“If there’s a Mr Sheridan on board, could he please make himself known?”
The bus had just arrived in Derry from Dublin, and Peter Sheridan was sitting down the back. He assumed they were looking for somebody else. But nobody else responded and so, as he got off the bus, Sheridan asked were they looking for him.
“I’m very sorry, Mr Sheridan,” he was told. “Your father has died.”
Peter sat back down. For the next six hours, as the bus brought him back to Dublin, he reflected on his father’s life – and that episode is the launching point for his play 47 Roses, which is currently running at Bewley’s Café Theatre.
Peter and his father, also called Peter, had been close, and his father’s enduring legacy was to have instilled in Peter and his brother, Jim (the film director), a love of literature and theatre. (The brothers went on to run Dublin’s Project Arts Centre together in the late 1970s, where they worked with Liam Neeson, amongst others.)
But in one crucial aspect, at least, his father remained enigmatic. For many years, he had been friendly with a woman in England, named Doris – and Doris had even holidayed with the Sheridans, with her daughter.
Peter’s mother, Anna, wrote to Doris to tell her Peter Senior had died. Shortly afterwards, Doris arrived at their door in Dublin, carrying a bouquet of 47 red and white roses – the colours of Manchester United, Peter’s favourite team.
Intrigued by this unprecedented public display of love, Peter determined to find out more about his father’s relationship with Doris. But first, he spoke to his mother. “I’m going to try to get to the bottom of this,” he told her, “but I won’t write anything while you’re alive.”
Then he wrote to Doris, and she wrote back. “Dear Peter,” her letter began, and it soon became clear that she was writing to Peter as if he were his father.
Their correspondence became a friendship, which endures, and Doris still comes to Dublin to visit Peter’s father’s grave, and meet with Peter.
Peter had earlier had international success with his book, 44: A Dublin Memoir, which had caught the same wave as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. His probing of the story of his father and Doris would ultimately become the books, and now the play, 47 Roses.
He knew his impulse was, in part, voyeuristic – as a writer, he wasn’t able to separate the part of him that recognised a great story from the part that was pulled by family ties. But he felt a personal commitment to unearth the truth about his family.
The letters from Doris were “very revelatory” of his father, but at their heart remained an enigma. “They were lovers – but what kind of lovers were they? Were they simply ‘letter lovers’, or were they more than that?”
Doris was a single mother, with a daughter, and so there was an even more pertinent question: “Was this child my father’s?”
Peter still doesn’t know. He did ask Doris, and she answered: no. “But do I believe her answer?” (Unlike her mother, the daughter has no contact with the Sheridans.)
He is critical of his father, but sympathetic.
“This woman was totally absorbed in my father. It wasn’t right. He should have freed her, let her go.
“But I don’t pass judgements. This is a story of people loving one another. I’ve never been able to find anything hateful in that.
We’re all weak, we all want to be loved.”
But if his father should have let her go, what then did Doris make of his son committing her story to posterity, in print?
“She was so angry! She wanted to kill me.” The anger passed, though, and their relationship was restored.
“Another part of her knew that I had made her a part of the family history.”