Derek Byrne’s play Shadows tells the story of of two ex-lovers who meet in an alleyway, at a popular “cruising” spot for gay men.
He’s preparing for its premiere at the Dublin Fringe Festival next month. The play, his first, will be performed in the open air, in a laneway.
Byrne wrote it in the months after he lost his radio-station management job suddenly last year at the age of 53, when he was unable to find work.
“I began to realise I was writing about my own vulnerability and how I felt,” Byrne says, last week, at Two Pups café on Francis Street.
He’s ordered a mint tea and pours some from the pot into his mug, but spends no time sipping it. He’s too busy talking for the next hour and a half.
Byrne had two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and 20 years of experience in the community and voluntary sector. In four months searching for work, he racked up 26 pages of emails with rejections.
“Every day I would research, I would look,” he says. “After four months of getting [rejection emails] or simply not getting any response, I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Byrne says he began to suspect that the problem was his age.
After a visit to his local Intreo office, where he discussed his options, Byrne decided to return to education, he says.
In January, he began a course in creative thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship at Trinity College Dublin.
Byrne says his experience echoed that of his peers: they were people in their 40s, 50s and older who were going through a career slump.
“All very able people, from a whole range of different backgrounds, a range of different experiences,” he says.
“They were treated as if they were irrelevant, as if they had nothing to offer. All these wonderful people,” he says. “That really shocked me.”
Ireland’s population is ageing, and more older people are working, according to a report published earlier this month by Solas, the state organisation in charge of further education.
From 2008 to 2018, the “overall labour force participation rate” for people in their 50s increased from 70.9 percent to 75.3 percent, it says.
Those over 55 years old, though, have lower rates of employment than that, show Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation figures.
Its recent report on “Future Jobs Ireland 2019: Preparing Now for Tomorrow’s Economy” calls for an increase in the labour-force participation rate of people over 55, from 34 percent to more than 38 percent by 2024.
“Those attempting to re-enter the workforce may need flexibly delivered training to refresh their skills,” it says. “Employers may also need to revisit their approach to employing older workers and people with disabilities.”
“We do have a very youth-oriented society,” Byrne says. “You’re not aware of that until you feel like you’re being pushed out. I was actually shocked at how pushed out I felt.”
Byrne says people would tell him he was only 10 years away from retirement. “I was not going to accept being put into a box.”
The Workplace Relations Commission’s report for 2018 noted a “considerable increase” in complaints in relation to age, under the employment equality acts. They were up 343 percent from the year before, the report said.
Byrne says employers need to change how they see people like him. Even beyond that, he wants society as a whole to change how it handles ageing.
“We can begin again. We can tap into skills and ambitions and hopes that we have,” he says.
Byrne is a positive person, which helped him pick himself up, says Shane Quilty, a long-time friend. “There was an anxiousness but what he has got is a great resilience and belief in himself.”
Says Quilty: “He doesn’t give himself much time to mope around. He was very pragmatic.”
Working on Shadows
On Sunday afternoon, Byrne sits at a table, with his hands pressed to his mouth, watching the two actors in Shadows rehearse a tense scene.
The character of Anto is propositioning Darragh. There’s tape on the floor to make the various cues where the actor will be standing in the laneway.
Byrne walks towards Paddy Fagan, who is playing Anto to Shane G. Casey’s Darragh. “Don’t block him till the very last line,” he says.
“On the final come on, don’t block until then,” he says.
They’re in a large shed behind the home of Brian Merriman, the director of the Gay Theatre Festival, and have three weeks to nail their performances before the premiere on 7 September.
Byrne says he based the play on a chance encounter he had with an ex-partner five years ago. Walking down Grattan Bridge at 3am, they talked, but Byrne felt no closure.
“I felt really pissed off and angry and stupid and I thought, ‘I should have said this, I should have said that,’ and so the play is really the conversation I would have liked us to have had,” he says.
Says Fagan: “The observances from Derek to do with the scene or to do with the gay world are very true and very real.”
But the core message, he says, is more universal than it initially appears.
“These people look like they’re looking for sex, but they’re not,” says Fagan. “They’re looking for love, they’re looking for acceptance. There’s a vulnerability in this play.”
“It hits an awful lot of chords,” says Casey, who is straight. “They’re very real-life events. I found it very, very moving.”
Byrne says he always knew he wanted to “contribute to society”. Be it through his work in addiction studies and journalism or in the Seanad.
With the play he wants to fight against the “sanitisation” of gay culture in Ireland, he says.
It’ll be performed at 10pm each night, with audiences meeting at the Beer Market on High Street, before making their way to the laneway.
“I think the whole fact that they are both looking for late-night, anonymous sex. There’s a lot in that. Why do gay men have sex in laneways the middle of the night?” says Byrne. “Because they can, because it’s available.”
“I think in the gay scene I’m known as a bit controversial,” he says, with a smile.
The columnist and broadcaster has previously written about issues in the gay community, and some of his pieces – like one on his opposition to marriage – have not always been well-received.
After the play, Byrne will focus on his next venture: a bid for the Seanad, hoping to represent older people in Irish society.
“It’s not about the needs of an individual anymore, it’s about how can you contribute to the economy,” he says “The politics of our country has gone down that road. That needs to be challenged.”