Four centuries of O’Neills and an unmarked grave in Perth.

Vanessa O’Neill’s play In Search of Owen Roe

Vanessa O'Neill, writer and performer of family and historical stories.

Vanessa O’Neill, writer and performer of family and historical stories.Devlin-Glass about her forthcoming play on 29 May 2015

Vanessa O’Neill’s play, In Search of Owen Roe O’Neill (see What’s On for details) on her great grandfather, Owen Roe O’Neill (no, not the c17 hero, but he does get a guernsey) opens at La Mama on 24 June for a two-week season. It begins with the question about why her great grandfather lies in an unmarked grave in Perth, and it weaves into the narrative stories about leaving Tyrone at the time of the Great Famine, about Bendigo and Kalgoorlie (where he worked as a journeyman hairdresser and wig-maker for the many theatrical entrepreneurs who entertained the (sometimes lucky) super-rich goldfield community) during their respective gold-rushes. He was not one of the lucky ones, it seems. It is also, affectingly, about her father who is suffering from dementia, a source of many stories of his grandfather. And it touches as well as the most famous Owen Roe of them all, about whom a ballad was written in 1845, two centuries after his defeat.

Owen Roe O'Neill. Credit Catalogue NLI

Owen Roe O’Neill. Credit Catalogue NLI

The play is rooted in its author’s love for Ireland – as an Irish-Australian, she has been back seven times, even though the connection with Ireland is four generations ago. So the play goes into effectively four centuries of Irish history, but is strongly based in family history. And it has an Irish musical soundscape –  by Foolin in Doolin, a group she met recently in Ireland. Their Uileann pipes player, Michael ‘Blackie’ O’Connell, she describes as ‘superb’ and I’d second that. Darius Kedros will be doing sound.

Vanessa will play many roles in this one-woman show. She has a long history in theatre having trained at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier and at the Drama Centre in London, and done an international internship at the Globe Theatre (London). She has worked in many major theatre companies in Australia and abroad (including the Bell Shakespeare), completed a writing residency in Derry (NI), and she is currently working as Education Manager at the Malthouse. The play has already had a try-out at La Mama and has attracted funding for its further development.

Sounds like a show not to miss, for those with an interest in theatre, and especially for those with the Irish history chops.

Interviewed by Frances Devlin-Glass, Tinteán Editorial Team.