Rita Wall meets Mary O'Malley (right), whose infamous play takes to a London stage once more
BEING brought up an Irish Catholic is completely different from being an English Catholic, maintains Mary O'Malley. Mary, author of Once a Catholic, the play which took the West End by storm in the late seventies, believes her Irish Catholic background was what prompted her to write. Her play is to be revived by the National Youth Theatre next month.
"There is a conservatism, a superstition about Irish Catholicism which is not there for those raised in the faith in England," says Mary. Her father, she explains, was an Irish emigrant — a "serious Catholic". if you didn't go to mass on Sunday, bad luck would surely come your way, her father warned her as a child. And even though she wasn't actually brought up in Ireland, Mary was profoundly influenced by a generation of her 'parent's countryfolk, living around Harrow in Middlesex, where she was raised.
Most of the nuns at her convent school in Harlesden were Irish, and the oppressive memories of a regimented religion where discussion was not encouraged remain with her.
It is important to remember that these were times when the message of Vatican II had not seeped through the institutions of the church, Mary hastens to add. "I don't bare any malice Or hatred for the religious of the time — they were victims, too."
Her play Once a Catholic explores the lives of three young women during one year at a convent school. Much emphasis is given to an examination of their first relationships with the opposite sex. "Of course sex was a whispered word in my day," recalls Mary. The humour of her play was much praised by the critics at its first run at the Royal Court Theatre in London. She also earned awards from the London Evening Standard and Plays and Players for the most promising new playwright of 1977.
For a child, growing up surrounded by Catholicism and particularly Irish Catholicism meant a plethora of unexplained rituals. The feast of Our Lady of Fatima was one such occasion. "A statue of Our Lady was carried from house to house and placed on the sideboard. Then neighbours arrived, and litanies of rosaries followed. It seemed funny to tell your friends that you had Our Lady on the sideboard last night."
Were her parents or former teachers shocked, annoyed or upset by the play? "People were really delighted with it," Mary grins. "Though it did not get good reviews in Ireland. I don't think people there really liked my making fun of stock religious stereotypes. All the same, many people commented that it was comforting to realise that they were not alone in their experience of an oppressive religious regime."
There were elements of the church then which Mary did like: "I loved the Latin mass, and fundamentals of Catholicism are precious," she says. She is still a christian. "It's not that I broke away from the church, but I drifted to a wider ecumenical vision."
A divorcee, she is relieved that the church's climate has so radically changed from her convent school days. "The church has definitely become more human and more understanding of the stresses and strains in family life."
Her children have not been brought up in any particular faith, though she believes she has passed on basic christian values to them, if they did decide to join the Catholic church, she says, she would not object.
Although her play describes a church situation of the past, Mary is keen to stress its current relevance in detailing bigotry in society. "It will be interesting this time around to see how people react to it."
Mary bears no hatred herself, and it frightens her to hear people say they hate someone. She yearns for a society where people can live happily with each other. She finds the words Jesus spoke on the Cross — "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" — inspiring.
Though she does not like the "new" English mass, she confesses that whenever she travels, she loves to visit the local church or cathedral and just sit or light a candle. She would never fly if she didn't participate in this little ritual she laughs.
Mary is currently working on a documentary on convent girls for Thames Television in which she acts the part of a nun. As well as writing, she has turned her hand to many things including acting. "It was strange when I played the nun, it was like all my memories took over, and this formidable character went into gear." This part gave her great insight into the pressures bearing down on the nuns which she had written so deftly about in her play.
Once a Catholic by Mary O'Malley is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Gordon Street, WC1 from September 6-15.