PETER SHERIDAN doesn’t have a writer’s process. There are no mind maps scrawled on a white board in his office or Post-it notes affixed to the wall.
The writer says he prefers his ideas to swirl around in his head where they often coalesce into something much more interesting…
“A lot of the stuff in The Vaults has been occupying me over the past 10 years,” admits the playwright, screenwriter and director. “It also gave me the opportunity to read around and find out aspects of Irish history that I didn’t know.”
Peter has always had an interest in Irish history but he was wary of following the well-beaten path for this project. Instead of regurgitating facts and rehashing trivia, he wanted to dig deeper and unearth some fresh insights.
Instead of browsing historical records, he wanted to explore Ireland’s national character by delving into alternative theories, folk stories and urban legends.
Instead of repeating the same old story, he wanted to “tell the stories of how this island’s people have always found a way to survive”.
Take St Patrick, the saint who supposedly drove all the snakes out of Ireland. St Patrick is widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, using the shamrock plant to explain the concept of the Trinity.
This is how the story is told in folk histories but Peter’s research led him down a different path. “Back then everyone was looking for the cure-all with herbs and holy wells,” he points out.
The shamrock — or more specifically wood-sorrel — was hailed for its curative properties at the same time that St Patrick arrived in Ireland, he adds.
Maybe the saint latterly associated with parades, parties and pints of Guinness was in fact a medicine man and a mystic?
The Monto scene is another example of Peter’s lateral thinking.
Instead of portraying what was once the biggest Red Light District in Europe in broad brush strokes, the writer considered the characters that might have populated it.
Enter Molly Malone.
Most historians and genealogists contend that Molly Malone – the tragic fishmonger at the heart of the famous folk tune – never actually existed. But there’s another theory — supported by the discovery of an 18th century book that contains the earliest known version of the ballad — that Molly may in fact have sold cockles and mussels by day and turned tricks by night.
Sheridan’s characterisation of Molly Malone was partly inspired by another famous Irish folk song, ‘Dicey Reilly’.
“Poor old Dicey Reilly was a prostitute working in the Monto and when they closed it down she was one of the few prostitutes who refused to go into the Magdelene Laundry ” he explains
“She found herself a little flat in Fitzgibbon Street and someone was so enamoured by her that they wrote this song about her. It’s a beautiful dirge to a prostitute in her old age. But I guarantee, if you stopped 100 people in Dublin, they wouldn’t know where that song came from.”
Etymology is another font of inspiration for the writer. The Life After Cromwell scene, for instance, gave him an opportunity to explore the dark origins of nursery rhymes.
“Humpty Dumpty was about the Civil War in Britain and ‘silver bells and cockle shells’ were instruments of torture,” he explains.
The scripts are also lightly woven with Gaelic words, though the writer was careful not to introduce “too much verbal stuff that would only be meaningful to Irish people”.
“Unless it’s a word like ‘banshee’,” he adds. “Most people know that word, or they’ve heard the word even if they don’t necessarily
PETER IS ONE of seven children brought up on Sheriff Street, a working class area in Dublin’s inner city.
His father, Peter Sheridan snr set up a drama group in his forties, which inspired his sons John, Jim and Peter jnr to carve out their own careers in the arts.
Peter and Jim ran a children’s theatre company in the early ‘70s and went on to become founding members of the Project Arts Centre — a space where artists could perform progressive, boundary-breaking work.
In later years, Jim directed Oscar-nominated Irish films My Left Foot, In the Name of the Fatherand In America amongst others, while Peter wrote and directed Borstal Boy, a film based on the autobiographical novel by infamous Irish writer Brendan Behan.
Peter, a winner of the RooneyPrize for Irish Literature, also wrote about his closely-knit family in the non-fiction books 44: A Dublin Memoir and Forty-Seven Roses.
His late father, a larger-than-life character, features heavily in the celebrated memoirs, and the writer says he continues to be inspired by him.
“He just loved telling stories,” he says. “When he went to the movies with me ma he’d come home and give us an hour of the film. He would act out every scene in the movie!
“He played brilliant games with us when we were young and he had a great ability to get down to the kids’ level.
“When we went on our summer holidays to the sandy beaches around north Dublin — Rush, Loughshinny and Portrane — we would all get into the water with him playing ducks. He’d dive in off the harbour first as ‘daddy duck’ and me and my brother and sister, all his little ducks, would follow.”
Sheridan says his father was “very in the world and very present to it” and that’s precisely how he wants visitors to feel when they leave The Vaults.
“I want people to feel like they’ve seen something that is in the world and of the world and alive to the world. Something funny, something life-enhancing – something that makes their day.”