Ireland has always been good at keeping secrets. If you didn’t quite fit the mold, they developed some tried and tested methods to keep you hidden in plain sight. To take the look off you, as they might say themselves.
From mother and infant homes to Magdalene Laundries to industrial schools to travelers halting sites, for decades anyone who stood out in Ireland was quickly taken in (often never to be heard from again).
If our unwed mothers were once hidden away from public view to spare our blushes, then elderly lesbian couples were considered completely unmentionable.
Let’s face it, long-standing lesbian partnerships have never exactly been a big fixture on the Irish social scene. You could attend a hundred county society dinner dances, GAA matches, bring and buy sales, christenings or funerals without ever having being aware of an old and loving lesbian couple in your midst.
But you’d be quite wrong to think they were never there. As the oddly named but very funny and deeply moving new play from Dublin titled I Heart Alice Heart I now playing at the Irish Arts Center in New York makes clear, sometimes you just need to look a little harder to see what’s right in front of your face.
Actor and director Amy Conroy knows exactly how many stories have been written or edited out of the book of Ireland. In fact it was her impulse to record what was in danger of being lost that inspired this hilarious and very touching play that you absolutely should not miss.
Spotting two elderly women sharing a quick but passionate kiss in what they thought was a deserted supermarket aisle in a Crumlin shopping center, Conroy was emboldened to ask them about their lives, and this award winning play is the fascinating result.
In the beginning the two women were mortified that they were spotted at all. As one of the two Alices makes clear early on, having lived discreet lives on the very margins of Irish society, at first they were concerned for their safety, and then they were simply incredulous that anyone would be interested in their little love story at all.
It turned out they had been a couple sharing a home together for 29 happy years. As luck would have it they shared the same name, Alice, and one of them had once been married to a thoroughly decent man but he passed away young at 31.
The married Alice had never been in love with her husband, she reveals, but she had loved him deeply, and it was the greatest regret of her life that they had married in the first place.
The other Alice had been her true love all along, she says, but for years she had lacked the courage to admit it to herself, or to ever tell the object of her affection.
It goes badly for you when you find you can’t or won’t say what you really feel in matters of the heart. So it proved for the stay at home married Alice.
The other more free-spirited Alice moved to London and enjoyed multiple affairs, but she slowly discovered that bed hopping and booze aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
When her mother got sick free-spirited Alice returned to Ireland, she tells us, and she rekindled her friendship with the woman she left behind. The story of their awkward courtship is worth the ticket price alone.
It involves confronting years of Irish sexual repression, a barely touched homemade dinner and a bottle of the undrinkable Blue Nun wine for Dutch courage. It also involves peals of laughter and stories of staying in bed for three days.
As romantic how-we-became-involved tales go, this one – as performed by Conroy and her pitch perfect stage partner Clare Barrett – wins a gold star.
Alice and Alice look like any Irish housewives of their age and background (the wigs and makeup that transform the two much younger actors playing the roles are outstanding). They know they’re not poster women for the gay rights movement.
But having lived together for decades on their own terms and through the best and worst of times, their long and very happy marriage and the funny and heartfelt play at the Irish Arts Center that has resulted from it remind us what a miracle true love is in a world where there’s so little to be found.
I Heart Alice Heart I is playing at the Irish Arts Center until March 17. For tickets and showtimes visit www.irishartscenter.org.