The most common question local playwright Brian Foster gets asked about his mega hit play, Maire – a Woman of Derry, is ‘Who was Maire?
Was she a real person, or did you make her up?’ And when Brian replies that his feisty, foul-mouthed, but oh so lovable stage character is not based on any single person, his reply often attracts looks of disbelief.
Most likely because both the character and her back story are so well drawn that people think she must surely have been a real life person.
Brian takes up the story: ‘Derry has always had its street drinkers. Every town and city has. People naturally assumed that I must have based my character of Maire (pronounced Myra by the way) on the well known woman Sheila.
“Well I can put the record straight here and now. The answer is no, Maire is not based in any way on Sheila or Sheila’s life. I didn’t know and hardly ever set eyes on Sheila, as I was living in England during most of her ‘time’ here in Derry. However, and here’s one that might surprise quite a few readers of a certain age, another well known local street drinker did have a big influence on me when I sat down to draw up the central character of my play.
“And that person was male not female. Eddie ‘Tipperary’ Canavan was probably Derry’s most famous ever street drinker.
“What I took from Eddie and put in to Maire was his glorious and unquenchable sense of humour.
“This, coupled with his touching generosity (he would often give the last few pennies he had in the deep pocket of his tattered coat to children in the street to buy sweets) encouraged Derry folk to take Tipp to their collective heart. Everyone loved him, had time for him, liked to stop and chat with him in the street.
“Tipp was particularly famous for his insightful one-liners. Bottle of Mundies in hand, he was often to be found swaying precariously on Bambi legs near the front line of the regular Saturday afternoon riot down in William Street, giving out more wisecracks than a professional stand-up comedian.
“Back in the days when the Bogside and Creggan were no-go areas, I think even the British army squaddies must’ve laughed when Eddie taunted them with his classic - Ha! The Americans can put a man on the moon … and youse boyos canny even put a man in Creggan!’
Brian is quick to point out that, Eddie Tipp included, Maire is actually an amalgam of several Derry characters he knew and grew up with.
But he’s not for naming any of the others as they were mostly private characters, whereas Tipperary lived his life very much in the public eye.
Brian again: ‘They all had their individual traits, which I borrowed and fused together to form the single entity that is Maire Mc Laughlin.
“When you write a play about a street alcoholic you’re treading thin ice. Because you’re dealing with someone who has fallen to the very bottom of the social pile.
“Someone who has become so enslaved to the drink that they have lost everything, even their home. And when the person you’re writing about is a woman, it tends to multiply the tragedy tenfold.
“As Maire herself points out in my play – “Bein’ a woman, I’m what you might call the unacceptable face of alcoholism”.
So I was hugely relieved when we premiered in The Playhouse back in March of 2002, and the audiences that packed out that theatre night after night found in Maire someone they could recognise and love spending time with.
“Although the play is a rollercoaster of comedy and tragedy, I was careful not to invite people to laugh at Maire, but to laugh with her. Just as the people of Derry laughed with Eddie Tipp and not at him.
“And I know I say this time and time again in radio and newspaper interviews, but the main reason people identify so readily with Maire Mc Laughlin is because they look at her up on the stage, listen to her hilarious and heartbreaking story, meet the assortment of weird and wonderful characters she introduces, and think to themselves … that’s a real flesh and blood person up there.
And their final conclusion at the play’s end is quite often … there but for the grace of God go I.’
Maire a Woman of Derry plays in The Millennium Forum tonight and tomorrow night. Telephone bookings 02871 264455.
Or book online at www.millenniumforum.co.uk