatre from May 9-14. For full details and booking visit Brassnecktheatrecompany.com