His play, 'Liverpool Fantasy,' a humorous take on the Beatles if they had broken up immediately and tried to reunite, was a hit in Dublin.
Now he returns with a play of a different sort. 'Rebel in the Soul' deals with the confrontation in 1951 between Dr. Noel Browne, minister for health in the Irish government, and Dr. John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, over Browne’s Mother and Child Health Scheme.
Browne's family had been ravaged by tuberculosis and the 35-year-old minister had already set in motion policies that would eventually eradicate the disease from Ireland. He next planned to give free pre-natal and health care to Irish women and their children.
Young, arrogant and passionate, he arrived at the Episcopal Palace for his final meeting with the Archbishop. Both men and the destiny of Ireland were changed by the events of the evening.
When he’s not staging plays and bringing the house down with Black 47, Kirwan hosts and produces Celtic Crush for SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Blink and you miss him!
I sat down with him long enough to spit out a brief dialogue:
How is writing a play different from writing the plot of a song?
They're very different. For one you have to be sober, the other not so much! The scope of a play is just so much bigger.
Many of the principles are the same though. You need to be able to edit, keep to the point and always maintain a sense of drama. You also must keep the characters true to themselves in both.
Playwriting is all about re-writing. Songs depend more on an initial inspiration.
Does one feed one another? Do they conflict?
Well, the Black 47 song “Sleep Tight in New York City” eventually became the play Rockin' the Bronx and then a novel of the same name. I guess you could write a play or novel about most Black 47 songs, but you really need that impetus and the desire to spend a long time with the subject matter.
I had a feeling that no one else would write in depth about Bainbridge Avenue and the emigration of the eighties and nineties up there, so it was a natural. But it took a long time to do and wasn't easy.
What was the inspiration for the play? How long did it take to get this together?
I always intended writing about Dr. Noel Browne. He was singular character in the Ireland I grew up in. A passionate, difficult man who changed the country by leading the fight to eradicate tuberculosis.
He was also imperious, obstinate and very driven, a flawed character who made a real difference. His conflict with Dr. John Charles McQuaid set the stage for the eventual separation of church and state in Ireland.
Amazingly, the play seems very current because so many of the issues, like health insurance and separation of church and state dealt with back in 1951 in Ireland, are still vital here in the U.S. today.
I know something like Liverpool Fantasy starts off as a play and became a book. Is that a possible end-goal here?
I don't think so, although I find the period of the fifties in Ireland really interesting. But the subject is very sensitive and controversial still, so it's better dealt with in drama than a novel.
I'm very lucky that Charlotte Moore of the Irish Rep loves the play and will direct the reading. She made a very important suggestion early on that has really brought the play to life.
Sometimes when you're so involved in a subject it's hard to see the forest for the trees.
What's next for the band?
After this spate of festivals we're taking October off. Everyone has their own projects. We'll be back in Connolly's on November 12 for a special Saturday.
Then I'm off to Australia and we'll reform on New Year's Eve in Times Square. I had hoped to put together Revolution, a compilation of the political songs of Black 47, but A Funky Ceili, the compilation of up-tempo, humorous songs is still causing a stir, so there's no rush.
(For information on the readings, call the Irish Repertory to reserve a seat at 212-727-2737. Readings are free, but RSVP required.)