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Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

Contemporary northern Irish Theatre: challenging the Union?

Martine Pelletier

Texte intégral

1It is a truism to state that Irish theatre has long been and largely remains obsessed with history, though it necessarily comes to the past at an angle, as theatre always works from an absolute present, that of stage representation, and with an abiding imperative, that of fiction and plot. Even in the last two decades of the twentieth century, in play after play, the roots and consequences of the continuing union of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland are examined, discussed and interpreted, usually showing two communities forced to cohabit within a constitutional framework that satisfies neither group fully. That the Union has not led to unity or cohesion, but rather to division and conflict does bring grist to the mill of playwrights, since theatre thrives on conflict or, in the words of Frank McGuinness, “theatre is conflict and disguise, war and peace” (Foley 108). My chief concern here will be with the manifold ways in which contemporary dramatists have responded to the challenge of sectarian violence and political chaos in Ulster, focusing on six plays, all performed between 1984 and 2000, that have used the union as a metaphorical paradigm in their aesthetic exploration and critique of the contemporary political impasse in Northern Ireland. Those six plays fall into two groups; three of them—A Love Song for Ulster, Northern Star and Tearing the Loom—look back to the past, thereby inviting us to connect past and present through a set of images (as Hugh reminds us in Friel’s Translations, “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language”), while the other three— This is It!, A Night in November and The Force of Change—resolutely concentrate on present events and evolutions, challenges that will have to be faced up to. To a large extent, these works cater to, or posit, different implied audiences, which may account for some of their strategies and choices, strengths and weaknesses.

2Whilst the political union of Scotland and England has been largely presented as a partnership between equals, a marriage of reason, the abolition of the Irish Parliament in the wake of the failed 1798 Rebellion has been widely interpreted and mythologised in nationalist discourse, literary as well as popular, as imposed, nonconsensual, even punitive. Equally often, this constitutional union has been translated metaphorically into a forced or an arranged marriage, desired by some, accepted by others, but vehemently contested by many. As Roy Foster aptly summarised it: “Theoretical or metaphorical descriptions of this relationship tend to be brutally simple: colonization as rape, union as shotgun marriage” (Paddy and Mr Punch 81). One of the most popular instances of this trope—“a symbol adequate to our predicament” —can be found in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Act of Union,” in the 1975 collection North, in which the love-hate relationship between England and Ireland is portrayed as violent sexual intercourse. England “the tall kingdom over your shoulder / That you would neither cajole nor ignore, imperially Male” leaves Ireland with “the pain, / The rending process in the colony,” a wounded, raw, abused female body that will give birth to an offspring of violence and hatred. When Heaney turns his gaze to the divided island itself, he emphasises the North’s mineral masculinity, implying the femininity of the Republic: “And the profiled basalt maintains its stare/South: proud, protestant and northern and male: Adam untouched by the shock of gender” (“The Betrothal of Cave Hill”, North). We may well agree with Imelda Foley’s contention that here “gender encompasses the attributes and behaviours which create and define culture “(Foley xi).

3On the stage too, Protestant Ulster has often been imaged as patriarchal, inimical to women and imagination, trapped in binary opposites. We may recall that in 1911, St John Ervine’s Mixed Marriage had offered a blueprint for future plays about the North. In this piece, “sectarianism is represented as a product of political confusion and ignorance which manifests itself in domestic chauvinism. The role of woman is central and sectarianism is a function of male hegemony, whose treble articulation is political, religious and sexist” (Foley 11). In a situation of conflict, the loyalty of women to their men must be as absolute and unshakeable as the men’s loyalty to their “camp,” whether it be loyalist or republican, a role conditioning that Christina Reid and Ann Devlin have successfully highlighted and directly or indirectly challenged in their plays. At one end of the spectrum, one may find plays that conform to what Christopher Murray has identified as “the Romeo and Juliet typos” also commonly referred to as the “Love Across the Barricade” genre (after the title of a popular Joan Lingard novel), with a number of variations on the theme of doomed love across the sectarian divide. It is a popular form with an obvious emotional appeal, but it can also be criticised for being overly sentimental and ultimately conservative, powerless to challenge entrenched divisions since such plays all too often refuse to face up to the structural causes of the crisis, rewritten as a kind of fate at work or a terrible curse. Such plays often retreat into privacy, offering the protagonists individual salvation through emigration or a suitably tragic and never fully cathartic death, always leaving the sympathetic audience with a sense of the waste of human potential. Such endings concede that victory cannot be secured against superior odds, that sectarianism and hatred remain the more powerful forces in Ulster’s divided society, regardless of our wish to believe otherwise. They may hint that the time for reconciliation has not yet come or that reconciliation is only possible at the level of individuals united in grief. They also often seek to apportion blame in equal measure (“a plague on both your houses”) as both camps are seen to be guilty of the same intolerance that thwarts the finer individual emotions.

4Such works generally propound a view of politics and violence as “outside forces” which mercilessly intrude on the quiet domestic sphere and frustrate any chance of personal happiness. In the 1980s, largely as a result of the increasingly violent climate and political impasse in Northern Ireland, the Field Day Theatre company started promoting an innovative theatre of ideas as opposed to the traditional fare of social realism and domestic drama, demanding that the audience engage intellectually as well as emotionally with the action on stage. Self-conscious, querying “tradition,” their movement heralded the return of the history play, with its potential to create distance by both moving away from the immediate present and gaining insight through the reconstruction of a past that forces us to look at the roots of the present crisis. Perhaps as a result of such prompting and despite the fact that the domestic setting has often been retained, it must be admitted that several playwrights have substantially deepened the analysis of the “union” metaphor, successfully conveying the extent to which the supposedly external disruptive political forces are in fact deeply embedded in, or even determined by, the ideological structure of the family, refusing the sentimental and simplistic opposition between the peaceful domestic realm and the violent world of politics and ideology.

5In A Love Song for Ulster, An Irish Trilogy (performed 1993, published 1994), Bill Morrison develops an extended allegory in a mixture of styles, combining a basic form of psychological realism and a stylised, distancing commentary with a Brechtian touch, transposing, over the course of three plays, the history of Ireland since partition into the story of a family divided against itself. The playwright claimed he had been influenced by John Hume—which points to an interesting interplay between political rhetoric and literary discourse—who had described the situation in Ulster as one in which Catholics and Protestants were forced to share the same house as a result of an arranged marriage, with disputatious in-laws, jealous of their rights and privileges, constantly interfering. Kate, the play’s heroine—yet another avatar of the Cathleen ni Houlihan figure—is prevented from following her mother Mary and brother Gabriel (another name chosen to support a biblical connection) into the relative safety of the new Free State by a patronising English officer who explains the rules of the new game:

Right. Pay attention. I will keep it short and simple. It has to be simple for you bloody lot to understand it. You are all a pain in the arse. We are fed up with you. So. We are going to divide this island. Those of you who are loyal to the Empire and want to stay within it can have the North and the rest of you who demand independence can have your own country in the South. Provided. Provided you remain loyal to the Empire in case we ever need you. Right That’s it. (9)

6Not only is Kate forced to remain in Northern Ireland but she discovers that it has all been arranged, that her mother has approved of the separation/partition and of her daughter’s marriage to a “stranger,” i.e. a Protestant Unionist, John, who is advised by the English officer to keep his wife “and her lot” under control. As his sister keeps lamenting her fate, Gabriel promises to come back for her some day, a promise that is also a threat of further violence. That neither John nor Kate have had any say in this mixed marriage of convenience is made abundantly clear. Yet, as Ronan McDonald suggests, both John and Kate “seek to conform to their pre-ordained roles, he dominant but reluctant patriarch, she submissive housewife” (244). That John nonetheless feels entitled to enjoy all the advantages of having a beautiful young bride becomes painfully obvious when he rapes Kate on the kitchen table, an “act of union” that is first and foremost an assertion of his right of ownership based on superior strength and male dominance. That such an unpromising beginning can nonetheless lead to a form of love between Kate and her husband (the stage directions repeat that he is a good man, ashamed of his early violence) is what the playwright strives to get his audience to believe and accept, the ploy used being to send John off to an early death at the hands of Kate’s brother.

  • 1 A number of playwrights have adopted a more critical, radical form of sexual politics, for instanc (...)

7In the economy of this trilogy that mixes realism and allegory, each character takes on a strongly symbolic role—John as moderate Unionist, his brother Victor as Loyalist Orangeman, Mary as Mother Ireland, Gabriel as staunch Republican—so much so that the plays ultimately threaten to collapse under the weight, as Morrison rewrites in terms of the domestic each historical missed opportunity, betrayal or glimmer of hope from 1921 to the early 1990s. In keeping with a critical view of the Free State’s attitude towards the North, Kate’s mother seems quite eager to forget about her daughter’s fate, more worried about Kate’s use of contraception than with her unhappy union; the scene with the priest highlights the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in such matters, as well as a common Protestant grievance against the Republic’s Catholic ethos. The ultimate implication of “The Marriage,” the first and arguably best crafted of the three plays, seems to be that the nationalist community had come close to working out a satisfactory, mutually acceptable “marriage” with the Unionist community in the North, which was spoilt by the interference of Southern Republicans and the intransigence of Loyalist extremists. The male/female analogy posits at the same time a radical otherness and an almost natural complementariness. What remains all too obvious, however, is that everyone deliberately ignores Kate’s needs and aspirations, that she is not allowed to exercise a choice. Neither her bigoted mother, nor the priest, nor her anger-driven brother, nor her sadistic brother-in-law Victor, now married to her after a rape that is portrayed as more violent and perverse than the first, will listen to her repeated pleas. The gender roles presented remain very traditional—men in power, often ready to resort to violence, women accepting or adjusting to men’s domination—in spite of Kate’s undoubted interest as a character. This may be interpreted either as a limitation of the piece, with Morrison too concerned with the political metaphor to challenge received patriarchal constructs of female identity, or as a sad acknowledgment that within the ambit of Northern Irish society the respective roles of men and women in the home and outside are already defined and conditioned.1 With its strategy of transposing a political situation into the realm of gender, the play enacts a metaphoric displacement that is itself revealing of the deeply emotional perception of the situation. We are back to Irish nationalism as the female untameable, and Ulster Unionists as violent, abusive males. However, the play’s slight propensity to romanticise or fall back on cliché is actively counterpointed by a high level of self-consciousness. Indeed, an arresting feature of A Love Song for Ulster is the humorous presence of Mick and Willie, a Beckettian chorus exchanging metaphysical chitchat. When the curtain rises, the two sidekicks wonder about the truth and meaning of the Biblical episode involving Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac, in a mode reminiscent of the exchange between Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon about the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. While Willie contends that the son’s meek compliance shows the greatness of God and the strength of faith, the other maintains that this shows the story to be a fabrication, as no one would have assented to such a fate. At the very end of the trilogy, that same line is taken up when Mick suggests a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of Abraham’s predicament:

God is a dream in men’s minds. So the whole idea of God speaking to Abraham was a dream in Abraham’s mind. He created the whole situation himself. He told himself what to do. He set out to test himself. He took Isaac up there, he laid him out, and he was prepared to kill him, until the voice said, don’t do it. And that voice was his own. And he didn’t do it... He undreamt his own dream: If you dream one dream to live by you can undream it because it is only yours and not unchangeable. That’s what Abraham did. We just didn’t understand it. (175-76)

8Abraham dreamt his dream of God demanding a sacrifice; what we must do, collectively, is undream the dream that generated so much violence and hatred. The inference is that God’s dictates can and must be questioned, like all discourses demanding blind obedience. Failing to do this would only reinforce the vicious circle of suspicion, fear, betrayal and violence enacted on stage and affecting generation after generation. There need no longer be a sacrifice if we are willing to dream a different dream. Mick’s heretical views are accompanied by a cynical disrespect for history as recorded and passed on through the centuries, another “authoritative” discourse:

  • 2 Kate herself will recurrently shock her mother by referring to her predicament as one where she is (...)

Mick: I know about history. History always leaves out what people felt about it while it was happening. It always leaves out that most people didn’t like it, didn’t want it, protested about it and were generally fucked by it.
Willie: That’s because it never made any difference to the final result.2 (5)

  • 3 Anne’s closing speech in this final scene is partly reminiscent of Marian’s at the end of Stewart (...)

9This almost epic tale of a land and a home ruined by internal strife thus ends on a small glimmer of hope as Victor appears increasingly pathetic and marginalised, his authority as patriarch challenged in the final scene of the third play, The Daughter, by his grand-daughter, Anne.3 Over the cot where her baby sleeps, Anne exhorts the audience to recognise the real heroes, the people “who refused to hate” as opposed to the “orchestrators of discord” (175). A Lo\e Song for Ulster aims to reach a large audience across the sectarian divide and beyond the confines of Northern Ireland. It was first staged in London and was then played internationally, enjoying a very successful run in France.

10Going back to partition is only one of the options; the backward look can take in a more distant perspective. That the Union was achieved in the wake of the failed 1798 United Irishmen’s Rebellion has caused several playwrights to return to this episode, whose romantic potential cannot be gainsaid: heroes, ideals, betrayal, tragic deaths and shattered dreams of unity beyond sectarian rivalries, at least so the story goes. Though there is no dearth of defining moments or turning-points in Irish historiography, rather a surfeit of them in fact, 1798 does most emphatically qualify as one of them. It has been the subject of two particularly striking plays by the Belfast playwrights Stewart Parker and Gary Mitchell, both staged for the bicentenary in 1998, one a revival, the other a creation. A comparison between Northern Star (1984) and Tearing the Loom (1998) shows how playwrights rework and rewrite historical material and end up offering their own visions/versions of 1798, which may have little to do with what is on the historical record.

11Writing in the early eighties (the play was first performed at the Lyric in 1984), bleak times in Northern Ireland, Parker puts Henry Joy McCracken centre stage and locates the action of Northern Star “in Ireland. The continuous past,” a stage direction indicative of the nightmare of history, the deadening grip of a past that won’t accept its pastness and keeps recurring since, as Freud and psychoanalysis have taught us, what we do not truly remember we are doomed to repeat. It also points to Parker’s desire for the audience to see past and present as a continuum and therefore to perceive the past as relevant to our understanding of the present. The house in ruins where McCracken is in hiding translates visually the dereliction of a country riven by sectarian violence as well as the crumbling of hopes and ideals briefly awakened by Tone and his followers. The spatial figuration of the sorry state of the nation as a dilapidated house is also a recurrent trope in Irish literature. The supernatural figure of the “phantom bride,” widowed on her wedding day and a presage of imminent death according to local wisdom, signals the omnipresence of predatory violence and the collusion between Eros and Thanatos in the charged context of Irish folk memory. The phantom bride may well be seen as the umpteenth avatar of Cathleen ni Houlihan, Dark Rosaleen and “the drift of chosen females” who embody an Irish national ideal for whom gallant champions will willingly sacrifice their lives, as the 1981 Hunger Strikes in the Maze prison were giving “sacrifice” renewed currency in the Republican movement and mythology.

12Mixing flashbacks and moments in the present of his protagonist, Parker follows and re-enacts in seven scenes McCracken’s “Night thoughts” on the fate of the Rebellion. To counterpoint the conceit of the seven ages of Man, each of the seven scenes is written in the style of a different Irish, or rather Anglo-Irish, playwright, ensuring the audience’s recognition of the literary, artificial, intertextual nature of a piece that openly deals in ideas and deliberately eschews straightforward naturalism. Parker doesn’t fully escape the familiar trope of “love across the barricades” as he introduces the character of Mary Bodle, McCracken’s Catholic mistress—taking up the image of the mixed union—who has borne his illegitimate child, once again linking the domestic and the public. In a meta-theatrical sleight-of-hand that confirms Parker’s skill and ironic intentions, McCracken apostrophises his audience and calls upon them to give the lie to his pessimistic view of a future in which his memory will be enshrined, a “holy picture” fashioned out of him, and no lesson will have been learned from his mistakes or from those of the movement who underestimated the strength of sectarian allegiances.

  • 4 The following year, the same two actors took Ireland, London and Broadway by storm with the hugely (...)

13Though not originally written for Field Day, Northern Star was performed in 1998 in Belfast as a joint Field Day/Tinderbox production directed by Stephen Rea, with Conleth Hill playing Henry Joy McCracken and Sean Campion taking on a variety of personae including Wolfe Tone.4 Since Field Day had been largely about bringing ideas back to the stage, about challenging and renewing those images inherited from the past in order to foster debate, and given Rea’s strong bond with Stewart Parker (1998 also marked the 10th anniversary of Parker’s premature death) the actor’s decision to stage the play for the bicentenary of the Rising came as no surprise. Rea’s decision to perform Northern Star outside of a conventional theatrical space, in this instance moving to Rosemary Street’s First Presbyterian Church, was indicative of a deeply symbolic intent echoing the coup of staging Translations in Derry’s Guildhall. Michael Billington, reviewing the play for The Guardian, explained to his (English) readers the extraordinary congruence, since the First Presbyterian Church itself is “not only the starting-point for the play but the hub of the radical culture it describes. Short of seeing Hamlet in Elsinore you could hardly find a play that comes closer to home” and went on to conclude:

But there is also clearly a serious purpose behind the literary device—to suggest that Ireland can achieve unity only by acknowledging its plurality, and that the best way to escape from the prison of the past lies in celebrating art and reason rather than mythologising violence. (Billington)

14Stephen Rea offered an alternative, more radical interpretation in which one also feels the hope generated by the signature of the Good Friday Peace Agreement a few months earlier:

There is an amnesia amongst Protestants in this town [Belfast] about their part in the creation and preservation of so much of the culture of modern Ireland. It is no coincidence that in this play, Parker calls upon writers who were almost all protestant—Synge, O’Casey, Farquhar, Beckett, Shaw, Boucicault, Wilde; the exception is Behan. It could be that the context for Northern Star has finally come. (Rea 1)

15At a time when a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly was once again on the cards, McCracken’s anguished question at the close of the play had acquired a new relevance: “So what if the English do bequeath us to one another some day? What then? When there’s nobody else to blame except ourselves?” (75) Though Ronan McDonald is right to remind us that “[i]t is only our interpretations of what has happened that mutate, not the past itself,” (242) Northern Star as presented in 1998 had acquired a different echo and conveyed most elegantly and intelligently the need to reassess received visions and versions of history in a changing context.

16“The Ulster Unionist approach to the Union,” Foster has written, “is... unrealistic, to the point of evasion. As in the nineteenth century, it is for them a psychological necessity rather than a constitutional arrangement” (85). This comment may well help us understand better some of the plays that focus exclusively on the Northern Irish Protestant community and the challenges it faces. Like Northern Star, Gary Mitchell’s Tearing the Loom focuses on 1798, but it does so in a less experimental, less polyphonic form, graphically staging in a searing piece of theatre what violence does to families who are caught up in forces beyond their control. As Ashley Taggart has pointed out, one strength of this powerful, profoundly disturbing play is that “by concentrating on a Protestant family who are divided in their sympathies for the United Irishmen, Mitchell cleverly evades the sometimes deadening even-handedness which other ‘Troubles plays’ are forced into” (81).

17Gary Mitchell has had his plays premiered at a whole range of venues across the British Isles, an indication that he has sought and found a varied audience: Belfast for Independent Voice, Tearing the Loom in 1998, Marching On in 2000, The Derry Playhouse for Energy in 1999, whereas As the Beast Sleeps and In A Little World of Our Own opened in Dublin, and finally Trust (1999), The Force of Change (2000) and Loyal Women (2003) all premiered at the Royal Court, London. Mitchell is aware of being something of an anomaly. He comes from the Loyalist heartlands of Rathcoole, close to Belfast where he still lives, a community which has traditionally proved reluctant to turn to theatre to express its identity and aspirations: “Protestants don’t write plays, you see. You must be a Catholic or a Catholic sympathiser, or a homosexual to do that. No one in our community does that, because playwriting is a silly, pretend thing” (Gibbons 15). Such a generalisation ought to be qualified and revised, since, after all, the Protestant community has produced, among others, Sam Thompson, John Boyd, Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Christina Reid and Marie Jones, who do not fall all that easily into the aforementioned categories...

18Mitchell’s hard-hitting plays examine and challenge the Loyalist and Unionist self-image, with the questions being raised by an insider for a change, someone who excels at putting on stage a world that is relatively little known, not particularly glamorous and largely impervious to romantic mythification, namely the world of the paramilitary groups on the Loyalist fringe, which Mitchell knows from the inside, having briefly joined the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), made illegal in 1992. Mitchell has no qualms about expressing his own deeply held views: “I don’t think of myself as Irish in any way. It annoys me when I see my plays in the Irish section in bookshops. I ask why I am not in the British section” (Arnold 64). Having thus asserted his bona fide Loyalist credentials he can move on to offer an interesting rationale for his creative activity, namely the need to counter the supremacy and glamour of the nationalist narrative:

There is a fundamental crisis in Protestant culture. We have been going through an extremely depressing loss of identity, loss of culture and, worst of all, loss of a future. The past has been hijacked by the other side. They seem to have this huge mythic past, while the Protestant community has this little crappy one. We’re hugely divided. When you have an enemy who is succeeding on every level, you need a new strategy. We need a new beginning, a reinvention. We have to recognise our Irishness without giving up our Britishness. (Gibbons 15)

19Mitchell is visibly struggling to bypass the old binary oppositions, to reinvent Irishness and Britishness so that they need not be mutually exclusive forms of self-definition, though the word “enemy” does sound rather ominous. What he has exemplified through his drama is the necessity to examine Protestant culture, past and (mainly) present, in order to come to a sense of that identity that would be secure enough to envisage change as an opportunity and not as a threat. Mitchell’s is a theatre that throws up questions and challenges rather than offering answers and comfort. Faith, loyalty and betrayal are at the core of his intellectual and emotional landscape: “I describe myself as a Protestant writer. I believe in the dignities of Protestantism, in it being a radical force in the world, being truthful, being loyal” (Arnold 64). The Tearing of the Loom, like In a Little World of Our Own and Trust, uses the family as focal point, turning it into a metonymic incarnation of the wider, divided community where conflicts are concentrated and can be played out.

20In The Tearing of the Loom, Mitchell takes us back in time to a house in County Armagh in 1798 where a master weaver will lose both his son and daughter, both engulfed by the tide of violence and sectarian hatred. In the Moore family, Ruth has fallen for Harry, a United Irishman, while David, her brother, prompted by his friend William and the latter’s father, Samuel, has joined the newly founded Orange Militia, busy tracking and killing any man or woman suspected of disloyalty to the King. John Moore’s wish to keep his home and family safe from the violence proves chimerical. The loom—a powerful symbol of Protestant Ulster and a well-managed prop—that he was so proudly showing to his son at the beginning of the play will become his rack of torture. He is tied to it by his own friends the Hamills, now turned rabid Orangemen, as they threaten his mother and execute his daughter, after killing the United Irishman and allowing David to die of his wounds. The horrific violence, psychological as well as physical, cannot but leave the audience in shock as two families fall prey to a violence that is pitting brother against sister, neighbour against neighbour, and blind hatred and a perverse sense of righteousness triumph: “We have brought these people to justice, William. And outside these walls there remains much work to be done if we are to preserve Ireland as we wish it to be” (123). Moments earlier, Ruth had kicked from under her the stool she was standing on as the Hamills were torturing her, whispering to William, her former friend and admirer: “I hope you love the world you’re creating. I have no wish to see it” (122).

21In an early exchange with his son, whom he was seeking to convince not to join the Orangemen, but rather to protect his own home, John had expressed his pride and his belief in the sanctity of the family home: “I own this house and everything in it. When I die I will pass it on to you. So, be very sure that this house and everything to do with it is the only part of Ireland that we need to protect.” Unconvinced, David saw the United Irishmen as a genuine threat to their safety: “The Unitedmen would come and burn our house down with us in it” (84). This assertion is echoed with tragic irony in the final lines, as Samuel Hamill prepares to leave the stage in the closing moments: “Come with me now before I burn this place to the ground with all of you inside it” (124). Destruction has come, not from outside the group, rather from within it, as fear and hatred triumph over reason, trust and friendship, paving the way for a friture of sectarian rivalry and division and a political Union with Great Britain that will make “Protestant” largely synonymous with “Unionist”.

  • 5 A series of three television plays with young Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. Too Late to Talk t (...)

22Turning to those plays that focus resolutely on the present, a little known piece entitled This Is It!, deserves our attention. Though a poor exercise from a dramaturgical point of view, it can nevertheless be seen as an important moment in the history of the UDA. This Is It! (1984, like Northern Star) is noteworthy in that it was aimed at a very specific audience of UDA members and sympathisers and advocated a distancing from prevailing Unionist discourses and views. Having lost faith in the histrionics of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, grown weary of the evasions of Unionist politicians and increasingly suspicious of a government in London that was openly talking to Dublin, Andy Tyrie, the UDA’s leader, Sam Duddy, the public relations officer for that same organisation, and the community worker and writer Michael Hall penned this short piece, which toured a number of clubs and sought to provoke debate within what is a working-class association. The propagandistic and didactic character of This Is It! cannot be denied. The audience follow young Billy (in honour of King Billy, as well as an-—involuntary? intertextual reference to Graham Reid’s famous “Billy plays” of the early 1980s)5 as he moves from Loyalist fervour to bitter disillusionment with traditional politics. The pub scenes recall O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, and This Is It! evinces a strong sense of an underlying class conflict, as repeated mention is made of Unionist politicians’ ruthless manipulation of working-class youngsters, of how those same politicians keep refusing to face up to the consequences of the violence they encourage. Billy’s political education, as he vainly waits to be called to action by Paisley’s vigilante group, the “Third Force,” leads him to discover about the Cruithin, those mythical inhabitants of Ulster who were supposedly expelled from their country by the Gaels. This ingenious, if largely unsubstantiated, theory propounded by Ian Adamson proved quite popular in those years in Loyalist circles, as it challenged and reversed the native/settler relationship characteristic of the Irish nationalist narrative. The play ends with a character singing—to the tune of “The Sash”—of the land Ulstermen love and of his own hope that men of good will (“For surely we’re not all mad Sinn Feiners/Or a crowd of Billy boys?”) might one day put aside their differences and “together build old Ulidia and unite the Cruitin and the Gael” (34). Whether this seriously amounted to advocating an independent Ulster and an Ulster identity based on an unlikely working-class solidarity as opposed to straightforward adhesion to the “Union,” or merely hinted at the need for Loyalists to re-examine critically who and what they were being loyal to, might well be debated within the context of the UDA’s overall ideological project. That the authors took the play to the Republican heartland of Ballymurphy only to be met by disbelief and rejection does say a lot both about their good faith and their utter political naïveté. It was most unlikely that Republicans would eagerly exchange the ideal of a United Ireland for that of an independent Ulster where they would be entirely at the mercy of the majority Protestant population they so much resented, especially if the proposal came from an organisation that was well known to be an umbrella group for paramilitary activists guilty of sectarian murders. Yet this emphasis on a strong regional identity, unrealistic as it may sound politically, does bear witness to the recognition that a “British identity” was felt by many to be insufficient or at best only partly adequate.

23This Is It! can usefully be compared with A Night in November as both plays come from a community-based drama and strike an equally unrealistic note, smacking, albeit in different ways, of wish fulfilment. Directed by Pam Brighton and performed in the highly-charged and specific context of the West Belfast Festival in August 1994, days before the IRA ceasefire, Marie Jones’s play suggests a diametrically opposed evolution for Unionists: the embracing of their Irishness, with football acting as a catalyst... Marie Jones is a Belfast actress who started writing for the stage as part of Charabanc, a collaborative venture set up in 1983 with a strong basis in community drama. In this one-man show, a pettyminded dole clerk named Kenneth McAllister witnesses a display of sectarian hatred in the stands during a football match between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Somewhat improbably, this causes him to reassess his own prejudices and lifestyle. The stereotypical Protestant Ulsterman undergoes a metamorphosis after this epiphanic recognition of the ugliness and narrow-mindedness in himself and in those around him, first and foremost his wife and father-in-law. He embarks on a journey in self-discovery that will lead him for the World Cup to New York, where he cheers the Irish team on, accepting his multiple identities: “I am a free man... I am a Protestant man... I’m an Irish man” (47). His growing estrangement from his wife parallels his rejection of his “tribe” and their sectarian premises and constructs. As Imelda Foley acknowledges, “the version of Catholic culture as presented in A Night in November is as clichéd as it is untrue” (51). The strength of Jones’s play, however, lies in its desire to imagine alternatives more than in its credible construction of such alternatives. In this respect, her greatest asset was the superb performance commandeered by Dan Gordon, enabling, on the part of a sympathetic audience, the necessary suspension of disbelief. A Night in November urges us to take a leap of faith, to accept that a quasi-miraculous transformation of the self as that enacted on the stage, is what is called for. McAllister’s conversion to an Irish identity no longer opposed to his own religious identity largely parallels Jones’own trajectory: “It has taken me a long time to consider myself Irish but I do now” (“Belfast’s Active Voice”).

24The director Pam Brighton and the Dubbeljoint Company returned to the West Belfast Festival in 2000—this time without Marie Jones—with the controversial Forced Upon Us, a play by Brenda Murphy and Christine Polard which caused the Northern Irish Arts Council some headaches and earned them accusations of indirect censorship as they withdrew funding. At the heart of the play was an attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland’s police force, charged in this instance with conniving in the rape of a young girl, a return to a familiar trope and the equation of gender and sectarian discrimination and violence. A more substantial piece on the inevitable reform of the RUC, The Force of Change, by Gary Mitchell, premiered at the Royal Court London in April 2000.

  • 6 The Patten Report was commissioned as part of the peace process and published in 1999. It called f (...)

25The Force of Change takes up the motif of an internal division that fosters violence both physically and spiritually. The focus on this occasion is no longer the nuclear family but the group, in this instance the RUC. On the eve of the publication of the Patten report, Mitchell showed Londoners what made such a reform both necessary and terribly difficult.6 The playwright tackles the highly controversial issue of collusion between Loyalist paramilitary organisations and the security forces as well as the pervasive machismo of the force. Bill’s first line, “Interview started at whenever she arrives” (3), manifests his blatant lack of respect for his superior, Caroline, whose crime is to be younger, female and not particularly fond of the hard old methods of interrogation. The two have five hours to exact a confession from Stanley Brown, a man suspected of belonging to the UDA. Mark and David, the other two policemen, meanwhile have to deal with smaller fry, a young joyrider who could nonetheless implicate Brown and help to secure his conviction. A parallel is drawn by Mark between Caroline’s fate as a woman in the force, envied and distrusted by many of her misogynistic male colleagues, and that of a Catholic officer he used to work with: “You think you have problems. This guy thought everybody was watching him, everybody was out to get him” (44). Bill expresses his own doubts concerning the Patten report and impending reform of the RUC as well as the whole peace process: “I don’t think it is a peace protest for a start. I think it is a Nationalist process. I think it’s playing into the hands of the enemies of Ulster” (49). Earlier Caroline had deplored the evolution of Protestant organisations like the UDA:

An organisation established solely with one aim to serve and protect the Unionist population of Northern Ireland. Nothing too much wrong with that but that was the seventies and things were different then. What has this great Protestant organisation become? A bunch of half-wit criminals like you. (21-22)

26The ringing of a mobile phone lent by Bill to Stanley confirms the suspected collusion and generates a series of divergent responses on the part of the officers. David worries about the scandal that could ensue: “This can’t leave this room... I’m serious, look at the TV, they’re all over us. This would be another nail in our coffin. This has to stay between us” (60). He then launches into a thorough denunciation of the new rules and what he regards as the evils of positive discrimination:

We can’t go on promoting people to the top just because of their sex or their religion. It’s wrong. Very wrong.... People like me need to be at the top, Caroline, and I am not saying that from a macho point of view or from a Protestant point of view. I’m saying I deserve to be at the top, serving and protecting the people of Northern Ireland because I am the best man for the job. No one knows more about our enemies than me.
I know them all, I know how they live, I know where they live. I know how they think, how they operate and I know how to keep them in line and break them when they step out of line. Besides me, what are the options? Women running everything and for four days out of every month we forget about judges and juries and just shoot anybody who looks like a criminal. We can’t have that any more than we can have Catholics in charge of security. I mean they think every Protestant in the world is guilty of everything from the Famine to Bloody Sunday. (69-70)

27The ease with which David, the youngest officer, representing the future of the police force, dismisses both women and Catholics as unfit for the job on the basis of the grossest of prejudices ought to alienate our sympathy, and largely does so, were it not for the niggling suspicion that David is indeed uniquely qualified to confront Brown and his ilk. It also confirms how deeply entrenched is the collusion between sexism and sectarianism. The play ends with a line that shows Mitchell’s indebtedness to the thriller tradition: “How safe do you feel now?” a question addressed onstage to Stanley, but one which will haunt the spectators, left pondering what lies in store for Northern Ireland.

28To conclude, the plays under scrutiny here demonstrate that, far from offering a shelter, a move away from the fray of politics, the private sphere as represented onstage often mirrors the tensions at work within a divided society as playwright after playwright resorts to the trope of the mixed marriage, the unhappy union, the family torn apart by sectarian prejudice and rival loyalties, or explores analogies between sexual and sectarian discrimination. A characteristic of theatre in Ireland is that the stage is all too often already cluttered up, literally and metaphorically, by the debris of history. In the 1980s the prevalent mood was understandably one of despair or despondency, reflecting the communal sensibility. Yet, drama largely went on taking into account the fact that, as Decían Kiberd reminds us, “identity is seldom straightforward and given, more often a matter of negotiation and exchange” (Kiberd 1). There is little doubt that a number of Northern Irish dramatists are contributing to precisely such a process, that they have taken up the gauntlet of turning the stage into a space open to debate and questioning. The real challenge is how to eschew the trap of merely replicating on stage the myths and divisions of their society, how to avoid producing a theatre that strengthens our assumptions, our cynicism, our fatalism, instead of disorienting us, urging us to envisage alternatives. Theatre should not promote consensus, but force us to acknowledge complexities and differences. It should shock us out of our complacency and clear an imaginative space, akin perhaps to Peter Brook’s famous “empty space,” where thoughts can find new shapes and where identities can be negotiated anew.



Adamson Ian, The Cruithin: The Ancient Kindred, Belfast, Pretani, 1974.

Arnold Bruce, “The State of Irish Theatre”, Jordan, ed. 59-66.

Billington Michael, Review of Northern Star, Guardian Weekly 29 November 1998: 30.

Bolger Dermot, ed. Druids, Dudes and Beauty Queens. The Changing Face of Irish Theatre, Dublin, New Island Books, 2001.

Devlin Ann, Ourselves Alone, 1986, London, Faber, 1990.

Duddy Sam, et al. This is It! Theatre Ireland 7 (Autumn 1984): 19-34.

Foley Imelda, The Girls in the Big Picture. Gender in Contemporary Ulster Theatre, Belfast, Blackstaff P, 2003.

Foster R. F., Paddy and Mr Punch, Connections in Irish and English History, London, Penguin, 1993.

Friel Brian, Translations, London, Faber, 1981.

Gibbons Fiachra, “Gary Mitchell: Loyalist to the truth”, The Guardian Weekly 20-26 (April 2000): 15.

Heaney Seamus, North, London, Faber, 1985.

Hutchinson Wesley, “Images de l’identité culturelle protestante: l’UDA s’invente une dramaturgie.” Etudes irlandaises, numéro spécial “Irlande-Images” (1995): 117-31.

Jones Marie, A Night in November, Dublin, New Island Books, 1995.

—, “Belfast’s Active Voice.” Interview with Eileen Battersby. Irish Times 24 June 1999. On-line edition:

—, Stones in his Pockets, London, Nick Hem Books, 2000.

Jordan Eamon, ed. Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre, Dublin, Carysfort Press/Arts Council, 2000.

Kiberd Declan, Inventing Ireland. The Literature of the Modern Nation, London, Jonathan Cape, 1995.

McDonald Ronan, “Between Hope and History: The Drama of the Troubles”, Bolger, ed. 231-49.

McGuinness Frank, Carthaginians, London, Faber, 1988.

—, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, London, Faber, 1986.

Mitchell Gary, The Force of Change, London, Nick Hem Books & Royal Court Instant Playscripts, 2000.

—, Tearing the Loom, London, Nick Hem Books, 1998.

Morrison Bill, A Love Song for Ulster. An Irish Trilogy, London, Nick Hem Books, 1994.

Murphy Brenda and Christine Polard, “Forced Upon Us”, Performed 28 July 1998. Unpublished.

Murray Christopher, Twentieth-century Irish Drama. Mirror up to nation, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1997.

Parker Stewart, Three Plays for Ireland, Birmingham, Oberon Books, 1989.

Rea Stephen, “Belfast Festival at Queen’s”, Irish Times Supplement 7 November 1998. 1.

ST John Ervine, Mixed Marriage, Dublin, Maunsel, 1914. Rpt. in Selected Plays, ed. John Cronin. Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1988.

Taggart Ashley, “Theatre of War? Contemporary Drama in Northern Ireland”, Jordan, ed. 67-83.


1 A number of playwrights have adopted a more critical, radical form of sexual politics, for instance Ann Devlin’s feminist take on the familiar nationalist analysis in Ourselves Alone and Frank McGuinness’s inclusion of homosexuality as a way of bypassing binary thinking on sexual/political conflict in the groundbreaking Observe the Sons of Ulster as well as in Carthaginians.

2 Kate herself will recurrently shock her mother by referring to her predicament as one where she is “fucked” whichever way she turns, the bluntness of the phrase helping to fuse the political and the sexual in an acknowledgement of her utter helplessness.

3 Anne’s closing speech in this final scene is partly reminiscent of Marian’s at the end of Stewart Parker’s Pentecost (1985).

4 The following year, the same two actors took Ireland, London and Broadway by storm with the hugely successful two-hander by the Founder of Charabanc, Marie Jones, Stones in his Pockets.

5 A series of three television plays with young Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983) and A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984) all concentrate on family life in the violent context of the Troubles.

6 The Patten Report was commissioned as part of the peace process and published in 1999. It called for major changes affecting the name, ethos and recruitment procedure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Since September 2001, the RUC has been replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.


Université François-Rabelais de Tours
Associate Professor in Irish and English Studies at the University of Tours. She has written on Brian Friel, Field Day and contemporary Irish theatre for a number of French and international publications. A revised and updated version of her book Le Théâtre de Brian Friel (Septentrion, 1997) will be published by Academica Press in 2006

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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