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Going Places with Miriam Gallagher

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Stage & Screen

By Sarah Downey

Author, playwright and screenwriter Miriam Gallagher takes Sarah Downey of writing.ie on a magical journey back through her impressively varied career and reveals that she still has many places to go:

As a little girl, Miriam Gallagher discovered the key to a bookcase and literally unlocked a world of enchanted ‘grown up’ books from the likes of Oscar Wilde to Francois Mauriac.  At the tender age of seven, Miriam was taught the piano by the well-known teacher Stella Jacob and recalls falling in deeply in love with her lessons: “I remember once against parental advice setting off to her house during a thunderstorm, arriving drenched but victorious.” At home her Mother filled the house with music, while Miriam performed her ‘party pieces’, put on plays and devoured books. Her Mother introduced Miriam to drama, sparking her interest in and supporting her love of the stage.  She often recited poems like The Lake Isle of Inisfree to a young Miriam at bedtime and always encouraged her fondness of writing. “Her love of theatre meant that I enjoyed plays, pantos and operas including roof raising productions of Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl and Maritana by Waterford born Wallace at the Theatre Royal.”

At school, Miriam excelled at English and Latin but found Maths was not exactly her forte, “I was eventually allowed to abandon the torture of algebraic equations and obscure riddles about trains leaving stations at 10 o’clock and confusingly arriving before they set out, or so it seemed to be to me.” Her real passions always lay in the English language and literature, although she was often scolded for sticking long words into her school work, “It really annoyed me as I had taken the trouble of looking them up before shovelling them into my essays.” Miriam’s first publication came at the age of nineteen when her article on a Christmas in the Pestalozzi Village was featured in the Irish Independent, “this unfortunately gave me the misleading idea that getting published was easy, Not so, I was to discover later.” [Established in 1957, Pestalozzi International Village Trust is an educational charity who’s primary aim has always been to break cycles and change conditions and attitudes that lead to conflict. It is based on the principles of Swiss philosopher, Johann Pestalozzi.]

Inspired by her love of drama classes with Miss Vereker, she went on to study drama in London with the influential Frieda Hodgson.  “Happily my college years in London meant I could attend nearly every production at the Royal Court Theatre and Vanburgh (RADA productions where you could get in free and, if you felt generous, give a shilling for the programme).”

Miriam cites Shakespeare as her all-time favourite dramatist and has appeared on stage in many of his masterpieces. She has also been cast in plays by the likes of Ibsen, Lorca, Stoppard and Joyce.  Miriam believes these experiences helped her appreciate the work of these playwrights, while helping her to hone her own writing skills. “I value the Irish playwrights, especially the inimitable Oscar Wilde and admire how the English playwrights of the ’70s: The two Davids (Edgar and Hare), the two Howards (Brenton and Barker) and Stephen Poliakoff, turn society on its head, experiment with form and are not afraid to fail.” While Miriam enjoys “too many writers to mention”, she tries to avoid being influenced by them, “When I’m writing drama I try not to go to contemporary plays and likewise avoid reading fiction by contemporaries if writing short stories.”

Miriam is blessed with the unusual ability of being able to write across almost all of the literary forms and mediums.  “Life would be much simpler if I could stick to just the one thing.  But, for good or ill, variety is the spice of life for me and so, on I go. Dipping into one form, then another.”   She began with the Irish Independent article, progressed to stories, then to a non-fiction book, then to plays, then films with a good few short stories thrown in.  Miriam hesitated at first before hurling herself into the world of writing plays as it’s generally regarded as the most difficult forms of writing.  “I decided I would strike out for seven years and if by then no-one wanted my plays I would concentrate on fiction.  Some thirty years later I’ve had the good fortune to have some twenty-five of my dramas staged internationally, have directed and co-produced my film Gypsies, have published seven books and am also writing fiction.”

Miriam also has the enviable trait of being plagued by constant ideas and possesses a vivid, somewhat surrealist imagination.  “My problem is not the number of ideas but the lifetimes available to deal with them. Composing a novel or a play is challenging and exhilarating but you need to focus and not get constantly distracted by other ideas that keep clamouring for attention.”  Miriam adds that a lot of her work happened, she feels, by accident. In 1983, she was commissioned to write a play for the Dublin Theatre Festival to be performed by Mountjoy prisoners. Knowing the actors were new to performance and the physical skills they possessed, she settled on writing a play focusing on dramatic action.  “Into my mind flashed an image of a lone boxer in sunrise yellow shorts practicing punches, feinting, brimful of energy. When another image followed of his opponent, in royal purple shorts, I knew what the play would be about.” Fancy Footworkwas born and would go on to receive glowing reviews as well as professional productions in London, Chicago and most recently at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2009.

Fancy Footwork on stage. Photos by Nick Gaswirth (2009). L to R Ryan Foy, Mark Byrne, Jarde Jacobs,

Jarde Jacobs (foreground), Ryan Foy

Miriam’s early work as a speech and language therapist proved the inspiration for her debut book, Let’s Help Our Children Talk. She says, “As well as being a fulfilling career this area is rather useful for a writer”. Recently watching ‘The King’s Speech’ she was taken back to her early career. Miriam’s clinical background also influenced her first full-length play, Labels, set in a fictional clinic where a middle-aged doctor is found guilty of over-prescribing. “A real life case prompted this play which ironically deals with the vagaries of the Health service.”

Miriam admires those writers who set out with a definite idea and stick to it, but prefers to be surprised by her characters and finds the uncertainly somewhat of an adventure. “One thing that does help for screenplays is to have coloured cards naming your scenes and then pin them onto a board or view them in sequence.”  For plays she usually starts with “a collection, a rag bag of character or plot ideas, maybe bits of material, anything really, then I progress to a scenario and after that to scenes proper.  But I never drop anything in the beginning in case I find it useful later.”

Identifying with every character is essential for Miriam, particularly the “awful ones.”  “Someone has said that writing a play is the longest journey out from yourself and into yourself.” She finds it immensely difficult to let go of her characters, especially those featured in her one woman play Shylagg. “I was almost heartbroken to leave them behind and move on to my next work. I often find myself turning to the script and am fortunate that it’s now the subject of some academic research which means I get to discuss it with professors and students…this process helps me keep in touch with the characters.”

Miriam lists writing and performing the play Shylagg among her greatest achievements, “I didn’t write the play in order to perform it myself but that’s what happened.” A radio version was later broadcast by RTE and was read in Helsinki, New York and in Marseilles at the worldwide week of theatre writers. Another great achievement was writing, directing and producing her movie Gypsies, which was screened in New York and San Francisco.  “An exciting aspect was filming it on the strand in Tramore, where the real life story that inspired the movie took place.” Writing her book Let’s Help Our Childrenand setting up the Outpatient Speech Therapy department at St.James’ Hospital (then St. Kevin’s) are also career highlights for Miriam.  “Every time I walk through the grounds I remember the early days of speech therapy with pride and affection” Any goals left to fulfill? “Plenty of goals yet to achieved, but that would be telling!”

With such a diverse body of work, is there anything left that Miriam’s dying to explore? “Yes,yes,yes. The next horizon is always the longed for one and every new piece of work excites and terrifies me.  Without this struggle that adds to the creative tension of art, life would be boring indeed.”

So what projects are next for Miriam Gallagher? “For sensible reasons I won’t discuss a piece of work while I’m embroiled in it.  It might jinx the effort and can spoil the surprise!” However, she’s happy to reveal that she’s currently working on a drama and on her next book Green Rain: “this will include my theatrical/musical interludes celebrating Irish composers. I’m very excited about it and plans are going ahead to launch it later in the year at Ranelagh Arts Festival.”

For more information on Miriam’s work, check out http://www.miriamgallagher.ie

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