In a recent Irish Times opinion piece, Fintan O’Toole argued, in part, that the generations growing up during the Celtic Tiger era are unique in the State’s history, as no other generation before them has had the hope of sustained success dashed so utterly. This is also true of their experience of forced emigration. They were made to believe, with the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s, that the Irish had at last escaped a cycle of self-imposed exile prompted by a baseline of economic hardship. Ireland had nowhere to go but up and, while previous generations had any kind of optimism tempered by harsh economic realities, the Celtic Tiger generations were convinced that they were immune to one of the prime features that had, up until then, defined the Irish experience. That’s when the 1,000 pound anvil dropped in the form of the property crash, and everyone was sent scrambling not only to survive but to understand why and how they had been so completely bamboozled.
Writer and performer Shaun Dunne’s decision to stay on in Ireland, as his friends and twin sister are compelled to emigrate, makes up the core of I am a Home Bird (It’s very hard), a meditation on the virtues and difficulties of sticking it out in the face of economic collapse. The crux of the argument is first articulated with a reading from the end of Philadelphia, Here I Come!, as Gar Private watches and records the last few fleeting memories he’ll play over and over again as in exile in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s ending is Home Bird’s beginning, as Dunne has set out to answer for himself the gaping ‘why’ of the need to emigrate. Dunne’s insistence on staying challenges the accepted mythology surrounding Irish emigration, which holds that having to leave Ireland is inevitably part of being Irish.
Dunne and director Oonagh Murphy make use of a deceptively straightforward aesthetic that has become the calling card of a lot of young Irish practitioners: a documentary-style presentation without the post-dramatic alienation. We’re not given a story with a dramatic arc so much as a collage of text, images, and movement that’s essentially set up as a laid-back conversation with the audience. Zia Holly and Ciaran O’Melia’s warm and welcoming design, with its softly lit lamps, diminutive kitchen table, and broad wooden desk evokes a cozy studio apartment, and a ready place for one to nest comfortably. Dunne is a charming and engaging performer, displaying a disarming vulnerability as he relates his musings on being a member of a supposedly ‘lost’ generation.
Performers Ellen Quinn Banville and Lisa Walsh join Dunne onstage, but despite being a trio, this ultimately feels like a one-man show, as a lot of the performed material is weighted in Dunne’s favour. As such, Quinn Banville and Walsh, who can certainly hold their own when given the chance, come across as underutilized, serving primarily as stand-ins as Dunne presents to us pictures of relatives and friends, describing their impact on him and the emptiness of their keenly felt absence. His fellow performers are mainly relegated to reading news clippings that comment on the recent surge of Irish emigration, and to meting out Youtube clips of Nadine Coyle lying her way to stardom or of Irish immigrants gone wild in Australia. While the insertion of these bits of media are funny or striking in their own right, their direct deliverance to the audience, rather than a performative interpretation of them by the cast, lessens their impact. It would have been far more affecting to see Dunne and company attempt in some way to embody this media, rather than to slackly play Youtube clips to the audience and only comment on them.
On the other hand, when performance is fully embodied, we do get some winning moments – a prime example being the staging of an outlandish celebration of Ireland’s 2002 World Cup team, headed in this fantasy sequence by Michael Flatley and Louis Walsh. The piece also sparks when Dunne and Quinn Banville engage in a heated and desperate argument about leaving, with Dunne passionately advocating for staying to see the bad times through. The poignancy of Dunne’s plea creeps up on you, and as Quinn Banville decides to leave the stage, and presumably the country, you can’t help but want to join in the outcry against the bleeding of talent, intelligence and creativity that may take decades to reverse. Dunne’s treatise suggests a last stand, an attempt to hold on desperately to territory that’s shrinking quickly. Once the decision to leave is made, that’s it; coming home for good will, more than likely, never be an option.
Jesse Weaver has recently been awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.