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Jan 25

HEROIN in Belfast

by THEATREclub

Grace Dyas has been travelling around Ireland for the past few weeks Designing The Audience for our national tour of HEROIN. In the first of a series of blogs on her travels, she recounts her experiences in Belfast, the first stop on the tour.

Our play HEROIN will be at The Lyric in just over a week’s time. We start rehearsals tomorrow.  I am excited.

The first time I went to Belfast, back in December, I was terrified.

I grew up in between Fatima Mansions and Dolphin House. I found syringes in my garden, I answered the door to people who wanted to buy spoons. My ma’s video player was robbed. My Da’s car was robbed. We all care about different things because of who we are and where we have come from.

So I care deeply about addiction. I’ve been around it my whole life.  I care about addicts, and the people around addicts, (We are all addicts though. See more on that here…)

HEROIN is the story of the social history of Ireland told through the lens of heroin in Dublin, from the 1960s up to now. It’s about nationality, identity, influence, housing, the church, the state, value and crucially love.

I want to make art that opens up things we find hard to talk about. What I’m at here really, is trying to change the world.

With HEROIN, I want to make something that bridges the gap between the two extremes; “It’s all their own fault, they should be rounded up and shot, sterilised, fucked onto an island for all I care” and “None of it is their own fault, god love them, god help them…” the space in between those two statements is full of misinformation, corruption, money, drugs and most importantly fear.

I wanted to stage the complexity of the journey we’ve been on as a society to get to where we are now with addiction. I can’t blame the people who want the addicts sterilised… Fear breeds fear.


But addiction is not the problem. Addiction is a symptom. It’s not about the drugs. It’s about the why, yeah? It’s about the reasons that people want to take drugs in the first place.

What this is all really about is equality, it shouldn’t make such a big difference to be born in one place to the next. But it does. You would know all about that if you’re reading this in Belfast.


When I was starting my ‘designing the audience’ work for Belfast I didn’t know the place and I didn’t know where to begin.

I wouldn’t be afraid to walk into any Estate. I don’t believe what the papers say, about ‘no go’ areas. I might be stupid or naive to think that, but it’s how I live my life. I keep an open mind and an open heart. I try to rid myself every day of fear. It’s a process. There are days when the above statement is not true. We are complex beings who don’t function in Absolutes.

On my journey with this work since 2010, i have gone into various spaces and places where i know no-one. I walk around. I do what they call in Community Development a ‘listening survey’. (Thanks Ailish!)

I try to absorb the place. I try to sense the energy. I knock on doors. I announce myself. I explain what I am doing, and I try to infect others with a bit of the passion that I have. I say that I’m from somewhere like this, and I don’t work for The Sun.


I am embarrassed to admit here that I was scared to go and ‘beat the street’ in Northern Ireland. I don’t want people reading this to think less of me for that but it’s true. I didn’t want to do it on my own, I wanted to bring a man with me, so I would feel safer.

When I arrived in Belfast, a woman in the bank told me I was to get taxi’s everywhere, and not walk down the street by myself. She couldn’t believe what I was there to do. But they also told me that in Limerick, when I started to work in Moyross. So luckily I knew to take that with a pinch of salt. Fear breeds fear. Come to think of it they also told me that in Los Angeles. I wonder is there anywhere where that is really true? Or is always fear?

Fear is the most useful of emotions, because it is there to protect us. I try to listen to my fear and not judge myself for it, but it’s hard. Fear gives us information. I try to ask what is fear this trying to tell me? In this case it was telling me that I have been delivered a certain message of what life in Belfast is like. I also knew instinctively that my impressions were not true.

I got the ‘black cab tour’. To get my bearings. The tour takes you to the Falls Road and the Shankill and then along the Peace Line. I was taken aback by the proliferation of images everywhere you look. It’s like the advertising you would see in New York’s Time Square, but with images of protest, politics and commemoration. I saw a group of American tourists taking photos of a burnt patch of grass where a bonfire had been. The tour guide told me this is called “Terrorism Tourism”. My fear lifted after that. I knew more.


A lack of awareness, experience and knowledge is what breeds fear. As well as fear.

After Christmas I went to back to Belfast. I met Arlene in Skainos Square at Hosford House, a homeless support project. Homeless and drug abuse often goes hand in hand.

Arlene, a kind and passionate community worker, runs the life skills programme at the Hostel.


We were meeting to talk about the residents coming to see the show and she gave me a tour of the facility. This board in the centre shows residents what activities are available:

photo 1

I was struck by it, remembering my own work through drama with drug users, and the positive impact it had on all of us – Read more about that here. 

Arlene showed me the newly renovated living areas, where residents have picked their own furniture for the first time, and the idea is they can take it away when they eventually move on from Hosford; A sense of home. I saw the beautifully tended garden. There were two images that stuck with me after I left there.


This lonely angel, left on the table, no longer at the top of the christmas tree.

photo 2

I thought about it like a metaphor for being down on ones luck, and this suit, which residents all share and borrow for court appearances and job interviews, a sobering reminder for me of the realities of not having your own means.

photo 3


The more time I spent in Belfast, the more overwhelmed I was by the symbols. There are parts where on one side of the road, it looks like you are in Ireland, and on the other side it looks like England. It hit me that, in 2015, maybe we don’t know anything really about what’s going on with each other.

Several times on my visits to Belfast over the past few months, people on both ‘sides’ of the community have said this “I grew up when you had to go through a turnstyle to get to the city centre. I had my car stopped & searched, I was assumed to be doing something wrong at all times, it had to be proved that I wasn’t”

I thought how strange, that a group of men in suits have drawn a line between us and there is now such distance, whatever you’re political beliefs. I probably knew more about what it must be like to live in America, than I did in Belfast. I’m interested, I’m concerned, I read the news, I seek out knowledge, but I don’t really know.

In a way, HEROIN, follows the narrative of the Troubles from the Dublin’s working class’s perception. There are interesting connections to be made, and looked at.  In the late 1960s, warnings from members of the IRA prompted Dublin’s career criminal family’s to cease and desist from robbing banks and post offices, so they had to divert their energies into another method of making a living. (For more on that, see the banned book SMACK, The Criminal Drugs Racket in Ireland, 1985, Sean Flynn & Padraig Yeates) 

Overnight, Dolphin’s Barn & Fatima Mansions were flooded with heroin. Injecting classes were held in the local ice rink. Those who tried to stay indoors to avoid temptation, were seduced back out with envelopes of heroin shoved through their letter boxes. The young people of Ireland were ready to get lost in heroin. Heroin is the drug of recession. Two generations of inner city men and women died as a result of the State’s inaction on the drugs issue. When we played the show in Groningen, members of the audience described the heroin epidemics in Dublin as ‘Ireland’s Genocide’ . Images of Famine and War were part of the initial making process of the show. Were the heroin epidemics Ireland’s second genocide? Will the generation of young men taking their own lives be the third?

In the 1970s, political will was so overwhelmed by Northern Ireland that no action was taken on Dublin’s on growing heroin problem. Same again in the 1980s with the Hunger Strikes. It wasn’t until 1999 that we had an adequate response to the drug problem. Until then it was all “It’s not happening”

That’s why I never believe when people tell me there’s no drugs in a city. I was told by loads of people that Heroin was not that big in Belfast, and that it was being ‘kept out’. Sure enough, a few days later, I was told it was being ‘brought in’. I am interested in how we as a society qualify the ‘drug problem’ in numbers. What difference does it make if there are 10,000 people on it or 10? What we have learned from what happened in Dublin is that if the underlying conditions of inequality, class division, lack of education are there, than drugs can and will take hold of communities. All across the country while I have been ‘designing the audience’ I’ve been told that heroin is only something that happens in Dublin. People only started to see the drug problem in Dublin when they could actually see it, when it was in their faces.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe that something is not happening.

On my next trip to Belfast, a visit to FASA proved my instincts were right. I met Chris, a drugs worker who is based in the Shankill Road branch. That morning he had been at a drama workshop with young people, and after our meeting he was seeing clients. He is a busy man. We talked about the play, and the drug scene in Belfast, he said that alcohol is the biggest issue, but head shops are what he is most concerned about. I really liked the vibe at FASA. From just reading their website to meeting Chris I was blown away by how progressive, adaptable and kind the project is. Chris told me it started as a community response to suicide in the area, by a group of mothers who had lost sons, they now work towards addressing all aspects of mental health, including drug use. They know how important it is to join the dots. This is something not a lot of projects know about.

Belfast is very much at the beginning of it’s journey with drugs, having been relatively drug free throughout the conflict. I’ve heard different versions of why that was. But I don’t know what the answer is, although I am sure it’s very complicated.

However, it can’t be denied that the drugs are there now. And unless they are addressed they will stay, and history will repeat itself.

“While research

and surveys show that few people are actually using heroin or cocaine, it is accepted that in some

localities the use of these drugs is becoming part of a drug taking culture. The seizure figures would

also indicate that the availability of these drugs is increasing” 


“There is therefore no room for complacency. At present injecting is not a significant part of the drugtaking

culture in Northern Ireland, but there is evidence to suggest that it may represent an incipient

problem. Recent operations by the RUC underline the fact that the use of heroin if unchecked will

grow. The consequences of this could be immeasurable.”

The above quotes are from the Northern Ireland Drugs Strategy, 1998. I learned Injecting has now become a problem in Northern Ireland. Drug Related litter, needles, syringes, are being discovered in Estates. We knew in 1998 that this could happen. I have read so many reports like the one above. It might not be heroin that takes hold. It could be legal highs, potentially even more deadly. But what does it matter which drugs?

Remember it’s not about the drugs, or which drugs are better or worse, the drugs are only a symptom. I think, you have to look at why people want to take drugs in the first place. Any drug can cause harm, it depends on how the person taking it relates to it.

I find the idea of bringing a story like HEROIN to Belfast at this point it’s history exhilarating. In many ways, the community is being rebuilt. All the people I spoke to working on the ground in communities discussed working together to get things done. FASA though initially started for Shankill, now have satellite clinics in all parts of Belfast.

“Drugs was the one place in the north where the conflict didn’t exist, people from all sides of the community used drugs together. So it makes sense to work together”

Is there an opportunity here for one city to learn from another’s mistakes? I believe the theatre is a place where we can begin to talk about it. That’s why I do it. Where else can you bring a room full of strangers together to talk about the big questions of our society.

I’ve taken some time to look at our shared history that took place in Belfast. I am inviting you to come to The Lyric on Friday to take some time to look at our shared history that took place in Dublin.

Drugs are terrifying. We try to shield our kids from them, we are afraid, and fear breeds fear. It easier to ignore this, and just go do something else with your Friday night. If you choose to do that, I won’t hold it against you. But maybe if we spend some time, together, looking at this, our fear may lift a little. Just like mine did, when I actually walked alone in Belfast.  Over the past month, Belfast is a city I have fallen in love with, I’ve made friends, I’ve developed connections. I feel welcome.


Our performance of HEROIN on Friday night will be facilitated by a drugs worker from FASA.


I’m inviting you to make history by joining this conversation. You will be made to feel very welcome, just as I was in your city.


You can book your ticket here.


For more info on Designing the Audience – click here