The Irishness of Irish Americans has long been called into question in Ireland. From the moment they step off the dusty tour bus, or out of the Sacred Heart festooned taxi, their poignant quest for their authentic selves has frequently prompted mocking laughter from the locals.
Thankfully the heart is a redoubtable organ and can put up with such impiety. Because once it enters the equation sarcastic jibes are really no match for it.
Besides, all this mocking can be a two way street. If the Irish think they’ve cornered the market on authenticity and style they usually meet their comeuppance whenever Air Force One lands.
So the tensions and the attractions between the blow-in’s and the born-and-bred will probably always be with us, but they have rarely been as absorbingly staged as they are in playwright and performer Vivian Nesbitt’s one woman show "The Bark and the Tree."
Mary Eva Kelly, Nesbitt’s real life great-great-grandmother, was that most Irish of things, a romantic Nationalist poet in the 19th century. She lived through the Great Hunger, and what she witnessed first hand lit a fire in her head that turned her into a passionate lifetime advocate for Home Rule and Irish freedom.
Choosing the pen name Eva of the Nation (after the Nationalist newspaper of the day that printed her rousing verses) Kelly’s verse became an inspiration to a people who had just faced into a near extinction event.
We learn that Kelly’s fiancé, the doctor and journalist Kevin Izod O’Doherty, met a fate common to young Irish Nationalist men of his era. He was convicted of treason against the crown and sentenced to tens years transportation to an Australian penal colony. He was released after seven years.
Kelly waited for him, and during the course of those seven years she inspired herself and the country to unite in search of Ireland’s freedom.
It should be remembered that it took real courage and strength of character to do so. The country had been decimated by starvation, the people had been driven off their own land and the increasingly paranoid colonial government was deporting every agitator it could lay its hands on.
Eva’s salutatory example inspired Nesbitt during a crisis in her own life, as the play makes clear. In the early nineties Nesbitt sets off for Ireland, a budding playwright in search of her famous ancestor and – being in her twenties – herself. But she gets much more than she bargained for from Ireland and from the legacy that is handed down to her.
Onstage Nesbitt grapples with the past, the Irish present and the often conflicting desires of the Irish American experience. Keeping these three narratives in sync requires a careful hand, and Nesbitt is equal to the task.
We have had many plays by Irish authors about returning emigrants, but surprisingly few have been written by the emigrants themselves.
Part of the pleasure of "The Bark and the Tree" is watching Nesbitt contend with these disparate narrative strands. She intuitively understands where the gold is and goes directly to it, albeit it at a leisurely pace, but with a facility that undercuts the sentimental portrayal of Irish American heritage seekers.
Sometimes you have to understand your tribe’s story to make sense of your own. Nesbitt shows us how a nation in crisis, and a culture facing into dissolution, can flounder but eventually gather itself up, take stock, express its journey in words to make sense of itself and the road ahead.
Nesbitt’s story is her ancestors’ story, and it’s Ireland’s story too. In Ireland it is said that we all live in each other’s shadow, and the truth is we all live in each other’s stories too.
"The Bark and the Tree" explores how far we can range from the stories that have shaped us, but it also reminds us that we can find our way back, and in doing so add to the story, and possibly even uncover a happy ending.
"The Bark and the Tree" was produced as part of the "United Solo" festival of one person plays on Theatre Row in New York. The festival staged a number of other notably Irish plays like Liliana Ashman’s "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gardai" to Pius McGrath’s "The Mid-Knight Cowboy."
Having LGBT themes, they somehow escaped wider notice on this go around. It seems there are still stories that must struggle to get told.