The Crilly Trilogy: staging The Black North

Plasys are ‘parodies of esteem’ puncturing loyalists’ and republicans’ political pieties

Sean Kearns, Ciaran McMenamin and Kieran Lagan in Second-Hand Thunder. Photograph: courtesy of Tinderbox Theatre Company

Sean Kearns, Ciaran McMenamin and Kieran Lagan in Second-Hand Thunder. Photograph: courtesy of Tinderbox Theatre Company

 

Though they are not chronologically or conceptually conceived as a formal trilogy, the three plays published in this collection are rippled with a rich seam of themes: sexual and sectarian violence, mixed marriages and miscegenation, the gothic presence of the past, and the toxic aftermath of the Troubles.

Set in the late 1990s, in the latter stages of the peace process, Second-Hand Thunder and McQuillan’s Hill are a savage double-act: “parodies of esteem” that puncture the political pieties and public rhetoric of hard-line unionism and militant republicanism. Kitty and Damnation, though set in the aftermath of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, its historical backdrop foregrounds the (ongoing) struggle of women to achieve their own personal emancipation. All three plays are distinctive by dint of their language and location, and collectively signal the arrival of an important new voice on the Irish stage, one lost far too soon but whose achievements should not be forgotten.

The literary critic, Joseph McMinn, once observed how artists often talked about the Troubles “in terms of an ancient family quarrel, a domestic row or a sexual confrontation”. In this collection, Crilly combines all three as the stories unspooled here unweave the personal from the political to expose the sectarian warp and weft of the North’s social fabric. Each play engages with the explicit and invidious ways in which colonial history and sectarian animosity have (mis)shaped the black North and perhaps no other playwright has dealt more directly with the darker still history of sexuality and sexual violence here: subjects historically surrounded by stigma and silence.

Produced by Tinderbox Theatre Company, Second-Hand Thunder and McQuillan’s Hill were performed against the fraught backdrop of the peace process. The former draws on the Drumcree crisis and premiered soon after the Good Friday Agreement which prompted the release of paramilitary prisoners – that’s the pretext for Fra Maline’s stage entrance in the latter. Re-reading both plays is to revisit the cliched “different country” of the past and a powerful reminder that even though the optimism of the agreement has curdled as the institutions it envisioned have collapsed, our present purgatorial state is vastly improved from those dark days of Drumcree.

This crisis first irrupted in 1995 when the bloody-minded determination of the Orange Order to march through the Catholic Garvaghy Road met equally obdurate opposition from local residents, creating a sectarian standoff that escalated violently each summer until its savage culmination in the immolation of three innocents, when the three sleeping Quinn children perished after their Catholic home was petrol-bombed by a loyalist mob. Their three tiny white coffins were carried on a tide of grief as a barbarous portent of a society on the brink of something Balkanesque… but their deaths broke the back of Drumcree, just as the innocent dead of the Omagh bombing broke that of dissident republican violence later that year.

A scene from On McQuillan’s Hill. Photograph: courtesy of Tinderbox Theatre Company
A scene from On McQuillan’s Hill. Photograph: courtesy of Tinderbox Theatre Company

Drumcree also propelled a little-known unionist politician into its most prominent position when David Trimble became the unlikely leader of the Ulster Unionist Party; elevated by his hardline stance and “dance” up Garvaghy Road, hand in hand with Ian Paisley after the RUC succumbed to loyalist threats and forced their parade through. These events inform Crilly’s plays, with Trimble comically replicated in Second-Hand Thunder as Alexander Abraham, bedecked in Orange collarette and countenance puce with outrage, bursts onstage from a diverted march in Ballycharles.

Second-Hand Thunder also drew on the sense of unease over prisoner releases as republican and loyalist prisoners were freed in flurries from the Maze / Long Kesh in what were often celebratory scenes that caused consternation among their victims and turned unionist support away from the agreement (and the Ulster Unionist Party). Republicans celebrated prisoner releases as victories that symbolically validated their struggle and sacrifice, though they were also cynical acts of stage management to mask the defeat of their armed struggle which disillusioned many of its members.

Though the rhetoric of armed struggle survived, even figures like Fra and Ray in McQuillan’s Hill have few of their convictions left; the credibility of “the cause” sunk beneath a dirty backwash of revelations about state penetration, agents and informers that led to its defeat. Fra is set up, shot and imprisoned by his own “comrades” for reasons that are petty and personal, as much as pragmatic or political, in an excoriating critique of the futility of political violence.

Shot through The Crilly Trilogy is a central shared concern for the fates and futures of the children of each play. In Thunder, Bobby is the innocent offspring of a violent act of rape; traumatised at a tender age after discovering the bodies of his slain parents. Not only can he never escape a past for which he is not to blame, but he’s forever destined to carry with shame the sins of his father: “Big Mark” Abraham, a strong farmer in the malevolent mould as Eugene McCabe’s Scober McAdams or John B Keane’s Bull McCabe, for all are brutal patriarchs whose violent obsession with property and progeny has tragic consequences.

A similar fate befalls Theresa Maline in McQuillan’s Hill as she struggles to escape the notoriety of her own family name, but is powerless to repel its toxic gravitational pull. As the malign genealogy of the Maline clan is uncovered, the dark rumours of Theresa’s incestuous conception by her inebriated grandfather are exposed as a cruel confabulation, but the shadow of this shame is lifted too late; for unwittingly, Theresa has since slept with her real father. And so, a false tale of incest becomes incarnate; myth becomes reality, and fate is (self)fulfilled as a grotesque lie from one generation becomes true for the next.

There’s an awful ineluctability to this tragic melodrama; it’s a damning indictment of the incestuous cycle of violence and its generational impact which, again, appears prescient as Crilly places centre stage the corrosive legacies of conflict that literally pollute the next generation. There are some shoots of hope, however, in Kitty and Damnation for although the eponymous heroine is almost framed for infanticide, forced into a false confession on the public stage for the perverse gratification of a penny gaff audience and the profit of her sleekit employers, the salvation of her illegitimate son is secured by the distinguished soak and thespian, Edmund Kean, who secretly transports him to a new life in England.

Another aspect of Crilly’s work which deserves mention is his distinctive use of language and location. There is a long tradition in Irish drama of how landscape and language have mutually inscribed each other; a relationship that’s contoured the cultural geography of Irish theatre in fascinating ways. During the Revival, many playwrights gravitated towards the (wild) west of Ireland: there, Lady Gregory cultivated her Kiltartan; John Millington his Synge-song, and Keane rooted The Field in its stony soil, tropes later subverted by Martin McDonagh in his Leenane trilogy as his London-Irish sensibilities trashed this stage (Irish) tradition just like The Pogues punked the ceilidh one.

The west of Ireland is not the only linguistic landscape that can be mapped in Irish theatre: Marina Carr melds mythology and modernity in the drawling dialect of the Irish midlands and much of Friel’s drama is deliberately set in the hinterland between Derry and Donegal as a mnemonic for the borders between past and present, tradition and modernity, history and memory.

What distinguishes Crilly’s plays from other Northern playwrights, however, is its distinct geographical imaginary; drawn loosely south of the soft rushy-bottomed shores of Lough Neagh to the hard-line politics of its neighbouring parishes of the “murder triangle”. It’s a district that has benefited less from the peace dividend as places like Portadown and Lurgan simmer still with sectarian feeling and dissident unrest. From the foundation (and fighting) of the Orange Order and Defenders in the 18th century through to the Troubles’ savage tradition of “neighbourly murder”, Mid-Ulster with its murky history of collusion and sectarian bloodspilling has long been a malevolent cradle of division.

Though all three plays critique the enduring intensity of sectarian feeling in the North and, depressingly, suggest its indissolubility, Crilly’s distinctive use of speech simultaneously suggests it provides a common ground that unites his characters and communities. The author acknowledged how he loved “the humour in the language. Listening to neighbours, I’d be very conscious of speech patterns and rhythms”; sentiments which resonate with another distinguished exponent of Mid-Ulster speech, Seamus Heaney, who celebrated the contrapuntal complexity of its linguistic confluence of Irish, Elizabethan English and Ulster Scots; seeing in it a potential for civic discourse, that this commingling could be generative of “some kind of creative intercourse and alignment”.

Theatre, it must be remembered, is as much an auditory medium as a visual one and Crilly’s dialogue pithily captures the mulchy vernacular of mid-Ulster speech with its distinctive melding of different cultures, histories, and identities: qualities which radiate throughout the plays and are rooted in the author’s feelings, if not fidelity, to his homeplace as he spent most of his life in England in exile. Tellingly, all of Crilly’s plays are set in the Montiaghs: the loughshore area around his homeland of Derrymacash. Even Kitty and Damnation, though the bulk of it is set in London, opens and closes in a townland modelled on this parish nestled on Lough Neagh’s southern shore: reflecting the life’s journey of its author who is now buried near there. But if our little life is rounded by a sleep, it’s a peaceful place to find one’s final rest.

****

I never knew Joe and can never imagine the enormity of his loss for those who loved him most, but I hope there’s more than cold comfort to be found in this collection of his plays. Theatre may be the most ephemeral form of art, but it also possesses a paradoxical power in bringing to life on stage images and ideas that can be scalded into our consciousness. There’s an immortality of sorts, too, when a playwright’s words are retrieved from the transient realms of memory and performance, transposed into print and preserved for posterity. Surely, there can be no more fitting memento mori than that?
Mark Phelan lectures in drama in the Brian Friel Centre , School of Arts, English and Languages, Queen’s University Belfast. This is an edited version of his introduction toThe Crilly Trilogy, published by Orpen Press at €15.

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