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New PJ Gallagher show looks at when his mum moved 6 men with schizophrenia into the family home

It was part of a move to get people out of institutions and into the community. The story is explored in the new show Madhouse.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

WHEN PJ GALLAGHER was 10 years old, his mother moved six men who had schizophrenia into the family home, so that she could look after them.

Now the comedian has written a show with Una McKevitt for the Dublin Fringe Festival, that they’ve called Madhouse. The show takes what happened in his family and tells it through a fictional family with a boy called Bobby at the centre. He is played by Barry Kinsella, while Katherine Lynch plays his mother.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Una McKevitt explained how the Gallagher’s family situation occurred because of social changes in Ireland at the time.

Where people with serious mental health issues had traditionally been sent to institutions, there began a move towards enabling people to live in the community rather than shuttering them away.

As the HSE explains

From the mid 1800s onwards there was a view that the best way of providing support to people with disabilities was to care for them in residential institutions, separate from local communities. Over time, there has been a major shift in that thinking. As a society, the supports we now provide for people with disabilities are driven by the values of equality, the right of individuals to be part of their community, to plan for their own lives and make their own choices, and to get the personal supports they need for their independence.

“There was a shift towards institutions being used less. A lot of institutions were closing down and the residents had to be rehomed but they hadn’t been in the community for a while,” said McKevitt. “So some of them were taken in by Irish domestic houses and PJ’s house was one of them. They had six men living there – they had a large house. It was unusual to have six men living in the house.”

McKevitt said that most of the men living with the Gallaghers were elderly, but there was one younger man. Gallagher’s mother administered their medication and cared for them.

“She sourced their clothes, cut their hair, fed them every day,” said McKevitt. The men lived at Gallagher’s home for nine years, staying in one side of the family’s bungalow. The family lived on the other side. 

55  Dub Fringe Festival_90549297 Barry Kinsella who plays Bobby in Madhouse Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

“His mum apparently was brilliant with the men and really looked after them,” said McKevitt. “It’s a very challenging environment to be in. One man would go missing, walking, while another man could see gorillas all the time.”

‘No one has a reference for it’

It was while McKevitt and Gallagher were making a previous show about his adoption that he mentioned the situation to her. “I was like ‘sorry, what?’,” recalled McKevitt. “It’s very hard to believe and one of the things PJ says is it’s because no one has any reference for it.”

He didn’t understand that not every house was the same. “When he was a child he would go to different houses and be looking around saying ‘where are your maniacs? You need to get them in for their tea’.”

The piece is about something that is both tragic and touching, but it’s a comedy show.  Where does the comedy in it come from?

“The comedy in the piece comes from the fact even though he knew it was mad, it was also his normal,” said McKevitt. “Where the comedy comes from is the fact he had to sink or swim in the situation and his mum was busy, so that’s how he represents it on stage – she doesn’t have time to dwell on it, she’s just getting on with it. He’s the observer of it in the play.”

The play starts with the character of Bobby introducing the idea in documentary style, and the piece flashes back and forward from past to present, jumping along timelines. 

“The scenes are dramatised and we decided to use to have a different character called Bobby and [a mum] called Ma. PJ is the only person I’ve spoken to so we can’t represent people in a documentary sense,” said McKevitt. “It’s about what PJ remembers, and is extrapolated out.”

The situation was heightened by the fact that Gallagher was going through puberty and the other various parts of growing up with six new people were being cared for in his house.

He didn’t like school, he was always told to try harder but he was trying hard. His journey through adolescence is juxtaposed then with what his home life was like and his relationships with his family. We don’t comment on it – we just show it as he remembers it.

Is the show about mental health? “It’s not about mental health per se,” said McKevitt. “We’re not trying to teach the audience anything – but it does raise questions about what is madness anyway? How do we decide how one person is mad and one isn’t?”

None of the men who lived with Gallagher’s family are alive, so it wasn’t possible to tell their individual stories. “That’s a different play anyway. This is really about how a child processed these behaviours that were around him and how he felt about it,” said McKevitt.

Gallagher “doesn’t have anything negative to say, he is funny when he talks about it”, says McKevitt. Though he didn’t form any meaningful relationships with the men who lived with his family, the experience did impact on his life.

“I think he is as bemused by it as anybody else,” says McKevitt. “But there is one impact, something he mentioned to me. He saw a woman losing her temper and being aggressive and banging on window in a café. For him, he was glad she was getting a bit of relief. Everyone else was freaked out, but he thought – she needs to get it out and she’ll feel better.”

A lot of people could be going around talking about this non-stop and how terrible it was, but that’s not his approach.

Madhouse takes place at the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock stage from 11-15 and 18-22 September, at 6.30pm. Tickets cos €16 / €14 concession. There will also be a 1pm performance on 15 September. To book tickets, visit the Dublin Fringe Festival website

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