Meet the Shortlist- Jody O’Neill

By Jody O’Neill

“We need to love more
We need to do less
We need to mind each other
We need to stop blaming other people
We need a revolution of thought and of action
We need something better than this.”

Ballybaile is an attempt to represent Ireland in the current moment. It consists of 17 short plays, each named after a government department that explore how decisions and policies made at a governmental level impact on the lives of citizens. Within this structure, it investigates themes of community, isolation, family, climate change, identity, poverty, love and loss.

Jody is a writer and actor, currently based in Wicklow, where she spends much of her time learning about geography, science and the Universe from her seven-year-old son.
She has spent the past two years researching and developing work that promotes autism acceptance. The resulting play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, will have its Irish premiere in February 2020. It is a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, and is funded by the Arts Council and Wicklow County Council.Recent work includes: Saying the Words (developed in response to work with Daughters of Charity Blakestown Adult Day Service as part of Draíocht’s ‘Our Place Our Stories’), Scrapefoot (Anu Productions/The Ark) and Yellow (HOME Theatre Ireland/Draíocht).

From 2014-2018, she was a regular script and story writer for RTE’s Fair City.


What inspired you to write this play?

Fishamble New Play Company sent out a prompt in early 2018, looking for ideas for a Play for Ireland. At the time, I was feeling a huge amount of frustration about many aspects of Ireland; politically, socially and environmentally. As an individual, I was feeling quite cut off and disenfranchised. I was also sensing a growing anger in day-to-day interactions I witnessed on the streets, in traffic, on public transport… People were so angry, so impatient, being so unkind to one another. And I was angry too. It was so different from the sense of freedom, creativity and possibility that Dublin was full of in 1997 when I first moved there.
I decided to break my idea down into 17 plays, each representing a government department, because I felt that this structure would allow me to explore many of the different issues that are impacting on the lives of everyday citizens of Ireland. I decided to name each play after a government department, but that each play would then depict one aspect of how decisions and policies made at government level really impact on people’s lives. I then made the choice to set the play in a rural Irish town, so although each play explores a different topic, they cross reference each other and intersect in places, in order to try to develop and explore the notion of community and what that means in Ireland today.


Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a playwright?

I’ve always loved language, but it took quite a long time for me to get around to writing anything, professionally. I first trained as a dancer and then as an actor, and I spent a lot of my twenties working in restaurants and cafés, which was (for the most part) an incredibly positive experience. It was only when I found myself working in a café where the owners were so cynical that they had security cameras installed so that they could monitor the staff remotely, and where the Sunday stocktake included counting every single croissant, pain au chocolat and Danish pastry in the freezer individually (without gloves), to make sure nothing had been ‘stolen’, that I decided it was time to find another way of earning a living.
And so, I started to write. I began with plays, because I was already working in theatre, so it felt like a natural fit. And I was very fortunate that there was a lot of support for female playwrights at the time. This was in 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Two years later, the recession had wiped out a lot of those companies and the prospects for writers were considerably diminished.
For me, surviving in the arts has meant taking a chameleon-type approach. I’ve worked as an editor, as an actor, written for educational apps, been an administrator, written for soap opera, produced my own and other people’s work. This has worked out well as I really enjoy doing a variety of jobs. Maybe as a result of this, I struggle to call myself a ‘real’ writer, but, having said that, writing is something I come back to again and again. Maybe that’s what being a real writer is?


How do you feel about being shortlisted?

Being shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize feels like a huge validation of my work as a writer, but even more than that, it feels like a validation of the subject matter I’m addressing in the play. I think all writers aim to pour their hearts into their work – what would be the point, otherwise? But in writing Ballybaile, I was really laying my cards (and passions) on the table in relation to so many things, and for it to have come so far in this process makes it feel like there are other people to whom these issues are important. It’s been a really uplifting experience.


What do you think about anonymity of the Bruntwood Prize?

I love that the Bruntwood Prize is anonymous. I think it’s really important. It means the play is being read in a very pure and immediate way, with no other context imposing itself on how readers experience it.

Published on:
28 Oct 2019


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