Brian Foster will turn 60 next year as Derry celebrates its reign as city of Culture. To cement his place in the historical year the Creggan born writer will see another of his plays performed on the stage of the Millennium Forum. Brian’s a familiar face and name at the city centre theatre. His reputation as one of Derry’s foremost playwrights precedes him on the back of the critically acclaimed “Maire, a woman of Derry.”
Written in 2001, the captivating one woman show - set in Derry - tells the story of a troubled street drinker. The play was an instant hit, and if Brian had ever wanted evidence that he’d done the right thing in turning to a career in writing when he was 39, that was it.
With themes that resonate across the world, the play is set to tour Australia and has entertained tens of thousands of theatre goers who packed houses in England and Ireland to watch unforgettable performances by Derry actress Carmel McCafferty.
Brian’s latest offering ‘Derry through those laughter and tears years’ is set to equally enthrall audiences when it’s staged next October.
There’s not a bit of arty fartiness about the father-of-three who writes what he lives and breathes, Now in what he calls a period of semi retirement, he and his wife Majella are enjoying life in their home near the city centre.
While most people who have their families raised would be looking at moving somewhere more remote and quietly paced, Brian says he’s happy with the city around him and the ever-appealing accessibility of a pint in the cosy surroundings of the Don Bar.
His own parents, Dickie and Susie, were among the first to be given houses in the then-new Creggan estate in the 1950’s.
Brian was only a toddler when they moved, and he has memories of an idyllic childhood, growing up among hundreds of other Derry families who were happy just to have a decent roof over their heads, even though - as he recalls - they had very little else.
“People were just so glad to get out of the slums,” he says.
“They were thrown together from all kinds of directions and apart from the houses, there were very little other amenities in Creggan at the time.
2There was definitely a sense of ‘put all the nationalists up there and forget about them’.
“The only things there at the time were the pub, the chapel and the shops - despite the fact there were 15,000 people there.
“As a child, it was a great place to be living in. We were in Creggan Heights and and we had 10,000 acres of countryside in our back yard. We were so close to Donegal as well and we used to spend our Sundays walking to Grianan Fort with an old milk bottle filled with water. It was seven miles there and back but we loved it.”
Brian went to school at Holy Child before becoming a pupil at St Columb’s College. He admits he was never a fan of the academic life and was expelled from St Columb’s after only a year and a half.
“I couldn’t wait to grow up,” he laughs.
“I just wanted to be 16 and earning. I remember my mother taking me to St Joseph’s after I’d been expelled from the college but the principal there said he wasn’t taking rejects from St Columbs! I suppose he had a point. After that we tried the Christian Brothers but they didn’t seem to want to take me either.
“At that point, my mother told Brother O’Sullivan, the head of the Christian Brothers Tech, that she’d have to send me to a protestant school.
“In those days, that just didn’t happen and he was obviously scared at that prospect so he agreed to let me in. So I bided a couple of years there before moving on to a government training centre in Belfast where I trained as an electrician. That was around 1968 and I was in digs up there, In Derry, the first rumblings of the Troubles were beginning to happen and people up there were always asking me about what was happening down here.”
After his stint in Belfast, Brian was transferred to Ballymena but felt less settled there and was delighted when the company he was working for moved him back home to Derry.
When he was 20 Brian met the love of his life Majella and the pair married. They found themselves living in a Derry which was trying to survive in the midst of huge social and political challenges. As a young couple trying to find their feet, their story was one which was repeated throughout the streets of Derry in the early seventies, as Brian explains.
“We started off married life squatting in the Rossville flats,” he smiles.
“That was just the way it was then, people squatted because it was the only way to get somewhere to live. There would be queues of people waiting at the door to move in if they knew people were moving on. When you moved in and had occupied the flat, you went downstairs, got a rentbook and started paying rent.”
Brian and Majella started out in a small flat which in modern ‘property speak’ would be termed a studio. They spent their first months as a married couple on a makeshift bed on the floor.
“We were just a couple making the best of what we had, and, to be honest, it was the happiest time we ever had,” says Brian.
“One of the great traits of the Derry character is that we can laugh at adversity and even though people looked at Derry and probably couldn’t believe what we were living through, to us it was just our life and like everything else there were ups and downs and lots of reasons to laugh.”
In 1974, prompted by an advertisement in the local press, Brian and Majella applied for jobs in Butlins Holiday Camp in England. Their applications were successful so they upped and moved to Sussex. Like so many, they left with the idea of staying in England for six months and ended up there for 14 years.
When Brian was made redundant from his job with the holiday company in 1988 he and Majella moved back to Derry. But with little work available here, Brian found himself facing unemployment again.
Aged 39, when many people would consider it too late to turn their hand to something new, Brian decided that having been an avid reader for most of his life, he’d turn his hand to writing.
“I’d read most of Dickens by the time I was 14,” he says.
“It was something I thoroughly enjoyed but it never occurred to me that I could write myself. I think as Derry people at that time we had a sense that people with great talent came from other places. We didn’t believe in ourselves as much as young people do today. They have real confidence in their own potential today and I think that’s marvellous.”
Discovering that the only thing he needed to be able to write were the ideas in his own head, Brian began. In 1996 his first play ‘Lillibullero’ was staged at Derry’s Playhouse. In 2000, his play ‘The Butterfly of Killybegs’ was staged in a number of theatres across Ireland including Belfast’s prestigious Lyric Theatre.
While he completed a number of other works, it was the public’s love of the character immortalised by Carmel McCafferty that really put Brian’s name firmly on the map as a playwright to be reckoned with.
He’s hoping for similar success with his new play which will be staged next year. There have also, he says, been novels in the pipeline and he’s keen to hear from publishers. Completely self-funded in terms of his work, Brian’s also hoping local businesses will come on board to help in a small way with his next production.
He’s eternally grateful for the unwavering support of David McLaughlin at the Millennium Forum. He has praised the venue for supporting local talent as well as some of the bigger names which will make up the hotly anticipated City of Culture year.
For the rest of 2012, however, Brian is enjoying family life, reading, and writing when he gets the chance - not to forget the odd pint in the Don Bar thrown in for good measure.