One Monday evening in September 2017, playwright Jim Nolan stood with 15,000 people on the Quay in Waterford.
It was a bittersweet occasion, as the people of the city welcomed their hurling team home after a crushing defeat by Galway in the All-Ireland final.
Like any good writer, however, Nolan saw creative potential in the pathos-tinged homecoming. Coupled with an image of an iconic Waterford landmark, he had the inspiration for his next play.
Nolan, 60, had not written a play based in his native city since his sensational debut The Gods are Angry, Miss Kerr, was staged in 1985, by the Red Kettle theatre company, which he co-founded.
“In the space of 10 years, I had written three plays — Brighton in 2010, Dreamland in 2014 and Johnny I Hardly Knew You in 2016. And so I was waiting, which essentially is what you do, you can’t go looking for plays.
However, I had resolved that whatever the play would be, it would be set again in Waterford city. And then in July 2017, I saw a photograph of the Red Iron bridge in the Waterford News and Star.
"I’d say it was taken in the late evening, and there was an autumnal feel to it — it was bathed in this very warm orange light. And I thought that’s where the play will be set.”
The rusting former railway bridge outside the city, reaching across the Suir from Waterford to Kilkenny, was once a favoured haunt of generations of Waterfordians.
“I had no story, no characters but I had the setting. I thought I would really love to write a play for, and to some extent about, the people who gathered there when they were kids,” says Nolan.
“The characters in the play are now in their middle years and they return to the bridge to mark the death of one of their friends. And then the final part of the jigsaw was down on the quay, on that Monday in September, after we lost to Galway.
"And I thought this would be the evening on which this play is set, and for some reason, these characters are not where they want to be, which is down on the Quay, but actually out on the bridge.”
Waterford has suffered from lack of investment in the last few decades,especially since the closure of the Waterford Crystal manufacturing facility. Culturally, the demise in 2014 of Red Kettle, which in its 30 years in existence became one of the country’s leading theatre companies, was also a huge blow. Nolan felt it was time once again for the Waterford voice to be heard in his work.
“Being in the rehearsal room with the cast, to be seeing Waterford, and to be hearing that voice and that accent, it has been an enormous pleasure.
"When I look back on 30 years of play writing, I kind of hid behind these fictional towns that gave me the distance I thought was necessary to be able to write. I regret that I haven’t been back here as a writer more often, because it is a voice that has not been heard.”
The play also marks the return of the late lamented Red Kettle, at least in name, as well as in spirit.
“I don’t want to dwell on the fact that what was once a great theatre company died. That’s a fact — it was long after I was gone, it went in a certain direction, it closed. I realised that neither in my time or in the time of my successors had the name been patented and so I went about acquiring the trademark.
It was probably more out of nostalgia, but I think also with a sort of vague sense that an occasion might arise when it would be appropriate to use it again.
"I have no illusions whatsoever about setting up a theatre company... that day is gone. But I’m really thrilled about being able to put that name up again. Like the Red Iron bridge, it was part of the community.”