Jarlath Tivnan


Jarlath is a playwright and actor originally from Roscommon, living and creating in Galway for the last ten years. He spoke to us about how rural Ireland and sense of community shaped his worldview and his love for raw, ordinary people.


Photos and Words: Julia Monard

What is your Galway story?

I’m originally from Boyle in County Roscommon and came to NUI Galway in 2008. There was a subconscious draw to Galway; I had no interest in Dublin, Cork or Limerick – the typical college hubs. I felt very comfortable here very quickly – it was almost inexplicable. I made a beeline for the drama desk on SOCs day and never looked back. I did too many plays, failed lots of exams and in the last year of college, I got cast in the stage version of The Butcher Boy. The show was a big success in the Arts Festival and went down very well with audiences. I got my first professional job from that. I spent the last couple of years jumping around the country, but Galway always seemed like the natural place to come back to.


What are you working on right now?

At the very moment, I am adapting a novel for a theatre company to turn into a play in a couple of months’ time. It’s a great novel by a writer I admire very much, and his world speaks to me. It’s about rural Ireland, which is where I grew up, so I know the characters, I know the people. It doesn’t directly lend itself to theatre, but that is the challenge and I look forward to it. I’m always writing my own stuff on the side – that’s very important. There are always shows coming up – I’ll be in Port Authority by Conor McPherson with Decadent Theatre Company in the new year.


What are some highlights of your year?

The Galway International Arts Festival is always a highlight. I’ve been in it since 2012 and it’s one of the best festivals in Ireland. I did a show by Martin McDonagh called The Skull in Connemara with Pat Short – that was a great experience. We did it for a couple of weeks in Galway and for the whole month of August in the Olympia. It was lovely to walk into the dressing room and see pictures of Bono and Johnny Cash and all these legendary people who wandered around those halls. I did stuff with Fergoli theatre in Galway too. Everything I do is a highlight – I just love doing what I’m doing.

Why do you create art?

I always like to distill it down to something very simple. There’s an awful amount of talk in the art world and not enough doing. I love telling stories of ordinary people; that’s what fascinates me the most. It’s thrilling to be given a part in a play and figure out why this person does the things they do. Understanding and empathising with their actions is a thrill for me. It’s the same when I write something – a huge draw is to put ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Often, I just see someone passing by on the street and they might have a certain look or have a specific way of walking. My natural inclination is to say ‘Why are they walking like that? Why is that hat cocked at that angle?’ So, I just start making up stories that sort of trail behind them.


Is there any particular art that inspired you?

Film was my first big love when I was a child. I used to be fascinated by character-driven films and the darker and the weirder, the better. I used to be obsessed with films that I shouldn’t have been obsessed with as a child and maybe that’s informed my fascination with taking on or writing characters. I was obsessed with the good Batman films in the nineties, but Batman wasn’t my superhero – it was The Joker and The Penguin. I was just sucked in by the characters, Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, Edward Scissorhands – people like that. The stranger and the more impenetrable the better. I always read a lot as well, writers like Roald Dahl And R L. Stine were very important to me.


What about personal experiences that influenced you?

My upbringing has had a huge impact on what fascinates me and even my style of writing or finding go-to emotions for a play. Luckily enough, I am not one of these tortured souls – I had a great childhood, I lived out in the country and grew up with my granny in the family home. My parents and my aunties and uncles are of an older generation and they’re the type that still go on ‘the rambles’ to visit each other. It’s all stories and laughing – the typical country conversations about people and latest news. Not consciously, but I soaked all that up – that tradition of people, the welcoming, as well as very particular speech patterns and the way they deliver things. Particularly my mother’s side is very steeped in traditional Irish music, so that is definitely informative in terms of movement and timing of scripts – every good writer has a really good rhythm. Then my father’s side are very earthy people and are so theatrical and dramatic in their natural environment. It’s amazing to listen to.


How would you describe Generation 2020 in your circle?

I like to surround myself with doers. The truly best artists are good ordinary people. Any faff or attitude, I often find, is people compensating for their lack of something else. There’s no greater pleasure than being in a play with good people who just want to get to the heart of the thing and put on a good show for the audience. With the people I surround myself in the artistic world, the circle is small. They’re productive and just normal.

“One of the most positive legacies would be for Galway to be looked upon as a serious place to be in the artistic world. A place where you can, like a mole, come out from the ground onto the bigger stage.”

How would you describe Galway to someone who’s never been here before?

It’s called Galway City, but it’s a glorified town and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re artistically inclined, it’s brimming with energy. As cities go, it’s safe, it’s warm. There’s something a bit off about Galway too, but in a good way. It’s not your typical humdrum city life. In the summer, it’s just buzzing with festival after festival and even if you’re not into that kind of thing, I think life around the place is very healthy. It’s a city on the edge of the world. You can be amongst shops and pubs and restaurants but walk ten minutes and you’re over by the sea. It’s just a gorgeous thing, to be between two different worlds within minutes of each other. It’s a beautiful city.


Is there one thing that’s guaranteed to make you emotional?

Seeing vulnerable people. Even if it’s just a crack in someone’s usually very hard exterior – finding the Achilles’ heel within them. If a person finds themselves in a moment where if somebody touched them slightly, they’d crumble. There’s such a tension in that. It’s sadder to see someone trying to fight an emotion, when you can see the battle.


Where do you feel most free?

Often when I’m line-learning to myself, I go to the first beach in Salthill because people don’t go there. I take off my boots and socks and I roll up my jeans. The tide goes way out and you feel extraordinarily free there, you can just gab away. I feel very free at home. You dress down, put on your stupid soft trousers and just be yourself. I feel free even in a very tight corner of a room writing something that is good. Stephen King wrote in a caravan next to a dryer and a washing machine. For me, it can be a little cubby hole, if I have enough room to move the elbow.


Is there something that gives you strength if you’re feeling down?

Conversation with a good friend, music, family. Personally, if I’m ever down, familiarity is very important to me. People or people’s voices would bring me up. There are certain podcasts I’ve listened to for years now. I listen to these voices and I purposely never looked up the pictures of the people I hear, but I feel like I know them and that’s good enough for me. Music informs me every day and it changes my mood. I often pick a movie soundtrack before I go on stage that pertains to the character I’m playing. Sometimes words would distract, but the pure music conjures up the feelings I need to start a play with.

Is there a quote that most represents you right now?

It is a Seamus Heaney quote. ‘Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.’ There’s nothing fancy about that quote, it’s very direct, which I like. That word ‘hope’ fascinates me a lot. It’s a word that’s lacking in the current climate. A droplet of hope is very important in anything that I might want to create. I’m very intrigued by the depth that people can go, the wallops that people can get in life, but I need some hope at the end, ’cause otherwise, what’s the point? There’s enough tragedy out there, just a glimmer of hope is needed all the time.


What do you feel is missing in Galway with regards to culture?

There’s so much culture in Galway you almost don’t know where to put it all. The financial support is very low. You put in these biblical-sized funding applications and more often than not you get what’s left at the back of the couch and it can be a bit disheartening. The culture is chomping at the bit in Galway, it’s just the opportunities, a little springboard that’s missing.


What do you hope Galway 2020 would achieve for your generation?

Give it the stage to showcase itself. I really hope there are specific events that showcase the people that are not on top of the mountain, but could be. Genuine artists that have been trying for so long – those people need a leg up in 2020. Individuals and collectives, very easily researched online, that even in just past decade have been producing stuff and entertaining people against the odds.


What would you like to see happening in 2020?

I am still a little confused as to what the 2020 year is. Is it one big long festival? Will there be an annual program? I’d just love to see a smorgasbord of stuff that gives all the good artists of Galway a big hug and pulls them in.


What legacy would you like Galway 2020 to leave for your generation?

One of the most positive legacies would be for Galway to be looked upon as a serious place to be in the artistic world. A place where you can, like a mole, come out from the ground onto the bigger stage. Right now, let’s face it, most people go to Dublin because they feel like they have to. I’m plagued with that all the time. I’d love for the aftermath of Galway 2020 to be that Galway is a good enough, strong enough, influential enough place to springboard from and make an impact in the wider world. I want to be able to say Galway made it happen for me.


Generation 20 is a photo and interview series focusing on the new wave of artists in Galway.  With each interview and portrait, we aim to uncover their motivations, aspirations and  frustrations. To get the full authentic picture and find their common link, bring them all together and into the light. How does their journey relate to Galway and where would they like to see it in 2020? We want to see the people in the budding stages of their expression, those that are quietly grafting and doing wonderful things.

Open, bold and colourful, this is #generation20. 


Photos and interviews by Julia Monard.