Old Red Lion Theatre, London – 30 June 2018
More than 20 years ago, a television adaptation of Peter Flannery’s play Our Friends In The North was broadcast, telling the story of four friends from Newcastle between 1964 to 1995. Political and social events of the era were referenced – some specific to Newcastle, while others pertained to Britain as a whole. Seamus Finnegan’s I Am Of Ireland (which takes its title from a poem by William Butler Yeats) takes a similar conceit. However, under the direction of Ken McClymont, it’s in many ways more ambitious in scope and very much a state of the nation play.
From the off, Finnegan provides a provoking tableau – seven figures representing aspects of Ireland, past and present, though the twist is women are wearing traditional ‘men’s’ attire and vice versa… Following this introduction, Finnegan sets up several threads that highlight what has preoccupied Ireland of late – the values of yesteryear versus the priorities of tomorrow. All the cast play multiple roles in this pan-generational narrative.
As one of a group of Catholic schoolboys who attended a grammar school in postwar Belfast, Dominic (Euan Macnaughton) is the only one of his peers to directly address the audience. Through his eyes, we get a sense of what was – and what WASN’T – taught at school, the ‘real history’ such as the pivotal figures in the Easter Rising and who all helped the Irish Free State to be established. Like many a young Irishman, he spent a spell working in the UK as a teacher, but the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 ‘light a fire under him’, which lead to him and other like-minded folks stepping up in direct action for the Republican cause…
The Irish diaspora is also examined in the present from the perspective of those who stayed and those who left to work in the UK. Sean (Sean Stewart) returns to Belfast after many years for the funeral of an old friend. He meets Harry (Richard Fish), someone he knew from the old days and as they catch up, it’s evident from Harry’s perspective that even choosing to live across the Irish Sea is a ‘political act’ – the decision to put one’s roots down elsewhere an indicator of one’s truest feelings of the motherland.
A witness to the group of Belfast boys during their formative years, Peta (Saria Steel) offers perspective on the ‘halcyon days’ versus the men they grew up to be. It is, however, as women in the present day that Steel plays such pivotal roles that go against the grain of the status quo. As Mary, Steel portrays a young woman who ‘feels the calling’ to become a nun. Her mother, Theresa (Shenagh Govan) is crestfallen at this news. As a woman who has seen a great many changes in Ireland over the decades, Theresa has high aspirations for her daughter and only child – to be able to enjoy the opportunities she only dreamed of enjoying when she was a younger woman. Instead, Theresa feels that Mary’s decision is a throwback to yesteryear, when one of the few ways that children could be educated was to attend a school run by priests or nuns. While she recognises the contribution the clergy have made over the years to Ireland’s literacy, Theresa can’t help but feel that she’s lost her daughter to an antiquated way of life, that Mary now has no future…
In the continued debate about Ireland’s religious heritage versus the case for secular reform, both women play very different roles. As Mrs Fitzpatrick, the housekeeper of a bishop (Richard Fish), Govan fearlessly challenges him about the need for women to be priests and allowing the clergy to marry. In her opinion, if this was common practice, there wouldn’t be the scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church for untold decades. It is, however, as a politician that Steel unsettles the bishop, unswayed by the authority the Church traditionally held in state affairs. One of my favourite lines in the play involves Mrs Fitzpatrick telling the bishop that the politician would have to get up pretty early to “get one over the bishop”, to which the bishop replies, he didn’t think the politican ever sleeps!
Angus Castle-Doughty and Jerome Ngonadi
The presence of Father Flannagan (Jerome Ngonadi) poses some important, if uncomfortable, questions about the way culture, homogeneity and race are intertwined in Ireland. The character of Sean in the play points out that one of the reasons why he likes living in London is that it is so culturally diverse (and by infererence there has to be a base level of tolerance and understanding towards one another). Putting this into context, the stabbing of Father Flanningan by Derek (Angus Castle-Doughty) – a young man who grew up after The Troubles – throws open the questions about inherited values and what today’s young people can glean from the past.
A veteran of The Troubles who finds himself sharing a cell with Derek, Sammy Nelson (Fish), offers his perspective on Ireland, past and present. But while he was ‘successful’ in sectarian violence, Nelson’s now alone and the only interest shown in him in is from a young man who doesn’t truly understand why he did the things he done. On the flip side, Dominic feels the need to come clean about his actions, but in this world of relative peace, there is no desire from the powers-that-be to unearth ‘facts’ that have already been laid to rest. Coming full circle in the play, peace is maintained, but only by shutting the doors on the unadulterated truth of the past.
L-R: Sean Stewart, Shenagh Govan and Angus Castle-Doughty
I Am Of Ireland packs a lot into its two-hour running time, mixing humour with a solid focus what makes history so important – not dates or even ‘big events’, but how the lives of everyday people are affected. The play also makes uncomfortable observations about human nature and the dark secrets of every society. As for its relevance to today’s headlines…
At this juncture, Northern Ireland is facing uncertain times, what with Theresa May’s government using the numbers of the DUP to keep herself in power and Brexit likely to undo the progress wrought by the Good Friday Agreement. Yet all is not lost. The support in Ireland’s recent referendum for the legalisation of abortion has shown that the spirit of Thomas Paine is not lost – that the people of today feel they should be free to make their own laws, that the future is unwritten…
© Michael Davis 2018
I Am Of Ireland runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th June.
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