The Birthday Party by Áine O’Hara
- Audio Description
The Birthday Party is a deeply personal story about mental illness which I think we can all relate to; it’s about how the place you’re from shapes who you are, whether you like it or not. It’s about home, and family, and why the inside of your head can be the most unwelcoming place of all.
My practice is multidisciplinary and this work has taken on many forms over the years, from theatre to visual art. I am really excited to present this work as part of The Finest Specimens of Fossilised Duration as I am hugely interested in how multisensory work can make exhibitions more accessible for audiences and artists.
This piece is rooted in the place I am from, rural North Mayo. In the brain, memories are tied inexplicably to place. This work was created from my own memories of this place and from spoken histories which were passed down to me. It is a celebration of people who were never able to celebrate themselves. Throughout this work I move from playing myself to my grandmother and back again and imagine what my life would have been like if I had grown up in 1930’s Ireland as someone who has dealt with debilitating panic attacks from a very young age.
I am an award winning artist, designer and theatre-maker creating exciting and vulnerable work for and about people who are often left out of traditional art and theatre spaces. I am a graduate of Fine Art from the Institute of Art and Design, Dún Laoghaire.
My long term ambitions include demanding adequate access to theatre and the arts for chronically ill, disabled and marginalised communities through the creation of large scale, ambitious work as well as the continuation of community building projects like Chronic Chats, a creative and social group for chronically ill people run with the support of the A4 Sounds Studios Project award.
Recent achievements include: Riverbank Momentum award 2020, axis Playground Bursary 2020, Arts and Disability Connect Training Award 2020, Outburst Queer Fringe Award 2019, Oileán Artist in Residence 2019, DUETS programme Dublin Fringe Festival 2019, PS² residency Belfast 2019, World of Co Residency, Sofia, Bulgaria 2019 and DIVA Award Electric Picnic 2017. I am passionate about making the arts accessible for both audiences and arts workers.
[sound effects are described within brackets]
– stage directions are written within dashes –
The Birthday Party
by Áine O’Hara
[Hospital sounds, machines beeping]
– She looks up slightly –
Em… hi. Hi. Eh, hello everyone.
I’m Áine, I wrote the show. I just need to ask you a favour before we start.
Em, I only have 30 minutes for the show and we actually can’t really start until…
Will someone untie me please?
Please…PLEASE? PLEASE?! PLEASE?! PLEASE?!
– Her pleas get louder and louder until an audience member unties her from the chair –
Thank you, thank you so much.
I really appreciate this, I know it’s hard to come up on stage.
– Audience member starts to leave… she nervously tries to stop them –
Wait! Wait, wait, wait wait wait wait wait…
What’s your name?
Thank you, Katherine.
My name is Maisie. Today is my birthday.
I’m sorry, em, I didn’t mean to get upset earlier, I just…
I’m so dizzy. The blood rushed to my head.
– Maisie turns and puts her chair under the table. She walks forward and looks directly at the audience –
Hi. My name is Maisie O’Hara. Today is the 1st of January 2000.
Today is my birthday, I’m 73. Today is also the day that I died.
I always thought it would be easier you know, having your birthday and the anniversary of your death on the same day.
I just thought it would be easier, you know. Easier for everyone this way. That’s why I chose today.
– She walks around the table and stands facing the audience –
My mother died when I was little and every year my dad had two dark days. Two angry days. The 21st of June, her birthday and the 6th of March, the day she died. We never celebrated much. This is my first ever birthday party. This is my first ever birthday cake. 73 candles. Can you believe that?
Can I ask you one more favour?
Would you mind singing Happy Birthday to me? Would you start though? Cause it’s MY birthday.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…
Happy Birthday dear Maisie, happy birthday to you.
For she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow.
And so say all of us, and so say all of us!!
– She blows out the candles. She claps and laughs –
[Blowing and clapping]
– She takes a knife, looks at it for a moment and begins to cut up the cake –
When I was a child, em, there was no such thing as birthdays. I do have a very strong memory of my tenth birthday though. That was the first time that I ever properly felt fear. I was walking to school and I got really dizzy all of a sudden.
– She stops cutting the cake but keeps the knife in her hand –
It was as if the Earth was falling out from under me but when I looked down, it was there.
– Pause –
– Pause –
And my breath kept getting faster and faster until it felt like I was choking.
[Shaky breathing fastens and then slows]
I was so terrified. I climbed down into the field on my left and I ran and ran. I didn’t really know where I was going, I just wanted to hide. And down in front of the sea where I live, there’s this really old, dilapidated Protestant church. It’s been abandoned for years. And I sat there with my back against the wall willing the Earth to stop moving around me. I sat there all day. For hours. I thought I was going mad. I’d never felt anything like that before. I waited until I heard the other children coming back up the road from school. I waited until they had passed and then I went home. I never told anyone about what had happened.
Until now, I guess.
Ye’re actually the first people I’ve told.
– Pause –
Here, there’s enough for everyone.
Is anyone hungry? Does anyone want some cake?
– She places the cake into a biscuit tin and walks to the front of the audience –
Ye can pass it around.
I grew up, I got married. I had two children. Katie and George. They kept happening. I’d be cleaning the house, at mass or even in bed. There were other things too. Traps. It was like my mind was setting up traps for me. These kind of cycles that I couldn’t get out of, it was all about hiding. Sometimes it felt like I had no power over myself. I needed quiet.
Noises made everything worse.
[children shouting and talking]
Sometimes every sound annoyed me so much.
[sounds of children get louder]
Talking, forks scraping on their plates as they ate the dinner, the sound of the tractor and his low voice.
– She puts her hands over her ears –
[sounds of children and scrapping stop]
– She becomes more upset –
Sorry. I’m sorry.
I couldn’t even talk. I would go months and months without talking when it was really bad. My husband, he was a kind man. I still can’t believe he didn’t send me off somewhere. He never said anything. He never said anything. He just kept on going.
There was this woman in our village, Susan. My husband Michael was friends with her brother, Peter. Susan’s husband left and eh, she had a nervous breakdown. She was sent to Castlebar.
In those days when you were sent there, you never came out. You’d hear stories of people being stripped naked and tied by their ankles to the bed, truly violent forms of restraint, it was believed that they couldn’t feel pain. The worst story I heard was of a woman who, they had this chair, kind of like a swivel chair but it was mechanically powered and they strapped her into it and spun her round and round and round at a high speed. It was meant to provoke ‘a natural interest in life’.
Peter, that was Susan’s brother, came down to our house one morning when she was in the hospital and, I opened the door and he asked to speak to Michael. They were outside for a long time. Susan had been bought out of the farm when she married. Peter didn’t know if he should take her out and bring her back to their home, the home that she had been bought out of; or if he should leave her in the hospital. Michael had heard all the stories I’d heard and probably more so he told Peter to get her out of that place. Now. Family meant more than land. I’m sure there was many more who weren’t lucky enough to get out. From then on Michael was a saint in Susan’s eyes. He saved her.
3 miles down the road from us there was this family, the Murphy’s.
They told everyone they had seven children. Mrs Murphy had been pregnant 8 times but another hadn’t survived.
Apparently, it took over 16 hours, it was a particularly difficult birth.
He was a beautiful baby boy, you’d almost never guess.
They kept him in the house until his second birthday when he was old enough to walk.
There was an old rusty shed at the back of their house.
It had no walls, just four steel beams holding up a corrugated galvanised roof.
They tied him like a dog to one of the steel beams.
They used to throw scraps of food to him twice a day.
He lasted three years and they had a party when he died.
They had a party when he died.
My name is Maisie O’Hara. I am 73 and I have done a lot of things that I regret.
– Pause –
I have a balloon here for each of you.
Here you go.
Yellow for you.
Would you like red? Ok here you go.
– Pause –
I get afraid of answering the door, of answering the phone.
I can still remember her voice. I saw her ghost in the window.
I looked in the window, at the seat beside the fire where she always sat and I saw her sitting there, quiet.
– Pause –
I can still see her standing at the back door. Staring in the window at me.
I just stared back.
Written and performed by Áine O’Hara
Curated by Róisin Power Hackett
Sound design by Paul Lynch at Studio 4
Commissioned by Arts & Disability Ireland as part of The Finest Specimens of Fossilised Duration edition of Curated Space in 2020, curated by Róisín Power Hackett.
My name is Maisie O’Hara. I am 73 and I have done a lot of things that I