“Little John Nee does for the craggy rocks of the North-West what Dylan Thomas did for the lush valleys of Wales” Irish Times Review
John Nee’s ‘The Derry boat’ was a tour de force that began in ’98, inspired by the idea that “love is passed on”, as John explains, “it was the story of my people”.
Commissioned by the Earagail Arts festival and directed by Paraic Breathnach, the show developed such momentum, after its initial three show performance in Donegal, moving on to a full tour of Ireland, selling out shows in Scotland and touring the USA, while also being nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in 2001.
But, as with all artistic pivotal points there is a journey of discovery leading to that connection between the artist and their audience, John’s journey started in Glasgow where he was steeped in Donegal culture, “My mother was born in 1920 in Donegal, the emigrant population at the time would have been very much attached to Donegal,” as was John, who would spend every summer there.
“The summers were idyllic, even though it would be raining and wet, it was beautiful coming from the city, with the sense of freedom. In the summers Feda O’Donnell busses and McGinley’s busses, would leave the Gorbals in Glasgow and they would drive on the ferry. What would happen at the start of the summer, ones mother would take one down to the Gorbals, say to somebody, oh such and such, you’re going over to Donegal? Would you keep an eye on him? And you’d go over to Donegal by yourself, at seven or eight years old and spend the summer there, I had lovely times outside Letterkenny.”
This memory was to feature in John’s play ‘The Derry Boat’, as were many others.
At twelve John moved back to Letterkenny, writing shows and doing regular gigs with his band by the time he was fifteen.
Leaving school in ’76, John explains, “at that stage there was no real arts education, or no notion that you could possibly make a living out of it.”
Undeterred and bitten by the artist bug, John continued to gig while working for a brief time in a printers, that was until, “The Sex Pistols happened and the whole punk thing, I went to London to become a famous punk, and ended up working on the building sites,” John smiles.
“When I went to London and I was writing poetry, around that time John Cooper Clarke was out and poetry started to be seen as something that could be performed.”
Moving back to Ireland in ’82 John started doing performance poetry on the street in Dublin, before moving on to Charlie Chaplin, “incredible things happened, just the magic of that character, because everyone already knew him, in France I had a beautiful situation where old women would come up to me and they would press money into my hand and the would look into my eyes like you were an old lover. I had more adventures and more magical things happen as Chaplin, like one day there was a house fire, I had just finished a gig and I was coming back to my flat in Dun Laoghaire dressed a Charlie, a woman came running out of her house with baby in arms, her basement flat was in fire, I went running in, the cooker was in flames, I got a nappy and started to beat it down, suddenly this human chain forms behind me out of this little scullery, people passing in stuff to put out the fire, the fire was out and there was a line of people who didn’t know who was at the front, and then I came out as Charlie Chaplin, tipped my hat and waddled off.”
John’s storytelling is mesmerising whether it is on stage on a personal level, with anecdotes and life stories enough to fill an infinite amount of plays. On average over the past decade John has written at least a play a year, with commissions from Axis Theatre in Ballymun, Dublin, An Grianán Theatre, Donegal, and Cumbernauld Theatre Company and the Scottish touring theatre Consortium, Glasgow, John has written and performed inspirational shows from ‘The Mental’ to ‘Rural Electric’, children’s theatre plays and pantomimes.
Nee is a genius…mesmeric and hilarious, ferociously funny, are just a few of the comments written about John, whether it is writing, performing, creating music, most of all he is inspirational because of his generosity as an artist and performer who has an understanding of the human spirit borne from his own unique journey.
“I don’t want to be airy fairy about inspiration I want to be practical about it, inspiration is your motivation, lots of people say it is more perspiration than inspiration, which is very true, but you have to have a good reason to perspire.”
At present John is in the throws of writing a new show for touring during 2008, “the show I am working on at the moment is called ‘The Mountain Bar’, (working title) I’m at Broad strokes in the writing of it at the moment, like that it chrysalises every day, it is set at the foot of Mount Errigal, a story within a bar, a story with in a story within a story, a bit like a thousand and one nights.”
While also touring his show ‘Star of Stage, Screen and Street Corners’ featuring highlights from some of his best known plays, which is also the title of a documentary by Rosie Nic Cionnaith currently being produced on his life and work.
On a closing note, I question John on where his infinite energy for writing comes from, “I write haiku every day, I find haiku a great discipline for getting to the essence, if I’m writing a script it is really great writing a haiku as well, I might write five pages then I write a haiku about the subject and you get straight to the essence of it, it’s really good to lead to editing, because if shows me what I a really trying to say is, then your five pages, I can let go of them much easier, I am also aware though that nothing is ever lost, and often like that I have pages and pages of writing and they might inspire two lines, that are totally not included in that, those two lines might be so good.”
Donegal Playwright published in Homes & Lifestyle NI
Words by Tina O Rourke