Q&A with Writer, Theatre Director and Filmmaker Mary Moynihan

Mary Moynihan. Image: Smashing Times.

Rights! are delighted to present this fascinating Q&A with award-winning writer, theatre director and filmmaker Mary Moynihan. In this article, Mary discusses her work and influences, shares her love of contemporary human rights poets in Ireland and beyond and introduces the short poem-film ‘In Time’ (which you can watch below). This feature forms part of Rights! current themed series – Beyond the Pandemic.

Mary is Artistic Director of Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality, and a Theatre Lecturer at the TU Dublin Conservatoire. She specialises in using interdisciplinary arts practice to promote human rights, peace building, gender equality and positive mental health, developing innovative arts-based projects with a range of organisations in Ireland, Northern Ireland and across Europe.

Her work includes Acting for the Future, a project that uses theatre to promote positive mental health and well-being, run in partnership with the Samaritans, and Women War and Peace, which uses theatre and film to promote equality and peace. As playwright and theatre director, Mary’s work includes The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII co-written with Paul Kennedy, Fiona Bawn Thompson, and Féilim James; In One Breath from Testimonies and Constance and Her Friends, selected by President Michael D. Higgins for performance at Áras an Uachtaráin for Culture Night 2016. Her film work includes: the documentaries Stories from the Shadows and Women in an Equal Europe; the short film Tell Them Our Names, inspired by women’s stories of WWII and selected for the London Eye International Film Festival and the Kerry Film Festival; and a new short film Courageous Women inspired by women’s stories from Irish history, 1916 to 1923. Mry has worked extensively in Northern Ireland using the arts to promote peace building, reconciliation and positive community relations.

Why poetry?

Sometimes when I am working on a new piece of writing, the work itself, as it is being imagined into being, will reveal what form is needed.  I think all writing is personal in some way, however, I am often drawn towards poetry when the content is deeply personal to my own life, the poetic form is like a spirit-frame that both hides and reveals at the same time. I enjoy moving between art forms, bringing different worlds together, I see change and transformation as a positive force in life. Poetry like other art forms is both structured and free, and I enjoy creating poetry within multidisciplinary artistic creations, poetry spoken over music, with abstract visual imagery, or simply on its own in the silence. It is not just the words; it is the silence in between, what is unspoken. During the pandemic, many people have turned to poetry for solace and comfort, as a way perhaps to guide us through the unknown.

Please can you outline some of the ways the projects you’ve been involved in fuse human rights and poetry?

One project I am currently working on is a series of short films inspired by stories of artists who stood up to Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and WWII. These include the Irish poet Charlie Donnelly, the German painter Kathe Kollwitz, the German photographer Gerda Taro and the Spanish playwright and theatre director Federico Garcia Lorca. The work, at the moment, is a reflection on courage and fear in times of adversity. I am using poetry to express inner thoughts and feelings.  Poetry is intercut with drama and dance or used as a stream of consciousness for the characters. I’m interested in the inner struggle a person may face when they are called upon to stand up for what they believe is right.  

As part of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival 2020, which I curated, Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality partnered with Poetry Ireland, to deliver an event titled ‘Poetry of Witness’, based on the phrase coined by Carolyn Forché, a poet who describes her work as politically engaged. From 1978 to 1980, she travelled repeatedly to El Salvador, where she bore witness to the violent repression of Salvadoran citizens by that country’s military dictatorship and arising out of that experience, she wrote The Country Between Us (1981). The event we hosted included poetry readings by: Catherine Ann Cullen, poet in residence, Poetry Ireland; Áine Ní Ghlinn, Laureate na nÓg (Children’s Laureate); Maria McManus; Lia Mills; Geoff Finan; and Siorcha Fox; all poets from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

The poets were asked to explore the ways in which poetry can preserve memory, provide solace, and reflect on the times we are living in. We wanted to look at how poets give voice to their own and other’s experiences, from personal experiences of trauma, to times of conflict experienced by refugees or as a result of a legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland, to the loss experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. The event can still be viewed here.

I’d like to mention Tell Them Our Names, a short fictional film that I made. It is an imagined re-creation of moments from the lives of five powerful women during WWII recalling moments of bravery, sacrifice and love amidst the horror of war, as women stood up against Fascism and totalitarianism and refused to accept oppression. (See link below)

Who are some of your favourite emerging poets?

Felispeaks is one of the top emerging poets in Ireland, she uses spoken word to incredible effect. She is Nigerian-Irish and uses her platform to speak about some of the social issues she sees in her daily life, and the lives of those around her, including ideas of womanhood, the expectations placed on married Nigerian women and experiences of black LGBTQ Christians. Ireland has a long history of poets, but only in more recent years have our women poets received equal acclaim for their work. Felispeaks is an example of a new generation of poets, that are reflecting on Irish history and culture, and looking forward to a contemporary Ireland, where equality for all is the norm, rather than an ideal.

The other top emerging poet in Ireland is Féilim James who writes in both Irish and English. In 2020, the Arts of Council of Ireland awarded Féilim a Literature Bursary Award to finish his debut novel, Flower of Ash, as well as a Professional Development Award. He also received an Arts Bursary from Dublin City Arts Office in 2021 to finish his first poetry collection, I was a river, lost. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals, including The Fiction Pool, The Galway Review, and Icarus. His work through Irish, under Féilim Ó Brádaigh, has won seven Oireachtas na Gaeilge literary awards. Féilim says he is a poet inspired by ‘James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, John Banville, Marilynne Robinson, Ted Hughes, TS Eliot, Seán Ó Ríordáin, and Radiohead’. His work is dark and yet full of love and human dignity.

Who are your human rights heroes/heroines?

Audre Lorde has always been a hero of mine, for her work as a poet, as an activist, and as a role model. Lorde used her work to bear witness to oppression, sexism, sexual and spiritual awakening, and racism. Lorde recognised the power of the self within creative work as a way forward for political and social transformation and that for real change to happen there has to be not just dreaming but also action.  In her writings and poetry Lorde urges us to speak out and to bear witness: ‘What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?’

Lorde urged people to use poetry as a means of highlighting injustices and inequalities, and speaking out about what needs to change in society. She championed a way for the arts to be used as a key tool in the fight for human rights as have other poets and artists such as Adrienne Rich, Mary O’Malley, Eavan Boland and Damian Dempsey.

There are numerous artist activists and human rights defenders that I admire. I admire the work of human rights defender Mary Lawlor, former Director of Amnesty International Ireland who set up Front Line Defenders and is currently the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in the Centre for Social Innovation, School of Business, Trinity College Dublin.

I have great admiration for Mary Elmes (1908-2002), a Cork woman who was the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for her work saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War II.

And my parents Helen and Eddie Moynihan who emigrated to the US in the fifties and who eventually returned home to Ireland and built a successful life for themselves out of very little. They taught me about love, to stand up for myself and others and to be kind and fair. My parents were into equality, so was my grandfather. He was a miner who fought for trade union rights.   I admire anyone who does what they can, no matter how big or small, to promote or protect human rights.

What are you most proud of?

My four children. I feel blessed to know and love them. The art of creation, I take great pleasure from creating original artworks either on my own or with others.  I am very proud of the work of Smashing Times and all those who work with the company; it is an honour to be able to use our art and creativity to promote equality, rights and diversity.  I’m especially proud of the work we have done in pre- and post-conflict Northern Ireland, using theatre to bring different communities together. I have witnessed powerful collaborations and change happen through the arts. People come into a workshop and often say they don’t have a story to tell but by the end of the workshop we recognise that everyone has a story. Through theatre and the arts, we can stand in someone else’s shoes and experience the power of human relations, connecting with each other and the world around us in a positive, open and inclusive way. 

What advice do you have for the next generation of human rights defenders?

I interviewed human rights defender Mary Lawlor for a project I worked on called Women in an Equal Europe. I asked Mary what advice would she give to someone starting off in human rights and she spoke about getting field experience in different countries, like an internship, learning how to speak in public, having a second language and having a positive attitude towards life, towards happiness which is something I support. It is important to build resilience for what you may face and to have gratitude for what you have.

As an artist my job is to tell stories. I believe storytelling is worthwhile when it shares our values and beliefs and what we stand for. Storytelling can be a unique way to show the values we want to live by so if you have the chance, tell stories! The advice I have for everybody is to always be true to yourself, have the courage to be who you are while being kind to others and to not let others define you. People often have blocks so letting go and being yourself (which is ever changing anyways), it’s a paradox! Paradoxes are at the heart of creativity and freedom.   

When I was facilitating theatre workshops, I realised we don’t really ‘teach’ people, what a teacher does is to show the way or open a door and each person chooses to go through the doorway, to go on that journey themselves, people teach themselves. The best learning is experiential especially when you learn through your body and through instinct. It stays with you.

Finally, please can you introduce one of your poems, and let the reader’s know a little about its genesis?

‘In Time’ is a poem I wrote after experiencing a severe case of Covid-19. My work is often provoked by suffering and loss and I am drawn to the dark spaces – the darkness within darkness –  perhaps as a gateway to the heart of a mystery or what is unknown, and to shine a light and find ways forward and ways of letting go. With ‘In Time’, I wanted to focus on the future, to look ahead at everything that will be open to us once more when the pandemic passes, as a personal response to the ever-changing landscape we are living in. Later, the poem was turned into a poem-film, co-directed with Mark Quinn, with an original score composed and performed by Lisa McLoughlin-Gnemmi, and ‘In Time’ performed by Kwasie Boyce and Carla Ryan. It was the first piece of work we made after the first lock-down in Ireland and was a strange and emotional time for all of us. Lisa’s music is beautiful and it was very special to have Carla and Kwasie embody the words in a live space.

Follow Mary on twitter and here, at Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality

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