Guerilla nights in Dublin

An Irishman’s Diary about theatrical surprises

Tom Barry. “The same things that made Barry such a brilliant military leader make him a poor storyteller.  His bombastic prose, black-and-white characterisations, and a tendency to plead righteousness on all questions of war-time morality (some of them still fiercely contested) are a bit wearing. He was the sort of man you’d want beside you – or in front of you, ideally – in the trenches. But I doubt he was great company anywhere else.”

Tom Barry. “The same things that made Barry such a brilliant military leader make him a poor storyteller. His bombastic prose, black-and-white characterisations, and a tendency to plead righteousness on all questions of war-time morality (some of them still fiercely contested) are a bit wearing. He was the sort of man you’d want beside you – or in front of you, ideally – in the trenches. But I doubt he was great company anywhere else.”

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 01:00

In the Dame Street area of Dublin the other night, on a whim, I decided belatedly to check out that new Enda Walsh play everybody’s been raving about, Ballyturk. The problem, I guessed, was that the evening’s performance had probably sold out. It was by now only 10 minutes to curtain.

But when I inquired at the Olympia box office – lo! – they had a spare seat. And handing over my €27.50, I was already looking forward to what this paper’s reviewer called the play’s “hyperkinetic story-telling”. Then I looked at the ticket, and noticed that instead of Walsh’s absurdist comedy, I had paid in to see Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days in Ireland.

Ballyturk’s two-week run had just ended, it turned out, and an adaptation of Barry’s War of Independence memoir had replaced it. Damn, I thought, making a mental note to check the listings next time, while pretending to the box office clerk that I knew what I’d been doing.

Then, with a sinking heart, I bought a programme from a stall that was also selling Guerilla Days in Ireland T-shirts. And after that I trooped into the auditorium, feeling like I too had been ambushed by Barry’s celebrated flying column.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the history of Ireland’s revolutionary period. I do. It’s just that Guerilla Days in Ireland, which I’ve read, is not one of the better books of that era (those were written by Ernie O’Malley). It doesn’t lack for dramatic events – even Michael Collins was in awe of the West Cork column’s feats. But the same things that made Barry such a brilliant military leader make him a poor storyteller.

His bombastic prose, black-and-white characterisations, and a tendency to plead righteousness on all questions of war-time morality (some of them still fiercely contested) are a bit wearing. He was the sort of man you’d want beside you – or in front of you, ideally – in the trenches. But I doubt he was great company anywhere else.

The Olympia show does its best with the material, in fairness. And the four actors, who perform multiple roles, switching sides and uniforms regularly, deliver spirited performances.

But sure enough, the book’s heavy-handed narrative encircles the drama, a bit like the British military cordon that, in the climactic scene, attempts to trap the flying column between Bantry and the sea. Suffice to say that, unlike the column, the play’s dramatic potential does not escape.

Mind you, if the story wasn’t hyper-kinetic, the fidgety audience made up for it. The show was far from a sell-out (in either the commercial or hard-line republican sense). Yet due to a ticket-printing glitch, the seats beside me appeared to have been heavily oversold.

I had to stand up twice while later arrivals debated ownership with the incumbents, before voluntary relocation. And then there was the beer. You could bring pints into the theatre, in plastic cups. But the downside of this was a group of pint drinkers in front (seated in the middle of a row, naturally) who had to go to the toilet during the play, apologising and kicking cups over as they went and returned.

There was also a pint drinker beside me. And such was the squeaking of his seat throughout the first act, I guessed he badly needed the bathroom too. But heroically, he held on, squeaking until the interval.

It almost goes without saying that a mobile phone rang at one point, with comic timing. On stage, Barry and his colleagues had just taken up hiding places for the Kilmichael ambush, in which silence was crucial. Then the phone went off. Luckily for the owner, the ringtone was silenced before snipers could establish his position.

Anyway, flawed as it is, the play is probably worth seeing. After all, apart from the story’s importance in republican history, it also serves as a contribution to the ongoing centenaries of the first World War, in which Barry learned his trade.

A born soldier, he would surely have found his vocation sooner or later. But having joined the British army as a teenager, for no reason other than the desire to handle guns and have adventures, he brought his new skills back to the Bandon Valley – yet another irony of the war to end all wars.

Guerilla Days in Ireland is at the Olympia until Saturday. The flying columnists of Ballyturk, meanwhile, continue to elude me, for the moment. According to well-placed sources, having swept triumphantly through Galway and Dublin, they have now popped up in – where else? – Cork, and head for London next month.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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