Pebbles in the pond making a difference

Kathleen Gillespie, center left, and Anne Walker, center right, at the Irish Consulate reception for the group from Derry's Playhouse that visited New York this month. PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT

By Sean Devlin

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, a captive crowd at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, Queens.

The audience was moved, at times to tears, at the performance of two monologues from “I Once Knew a Girl,” a Theatre of Witness production via Derry’s Playhouse that documented the real stories of two women from Northern Ireland in the Troubles, adding a very real face to a very difficult time in Irish history.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Anne Walker is a former IRA operative who got involved with the organization at a very young age, and Kathleen Gillespie is the widow of a man used as a human bomb in an IRA attack on soldiers. Their original paths, while seemingly divergent in ideology, were given a raw and beautiful level of similar humanity in their stories in “I Once Knew a Girl.”

Walker, in a question-and-answer session after the performance, spoke to the ability of the work that Theatre of Witness is doing to make change in Northern Ireland.

“I had been holding these feelings in, and really suffering for it. Over these past six years [the run of “I Once Knew a Girl”], doing this work has managed to make me feel so much more empowered. Making a difference matters, even if I’m just a pebble in the pond,” Walker said.

“This is an open way to talk about the damages [the Troubles did] to everyone. It’s an open dialogue about the peace process. Things have gotten better, but it’s a cracked wall with beautiful wallpaper still,” Walker added.

Kathleen Gillespie, who also shared her story of the Troubles on stage, echoed Anne’s sentiments on the ability of performance art to heal, while still expressing anger and hurt at the murder of her husband Patsy a quarter century before at the hands of the IRA.

“I’ve learned to live, but I’ll never forgive,” Gillespie said. “But in taking part in this, we’ve managed to humanize the people behind the names and build empathy.”

Lorraine Turner, the head of the New York office of the Northern Ireland Bureau, spoke to the power of artistic performance in the peace process.

“The arts in Northern Ireland have the power to truly enrich our lives,” she said. Director of the Theatre of Witness performance model Teya Sepinuck added that the power of the performance came from the reality behind the stories. When Kathleen and Anne mentioned that people would ask after performances whether or not the stories were rooted in reality, her response was “that the power of these stories comes from the fact that they are scripted exactly from their own words.”