The indestructible Dave Duggan

Playwright Dave Duggan working at his Northland Avenue home this week. DER4514MC002
Playwright Dave Duggan working at his Northland Avenue home this week. DER4514MC002

For 20 years Dave Duggan has earned his place rightly among the city’s cultural royalty.

With a host of books, plays, poems and even an Oscar nominated short film under his belt he is one of the city’s most prolific - and best loved- of writers.

Last night he attended the Derry debut of his latest offering - Makaronik, a futuristic tale written and performed in the Irish language at the Playhouse - which was no small achievement.

Just three weeks ago he was in a hospital bed, recovering from his second major brush with illness in four years.

But he made it - “shy of five toes and a third of my right foot”, he revealed.

Dave’s first “catastrophic health event”, as he called it happened in September 2010, when he developed what he first took to be an ordinary flu.

“I was admitted to hospital but very quickly my health plummeted spectacularly, which resulted in my lungs giving up. There were many meetings around my bed - the medics were baffled and my notes were sent off to Newcastle for all sorts of professors to look at.

“I had visions of men with long beards and white coats, baffled at what was going on,” Dave said.

The condition, which saw Dave spend six weeks in intensive care critically ill, continued to baffle physicians long after Dave began his recovering - eventually returning home to a house plumbed with oxygen to allow his battered lungs the chance to recover.

He said: “The upshot of it all was that I had a muscle inflammation condition called polymyositis.”

While the illness and recovery had a ‘traumatising effect’ on the writer, he says the eventual diagnosis, ten months later, was “a bit of a relief” for him.

“I asked what do I do - and the answer was to go on steroids for a while, then wean off them and see what would happen.”

Dave’s health improved until August of last year when a problem he had been having with his foot “went haywire”.

“I had been having difficulty with a wound on my foot for about 18 months but at the start of August things escalated.”

Dave was soon admitted to hospital. “And after eight weeks I was able to come home,” he said, “just shy five toes and a third of my right foot”.

While Dave remains philosophical about his illness, the experience was frightening. At the height of his most recent battle, it was feared that he could lose the use of his hands - the tools of his trade - and his mental faculties.

“Thankfully I’m still just as crazy as I have ever been - and I can still hold a pen, and type so I can still work.”

While it hasn’t been confirmed that the second bout of illness was related to the polymyositis - Dave has the sense that it was an “an aftershock of sorts” from 2010.

“I had the sense that 2010 was the big earthquake, if you think of it like that, and this was a hangover or afterglow from that.”

While dealing with such a major health scare could not have been easy, Dave said he was given a sense of focus and purpose not only through the support of his family but also through his work.

Indeed as he lay recuperating in his hospital bed, he continued to work on Makaronik.

“It was surreal and funny. The play was happening anyway, so I found myself in the strange situation of being wheeled from ward 32 to the staff canteen at 11am in the morning by the show’s director.

“There, while the doctors, nurses and hospital staff ate their lunch we had a script meeting with the full cast.”

Dave was determined he would be out of hospital to attend the play’s premiere in the prestigious Lyric Theatre in Belfast and of course, to be out in time for the Derry debut at the Playhouse.

“The fact that both (the play and the illness) were running parallel to each other was a good thing - it was definitely a good thing.

So far Makaronik has been well received - although Dave admits the premise is one some may find intriguing. It is a science fiction tale, in the Irish language, which was commissioned by Aisling Ghéar.

It’s the year 2084 in a world where ‘The Empire’ reigns supreme. Most European languages are forbidden.

In Belfast, Makaronik, the last woman standing, has been instructed by ‘The Centre’ to wrap up her archive and send back all remnants of the Irish language for ‘storage’.

“My plays may seem to be varied, but they are essentially all about the same thing. They are all about humans in a small group, be it in a family or a work place - and they are dealing with an issue against a bigger backdrop. There is a unity to their experience - what I write may seem to differ greatly from work to work, but my plays are all about the human experience, the human condition.

“They are about the choices people make and how those choices affect them and those around them.”

Reviews have been positive and audiences have reacted well. “They have been intrigued by it, in a good way, and there has been a good atmosphere in the audience.”

There is no doubt for Dave, writing has been, and continues to be, a good therapy for him. He is one of those dedicated band of artists who write each and every day - and he has made his name as a hard worker who can turn his hand to a variety of genres.

“The act of writing is powerful. The business of writing is writing - don’t concern yourself with the funding, or the business of getting out there. The most important thing is always to write - to do that every day. Everything else can fall into place if you create something to sell.”

Dave understandably feels passionate about the arts - and has strong opinions on the swathe of cuts which are making life exceptionally difficult for those working in the creative industries.

“It has always been a fraught business,” he said. “There have been times I’ve been lucky to secure the funding first, times I have decided to work and see what happens, and times when I have put productions on myself.

“But these days there is a short term thinking prevalent in modern politics.

“If you cut support for artistic and creative activity, it has a negative effect on mental and physical health and in the long term we will end up paying for more acute hospital services.

“Of course it is very difficult to draw the line between the £10k you might give to some actors to put on a play and £10k for hospital beds for mental stress.

“It is difficult to draw that line - but that exists. If there are not ways in which people can articulate their problems, then these challenges - challenges we all face - will manifest themselves in ill health.

“We should not be making the argument that it is a choice between healthcare or the arts. It’s the difference between funding a nuclear sub - a folly in itself - or support our arts scene.”

With Makaronik a success, Dave, while continuing to adapt to his new life, walking stick and all, is working on his next project - a court room drama, written in verse called ‘Denizen’.

He hopes that Denizen, the script of which is already published by Guildhall Press, will make it to the stage in the first half of 2015.

And what will follow? With Dave Duggan, you never quite know -but he’s glad to still be here to keep writing.