THE SCENE is Belfast. Patrick Galvin and a friend have finished a rehearsal at the Lyric Theater. They've bought some liquor and are off to have a drink. Suddenly, shooting breaks out in the street, Galvin flings himself to the ground. "Get your bloody priorities right," yells his friend, "save the booze."
"You see, in a way you get use to it," Galvin says. "You are no longer shocked. It is sad because if you are no longer shocked at death and destruction, how in God's name do you know you're alive?"
Patrick Galvin, Irish poet, playwright and folksinger, served as Resident Dramatist at the Lyric from 1974-1977. He returned to Belfast from England when the trouble broke out, because "as an Irishman I feel I ought to be here in Belfast."
Now, visiting the United States for the first time, Galvin read his poetry at the Library of Congress and local universities where audiences responded to his wonderful Irish wit with warm applause and spontaneous laughter.
Drinking coffee and chain smoking, Galvin says, "It is very easy to be romantic about Ireland, and the farther you get away from it, the more romantic you become. When I first arrived in Belfast, there was an explosion in the bus station. I remember seeing soldiers sweep up the remains, and you could not tell whether they were Irish, English, Catholic or Protestant, and that tends to knock the romance out of it."
His plays reflect the suffering which has become a way of life for the Irish.
The first play he put on at the Lyric was called "Nightfall to Belfast." It deals with the conflicts within the Catholic family in war-torn Belfast. A character in the play mentions the number of people who have died in Belfast since 1969. "And every day we had to alter that number," says Galvin.
On the last night of the play, a group of paramilitaries put a 200-pound bomb outside the theater. "Fortunately," he says, "the director of the theater, Mary O'Malley, had parked her car against the wall of the theater." The car exploded in flames, but the theater was not damaged. The play went on as scheduled.
"These are the kinds of things that are likely to happen," Galvin shrugs. "You don't have time to think about whether you're risking your life or not. I don't think about putting on plays interms of the risk involved. I write about what I see and what I feel. If you start to think about risking your life, you do nothing."
But there are other problems. In one scene in "Nightfall to Belfast," a bomb goes off in the street. "We wanted to get the surprise effect," says Galvin, "but, because it is not uncommon for a bomb to go off 10 yards in front of you, several people ran out of the theater. Consequently, in future performances, we had to warn the people in the audience. It ruined the affect."
One night, during the height of the troubles, there were only six people in the audience. Galvin thought it was historic that there were more people in the cast than in the audience, so he got their autographs and framed them for the theater.
Yet, despite threats and problems, the Lyric Theater has remained open every night throughout the 10 years of its existence.
Of the seven plays that Galvin has written, "We Do It For Love," in 1975, was his most successful and broke box office records at the Lyric, running initially for 17 weeks, and then being brought back by public demand for another 14 weeks. "Oddly enough," says Galvin, "I don't think it is my best play. It happened to come at exactly the right moment."
The play is a bitter satire on the troubles in Belfast.
"Many people considered it inadvisable to put it on," says Galvin, who felt instinctively that it should be presented.
At the outset of the play, two female characters, a Catholic and a Protestant, stand on opposite sides of the state. During the course of the play, they gradually move closer together, both physically and through dialogue. At the end of the play, they are actually touching and singing a song Galvin wrote, "To Hell With the Pope and King William and the Wars That We Fought in Belfast."
"It was the greatest moment," Galvin says. "The audience stood and extended their hands to the women. The play seemed to act as a catharsis at the time. People who had never before been to the theater came just to see this.
"I chose to bring women together rather than men because in a situation like that, or in any war, men can always make a profit, even if it is only glory. Women can never make a profit in war unless you consider grief being a profit, and I don't."
Some people say the play contributed to the peace marches. Galvin isn't sure whether it did or not. "I hope it did, but that wasn't my intention. I wrote about what I saw and felt and what was going on."
Galvin had little formal education. He grew up with his seven brothers and sisters in a small cottage in Cork. His father was a great ballad singer and "knew more about Irish folklore than anyone I have ever known. He was illeterate in the conventional sense, but he had a great influence on me."
At 70, his father learned to read and write. He once wrote to Galvin, "Beware of drugs and foreign women." Galvin laughs. "I should be so lucky.
"I was brought up in the ballad tradition," he continues. As a child he'd find a song and get a local printer to print it. He'd sell the broadsheets in the pubs and on the streets in Ireland.
"There is a great tradition that nobody would buy unless you would sing or recite the poems, so I'd do both. I began to write poetry. I had great romantic visions of myself roaming the streets or Ireland, singing and reading my own verses and also writing scurrilous verses about publicans who refused to give a poet a free drink," he says. "It took me a long time to get out of that illusion."
Patrick Galvin, at 48, has recorded four LPs of Irish street songs, three LPs of Irish political ballads and one collection of "Irish Songs of Resistance." He has directed plays of Yeats and Beckett. He was editor of the literary magazine, "Chanticleer" and coeditor of "Threshold," a literary magazine in Belfast.
Currently, Galvin writes a column on folk music for "Hibernia," a literary, political and financial magazine in Dublin. He lectures on Irish drama at Queen's University Belfast, does book reviews and does readings of his own works. Hif fourth volume of poetry will be published this year.
"I published my first volume of poems in . . ." he pauses, smiles, and says, "I'm hopeless on dates." Taking a book from his briefcase, he says, "1957, 'Heart of Grace.'" The second collection, "Christ in London," was published in 1961 and the third, "The Wood Burners," in 1974.
Galvin is a loner. A night person. "In Ireland it's only the shank of the evening at midnight," he says. "I prefer to work at night." Usually he stays up till 4 or 5 a.m., sleeps till 10 a.m., corrects his writing, and sleeps a couple of hours in the afternoon because, he says, "I hate the afternoon . . . everything looks gray and dull. There is silence and isolation late at night."
Galvin is working on a new play for Jim Waring, the director of the Olney Theater here, which Galvin hopes will premiere this year. The play, which may be called "Circus," is set in Ireland, but has a more international flavor. "I think a lot of Irish politics is a circus." He worked in a circus for six weeks for experience, to get the atmosphere of what it is all about. He laughs heartily. "I hate to tell you what I did . . . I shoveled elephant - for weeks."
Galvin is reminded of an appointment and glances at his watch impatiently. "This mania people have for time. They should live in Ireland a few years; they'd soon get out of that."
He orders more coffee, lights another cigarette, and continues talking.
You get the feeling that Patrick Galvin's commitment is not only to writing but to life. He is concerned about Ireland, but more, he is concerned about the children in Ireland.
Galvin and some friends took some Belfast children on a holiday. After two days, the children were bored and wanted to go home. "They missed throwing rocks at the British soldiers and hijacking buses. The horror of that is what are you going to replace the excitement with when the troubles are over? The men will go back to their jobs and romanticize about the fighting, but what happens to the kids?"
Yet with all the trouble in Belfast, Galvin says it is one of the most civilized cities in Europe. "The people in Belfast are resilient. They have tremendous determination to survive and they will survive because they have a sense of humor. If they can go on living their normal lives, or what passes for normal lives, I can do the same."