Arts

Step back in time with A Queer Céilí At The Marty Forsythe

A new show from Belfast theatre company Kabosh takes its inspiration from historic events in the north's battle for LGBTQ+ equality. David Roy spoke to writer Dominic Montague about bringing A Queer Céilí At The Marty Forsythe to the former Turf Lodge social club which played a key role in this remarkable story

Queer Céilí playwright Dominic Montague, left, with cast members Simon Sweeney, Brendan Quinn, Paula Carson and Chris Grant

SET in 1983 Belfast and based on real newsworthy events, A Queer Céilí at The Marty Forsythe is set to transport audiences back to a time when homosexuality had just been decriminalised in the north – much to the chagrin of Ian Paisley and his supporters – a mere 15 years after the equivalent Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed in Britain.

Delegates arriving at Queen's University Belfast from all over Ireland and Britain for the first ever National Union of Students Lesbian and Gay Conference to be held in Northern Ireland were confronted by around 150 placard-waving protesters from the Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign – prompting some student activists to create T-shirts and badges emblazoned with the slogan 'Save Sodomy From Ulster'.

In the face of such external pressures combined with strife within the weekend-long conference where the NUS executive was attempting to enforce a 'no politics' rule on delegates' discussions under threat of expulsion, it was a fairly tense time for those involved.

Thus, an unexpected invitation of a night out in west Belfast away from the QUB-based pressure cooker offered those at the conference a welcome chance for attendees to blow off some steam.

On Saturday October 22, a convoy of black hacks arrived at the university to transport delegates to the Martin Forsythe Social Club in Turf Lodge, where they were able to savour their first proper experience of Irish hospitality.

Now, Belfast theatre company Kabosh are preparing to stage a dramatisation of these historic events at the former site of 'The Marty' – originally named after a 19-year-old IRA man shot dead after planting a bomb in 1971 and now The Trinity Lodge Restaurant – as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival and LGBT History Month.

"It came about through our work with an organisation called OUTing The Past which runs LGBT History Month," explains Dominic Montague, Kabosh project facilitator and writer of A Queer Céili at The Marty Forsythe.

"Jeff Evans at OUTing The Past was also a member of the delegation at the Lesbian & Gay Conference. He came to us with the idea of it being included within LGBT History Month as a bit of theatre that explored an unknown story from Northern Ireland."

Indeed, while the cringe-inducing phrase 'Save Ulster From Sodomy' should still ring bells in the collective conciousness of our over-40s, the story of that highly unusual 'cross community' evening in Turf Lodge has somehow been allowed fade into the dim and distant past.

"It's one of those things that, whenever you hear about it, you kind of wonder 'how can this have happened and yet we don't know about it?'" says Montague.

"I think it's a really important event, it kind of shows a very important instance of communality at that time – it was quite revolutionary, with legalisation having just happened in 1982 and the height of the conflict at that time [in the wake of the hunger strikes].

"I think it's really important to have these stories remembered."

Happily, plenty of those who were actually involved in the conference and céilí are still around, meaning that their brains could be picked for dramatic purposes.

"We interviewed people who were there and who would have been involved in different areas of the conference and the céilí – and that's where all the stories came out," says Montague of the Paula McFettridge-directed play's genesis.

"The NUS executive had outlawed politics and nationality being discussed. That caused a lot of anger and there was a lot of conflict over it because a lot of the delegates had come over to Belfast especially to try to understand what was happening on the ground.

"They tried to overturn that on the Saturday with a popular vote but the executive decided that if it the vote was carried they would cancel the conference and evict everybody.

"So the alternative was to have everyone spilling out of the conference on to the streets on a Saturday night – but then the entire delegation got invited to a céilí in west Belfast, which was a way of people going into that community and seeing things first-hand."

Music from the era will be used to help create a sense of time and place for the piece which stars actors Paula Carson, Brendan Quinn, Chris Grant and Simon Sweeney and features a somewhat unconventional structure.

"We're not using traditional narrative storytelling," Montague reveals, "it's going to be a bit more contemporary with people speaking to the audience and engaging in conversations – you'll kind of be 'thrown in' in a kind of agitprop way.

"It's a way of capturing that sense of activism and of people needing to have their voices heard and not wanting to be silenced."

For added authenticity, Kabosh have even arranged to collect audiences outside QUB and run them up to the Trinity Lodge in a journey mirroring the one undertaken by the delegates in 1983 – albeit with minibuses replacing black taxis.

There will even be an actual post-performance céili on the closing night, with many of those who attended the original dance and assisted in the research process for the play due to be in attendance.

"It's incredible to not only be bringing this event back into people's conciousness but to also be bringing it back to the places where it actually happened – it's a really special thing to be able to do," enthuses Montague, who highlights the fact that A Queer Céilí touches on issues that remain 'hot button' topics almost 40 years after the events depicted.

"It's very interesting in terms of how a lot of the issues that existed then still exist in different forms now: that sense of who has the 'right' to talk about certain issues and who 'owns' certain issues.

"Things like gay rights aren't owned by anybody, it's a black and white issue that's more about civil rights than anything else. Also, that thing of different places within the UK and Ireland having different levels of rights at different times is obviously still very pertinent today."

:: A Queer Céilí at The Marty Forsythe, March 27 to 30, Trinity Lodge, Belfast. Tickets via Imaginebelfast.com

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