Welcome to Leenane: A visitor’s guide to Martin McDonagh’s Ireland

Martin McDonagh, one of the most celebrated Irish playwrights of all time, wasn’t born in Ireland. His childhood was spent more in the South London neighborhood where he was born and raised than it ever was in the rural locations that have become famous in his plays. The sharply drawn community on Ireland’s rocky and wild west coast that is the setting for The Beauty Queen of Leenane (as well as A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, the two other plays that complete his Leenane Trilogy) is McDonagh’s own invention.

His parents (mother from Sligo, father from Galway) left Ireland in the 1960s for England seeking better opportunity, so McDonagh experienced Ireland secondhand, through stories told to him by family and friends and trips to see relatives once or twice a year. The stories he tells of Ireland in his plays are a combination of reverence of Irish tradition and utter irreverence for accuracy or realism.

Fintan O’Toole, the journalist who chronicled McDonagh’s early and meteoric success as a writer, compared his writing to the music of the Irish folk-punk band The Pogues: rooted in the lyrical storytelling of Irish heritage but with an unromantic aggression inspired by London’s anti-establishment youth movement in the 1980s. McDonagh refused the role of documentarian – the location of the plays and their inhabitants are memories and family lore infused with cultural touchstones from his life outside of Ireland. His scripts echo the films of Martin Scorcese as much as they do the bloody Grand Guignol theater, but also the lighthearted patter of soap operas and sitcoms, as well as the uncompromising radical political groups McDonagh grew up watching on television in the 1980s and 90s. McDonagh’s stories and characters feel familiar drawn from situations similar to our own lives until they suddenly veer into a darkly comic and deeply sinister place.

His Leenane has been described not as a place to live, but a place to leave. In its depressed economy and isolated location, the inhabitants of Leenane live in a state of tense boredom, which can lead to dangerous diversions. His characters argue over their preference for one kind of biscuit or a particular brand of crisps, and these ordinary objects become points of serious contention. McDonagh says it is a place where “you can’t kick a cow without having someone bear a grudge for 20 years.” Over time, small events loom large and resentments build, held onto for decades or more, even passed down from generation to generation.

For the residents of Leenane, there is a unique notion of right and wrong that has settled over the entire town. Nastiness is common, sometimes simply a means of entertaining oneself until a better song comes on the radio. The characters are like adult children, without a clear sense of what is a reasonable response nor an understanding of ultimate consequences. Their actions are extreme, as if the entire town has opted in on a code of social behavior that leads to meanness and violence.

In a 1998 New York Times profile, McDonagh’s plays are described as “a darkly comic and violent world of misfits, grotesques and haunted lonely people. Their very distinctive language is at once recognizably Irish and yet hyperreal and unsentimental.” McDonagh’s characters behave so cruelly to each other that the violence becomes humorous in the extreme as it exposes dormant tendencies toward brutality, especially toward members of one’s own family.

There is an incongruity between McDonagh’s Ireland and more picturesque, traditional views of Ireland, but he never set out to resurrect a place that actually exists for his plays. All playwrights create the world for their characters to inhabit from the ground up, taking what they know to build a sense of authenticity but then letting their imaginations run to places that they have not or cannot visit. Instead of imagining yourself in Ireland, think of yourself in a little corner of Martin McDonagh’s mind. Welcome to Leenane.