No Magic Pill

In 1995, I was a struggling writer who needed a job. I replied to an ad in the DCU newsletter for an organisation I’d never heard of – the Center for Independent Living – for a job I couldn’t get my head around: a researcher/personal assistant/communications officer. I was invited to an interview in the Royal Dublin Hotel. A man with a beard and a fishing hat was pushed through the doors in a wheelchair with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. ‘Shake the thumb,’ he said. It was my first introduction to Martin Naughton. I can’t remember a thing about the interview other than he told me I was starting next week. Doing what? I wondered. He smiled and told me not to worry. The following week I was thrown head first into a conference in Jury’s Hotel entitled ‘Disability – Investment not Burden’. I had no idea wheelchair-users could be so angry and so militant. I had no idea they wanted to change the world. Weren’t they supposed to sit quietly and watch TV all day? Not these guys.

I spent two years working for Martin. He told me CIL were the ‘IRA of disability’ and that our job was to ‘plant bombs’ and agitate for change. I was a lobbyist who knew nothing about lobbying, but Martin only saw what I could do, not what I couldn’t, and because he believed in me, I started to believe in myself. He had a presence, an aura, a gravitas. He could command a room like a general and rule with an iron fist. And he could laugh and slag and have fun. When you walked into a room with him, you felt powerful because you knew you were with the smartest, most politically astute guy in that room and that he was already ten steps ahead of everybody else.

When I left CIL to pursue writing again, I suddenly realised that I needed to write a story set in this world with Martin at the centre of it. But things didn’t go to plan. I wanted to tell Martin’s story as a movie, set against the introduction of a PA service and the fight to keep it from 1992 to 1994. I saw this as the War of Independence for the Irish disability movement and regarded Martin as its Michael Collins. But the movie, entitled ‘No Magic Pill’, changed drastically during its development and turned into a different story called ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ – a film I love and am proud of, but which doesn’t tell the story I set out to tell.

I felt like a failure, that I had let him down. Martin had entrusted me to tell his story and that of the people who had fought with him. I hadn’t delivered and it hurt. I tried to put it behind me and focus on other writing projects. But years later, I was considering an application for an Arts Council bursary and one of my theatre mentors, Jane Daly, asked me if there was a story I wanted to write, but had never written. I thought immediately of ‘No Magic Pill’, but told her I didn’t know how to write it as a play and was afraid to tackle it again in case it went wrong again. Jane told me that if I was scared to write it, I had to write it. It was the sort of thing Martin might have said.

When the Arts Council awarded me a bursary to write the play, I knew I had to face my demons and try again. I went back to my original screenplay with a view to adapting it, but decided I needed to start afresh. I found two interviews I had conducted with Martin over twenty years ago. They told his story from his childhood in Spiddal through to his time in St Mary’s through to his activism, the founding of CIL and the campaign for PA funding. This, I decided, would be the basis for my play. But soon after starting I got stuck. The play had over 60 characters and felt more like a movie. I considered picking up the phone to Martin and telling him I was finally going to tell his story – but I was too embarrassed to admit I was stuck, so I decided to wait until the play was written. He died that September. I sent a note to his family, which was read out to him as he was dying. In the note, I thanked him for all he had done for me and promised I would finish the play.

I soon finished a first draft and approached director Raymond Keane, who was fascinated by the subject and the story of Martin, but who felt it needed considerable development. Thanks to a bursary from the Pavilion Theatre, we workshopped it in April 2017 with actors Mark Fitzgerald and Julie Sharkey. It was a thrilling experience, but it also showed me that the play didn’t work.

Niall O’Baoill came on board to give me some much-needed direction. He urged me to seek the support of the disability community and advised that I bring a disability consultant onto my team. I approached Peter Kearns, who bluntly – and brilliantly – explained that the script felt too much like a documentary and not enough like a play. I had also written a Martin character who was too saintly, too sanitised and not like the fantastically complex, interesting, flawed and driven man he really was. Peter encouraged me to set myself free as a writer. My friend Rosaleen McDonagh also read it and came to the same conclusion as Peter. So I started again. Yet again.

But now, as I allowed fictional elements to combine with true life material, I felt the play was starting to come to life. And while it’s now more accurate to say it’s inspired by Martin, rather than a literal re-telling of his life, I hope it better captures the sort of man he was.

I applied for Arts Council funding last August to workshop the play with a view to further development. When my application was successful, director Raymond Keane, producer Feilim O’hAoláin, disability consultant Peter Kearns and I agreed that we needed to find disabled actors to play the parts of the disabled character. In this respect, we were guided by the CIL slogan, ‘Nothing about us without us’. But how could this be achieved when there is very little in the way of training and opportunities for disabled actors in Ireland?

In December of last year, we put out a casting call to audition disabled actors for our workshops and soon assembled an exciting cast that included wheelchair-users Rhona Coughlan and Paddy Slattery, who bears an extraordinary physical resemblance to Martin. Peter Kearns agreed to play the characters with Cerebral Palsy. And the brilliant Mark Fitzgerald and Julie Sharkey, both highly experienced professional actors, returned to play all the other parts.

The workshops themselves have been joyful, fruitful and richly illuminating. Raymond is discovering a theatrical language for the play that really excites me and the play itself is benefiting from the sort of healthy, robust challenge that talented actors always bring. In addition, Peter Kearns has delivered a couple of eye-opening equality workshops and drilled into us the distinction between the Social and Medical models of disability. We have played games, sang songs and discussed at length the various issues explored in the play. We have worked out of the Richmond Room in Carmichael House, the location of numerous CIL board meetings, and I like to think that the spirits, ghosts and memories of all these encounters have energised our conversations. The staff at Carmichael House have been warm, welcoming and delightful, making us feel very much at home.

On Monday night, the fabulous Nina organised a reception for the disability community so that we could celebrate together our efforts to tell a story inspired by Martin. In a single hour, just after rehearsals had finished, Nina transformed the room into a gorgeous, florid, candlelit cavern and we had the privilege of the company of iconic activists such as Mick McCabe, Hubert McCormack, Rosaleen McDonagh and Peter Moore as well as the new generation of heavy hitters. We drank prosecco, feasted on finger food and shared conversation. Hubert, to whom I had sent the play a year previously, confessed that he had only just read it and wanted to dispute various inaccuracies. I protested that it was an early draft, but Hubert was generous in any case and accepted the need for artistic licence. Besides, as I told anyone who would listen, if people ultimately dislike the play, they can blame Peter Kearns for urging me to set myself free as a writer! When I spoke to fellow writer Peter Moore about the impossible task of pleasing everyone, Peter said: “It’s easier to get near the truth through fiction”.

No sooner had I taken my first sip of sparkly than Nina and Damien ordered me (in the nicest possible way) to make a speech. As I surveyed the room, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man in a wheelchair wearing a fishing hat. My heart skipped a beat. If Martin was here, I had to give the speech of a lifetime. And then I realised that it was Paddy Slattery, looking uncannily like him. But then, as I gave my speech and enjoyed the evening, I realised that Martin really was there, if not in person, in the memories of all of us who had the privilege of knowing him and in the imaginations of those who are now discovering him. And I realised that a man like Martin will always be there, among us, not so much because I’m writing a play about him, but because he dedicated his life to making the world a better place. And succeeded.