NEIL JORDAN, Gabriel Byrne and Jim Sheridan are household names. Famous for all their film work, less is known about their road to success. These people, and many more appear in Break A Leg, Peter Sheridan’s new memoir based in the arts world of the ’70s and ’80s. And it makes for fascinating reading.
The book has been a long time coming. The last one, a novel, appeared back in 2003.
“After My Big Fat Love, I wanted to write my drinking story,” says Sheridan.
“I haven’t touched a drink in 20 years. I made an attempt, and wrote 80,000 words. It took two years, but when I’d finished I felt, ‘it just doesn’t work’. It didn’t fly for me.
“So I left it aside, and wrote it as a novel. That was another two years. It didn’t work, and I didn’t know why.”
It took a four year old boy to solve the problem.
“My Grandson, Xabi said to me, ‘What did you do in the old days?’ At 60, it was kind of shocking. I’ve always seen myself as a vibrant young fellow. And he thinks you are an old man at the end of your life.
“I realised I needed to tell Xabi what I did in my life in a tone that honours me, and honours the people I worked with and the world I stepped into. The book became an address to my grandson and once I had that tone, I never had a moment’s problem. But it took another three years to write.”
We read of his late teens, when his father introduced him to acting in a local troupe. We follow him through his young marriage and fatherhood, his forays into Trinity and UCD; his work on the buses, and his stint in journalism. And we share that vibrant, exciting time, when, along with Jim, and with Neil Jordan, he toured Ireland, visited America, and acted and directed work at The Project Theatre. It was a vibrant time.
“We were kids who had energy and no fear,” he says. “We wanted to take on whatever the issue was, and we weren’t going to be told what to do; not by Dublin Corporation, or Dáil Éireann.”
One of their early successes, was The Liberty Suit; a play written by Sheridan in collaboration with Mannix Flynn. “The play was saying ‘this guy is really talented and has this energy’. Mannix was awesome in that play. He was like a whirlwind.
“He had transformed himself from an arsonist, a young offender and victim of clerical abuse to the star of a show based on his own life. Where else would that happen? Not in London or Manchester. It could only happen in Dublin.”
For all their success though, the life of theatre wasn’t bringing in a lot of money. And that hasn’t changed.
“I’ve always lived precariously,” he says. “The phone being cut off was a constant. As a freelance director, if you’re not working in the Abbey, the Gate, or one of the subsidised theatres, you’re at the margins.
“I often look back and think I could have done well, financially, doing other things. I’m not a stupid guy; I’m quite smart, but I’ve always been drawn to books, theatre, creativity, helping people, and animating. I’m good at that, so I keep getting pulled back in.”
Sheridan’s only regret, is that he was so caught up in the life of the theatre, that his marriage, and his four children, suffered.
“My two sons, the eldest, would have issues with me. I could be angry. I lost the head a few times when I shouldn’t have. Work took precedence.”
It wasn’t just work that drove him though. It was also the drink. The memoir ends in 1986, when his drinking is beginning to get out of control. There’s to be a follow up, in which he details the final drinking years, which took him to a the point, that it was give up drink, or lose his marriage, and maybe his life.
In the early days when he was working with his brother Jim, Sheridan became friends with Christie Brown. He adapted Brown’s memoir, Down all the Days for the stage. The brothers worked on it together. And it was Peter, not Jim, who first met the Conlon family — famous as the Guildford Four. He wrote a play about them, but nothing came of it.
Does it bug him that his brother, moving on with these projects, turned them, and himself, into such a success?
“My only regret is the way it panned out,” he says. “Jim and I worked together, quite intensely, for 15 years. We co-directed each other’s plays, acted together, and all that. I regret, that when Jim went to America, we weren’t able to work together. I felt cut out in a bad way. But I think he needed that.
“When Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker won Oscars for My Left Foot I felt it was an amazing day for our family, and the work we were doing. I felt he just happened to be the one in the limelight. We had made mistakes with my screenplay; we had the child on the stage doing nothing. We could both see it didn’t work. In My Left Foot he made the kid tactile and involved in family life.
“So I had nothing but good feelings. I always felt Jim was the most talented director I ever worked with, bar none. It was great to see someone as brilliant as him reaching that point, coming from where we had come from.”
His parents attended the Oscars.
“They had a great time, though they didn’t really like California. They weren’t prepared for the heat. That was in 1990. Eight years later, in 1998, I was adjudicating the May Festival — a huge international drama festival — in Dundalk. I asked my ma to come with me.
“She was sitting in the front row of the dress circle, and at the end, I asked her to take a bow. The whole audience applauded. She was somebody. She was from Dundalk, and 70 years later she was back. She always told that story. That was her highlight, not the Oscars.”
Peter has achieved much too, though in a different area of the arts. His first love is for community theatre; something his older brother would not be remotely interested in. His work in Ballybough in the 1980s was held up as a beacon. The company were invited to the Royal Court Theatre in London, and his work was recognised internationally.
“Again, I was working for nothing to make something happen. But it was groundbreaking work. I loved every minute of it. I loved creating something out of nothing, and putting people on the stage. Especially the women. They were strong and amazing. I had the time of my life.”
Early on, Sheridan won the Rooney Prize. Another achievement was being nominated for an Irish Times nonfiction award for his memoir, 44. But perhaps the biggest accolade was winning a raft of prizes for The Breakfast, a short film, funded by the Irish Film Board, about a child in an industrial school.
His brother, Jim Sheridan, though personally nominated for an Oscar six times, never actually won one. So by winning the Canadian equivalent, a Rocky, in Banff in 1999, it could be said that Peter has achieved more than his more famous brother. Peter roars with laugher when I suggest this, and is still smiling when the interview is over.