So I’m standing in front of about twenty Polish actors of varying descriptions and I’m trying to fill them in on life in Belfast circa 1977. I’m telling them about my uncle who lived there as a teacher. One day he was sitting in the staff-room taking his lunch, which being the seventies most likely consisted of a cigarette and two slices of stale bread wrapped around a slice of courduroy. Three men burst in and threw a bag over his head. Yeah, those paramillitaries can be so blunt. They flung him into a van. He was interrogated with a gun to his head. Kind of like the quiz show, Who Wants To Be A Millinaire?, except there’s no ‘phone-a-friend’, and the ‘ask the audience’ option might lead to an immediate Jackson Pollock exhibition with my uncle’s brains as the paint.
The ‘quiz’ went on and on and he must have got all the questions right as they told him to wait an hour after they left at which point he could go free. He did as they told him and when he figured an hour had past, he pulled the bag off his head. He saw that he was in a house and ran outside. Some cat-crazy momentum sent him back to the school. He staggered up to the door looking like a man who had just eaten a hairdryer, when a BBC televison crew ran up to him;
‘Excuse me sir, can you tell us what you think about the teacher who was kidnapped here yesterday? Did you know him?’
Such stories are legion in Belfast, a city where your accent and the emphasis on certain vowels could mean the difference between spending the next six months on an extended coma-holiday or getting a job. My grandfather, Patrick McFadden, worked at Harland and Wolff shipyard, home of the Titanic. This was back in the 1940’s when everyone was supposed to be pulling together to help the War effort, but still he had to call himself ‘Anthony’ McFadden. He was a Catholic, but bizarrely his surname was Protestant and thus okay to use. But ‘Patrick’? The only thing more Catholic than Patrick would be to tattoo a picture of the Pope over his face and start singing the entire U2 back-catalogue.
Even after he got the job he had to be careful lest some trace element of his accent give him away. You see, they all speak the same up there in the North, only some people speak a little samer than others.
So this is one part of my role in helping out Teatr Slansk in Katowice, putting ‘The Troubles’ into context for their version of ‘The Wedding’, which will be set in 1970’s Belfast. A novel idea, and one that means the actors will be speaking their lines with urban Northern Ireland accents. This is my second role, teaching them the accent, its rhythm and cadences and that oh so charming way the Northern Irish have of ending every word as if it were asking the world’s politest question.
Initially this was worrying. Picture a room where twenty Polish thespians are saying? their? lines? like? this? For a moment I thought we’d been transported to a convalescent ward for teenage glue sniffers. I tried to help, explaining how the accent must be spoken as if one is a little girl who is very surprised. Not the easiest thing to do, especially if you’re a 300 pound man from Ruda doing a scene where you have to tell another man how many times you’d love to kill him.
But they’ve gotten the hang of it, how the Catholics accentuate their vowels a fraction more than the Protestants. They’ve succeeded in speaking Polish with a Belfast accent. This leaves them time to concentrate on more important things like acting and remembering their lines and remaining in an upright position while balancing three buckets of Guinness on their nose.
So slowly the plan is working. I’m spreading the Irish virus. No one is immune. So come to the show. Get infected.