In a meeting room on Denmark Street, a pacifist train driver is describing being tarred and feathered by a nationalist mob during the munitions strike of the 1920s, when rail and dockworkers refused to transport soldiers or weaponry for the British state. It's visceral stuff. The train driver is excellently played by Matthew Malone. Director Maisie Lee is observing via a Zoom link from a laptop on a big boardroom table (her household are awaiting the results of a Covid test).
Embargo is a site-specific work commissioned by the Dublin Port Company and Irish Rail commemorating the munitions strike and running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was due to take place in Connolly Station and the Pumphouse in Dublin Port (see endnote).
In the office next door to the rehearsal room, I sit down with the writer Deirdre Kinahan and Fishamble Theatre's artistic director Jim Culleton to talk about the play.
"With the War of Independence, we think of the boys with guns and ambushes and Tom Barry and Dan Breen and all that heroic stuff, the guerrilla warfare," says Kinahan. "But civil militancy was a huge part of it. I was always aware of that but I had always kind of thought it was an individualistic thing, I didn't really realise how orchestrated a lot of it was and the huge role the labour movement had within it.
“And then I was thinking, ‘Why do I know so little about this?’ Well, because a very conservative capitalist state emerged and didn’t want us to celebrate or commemorate that labour, grassroots movement. It was very dangerous if you were worried about a socialist agenda and socialist Republic.”
Kinahan wanted to say something about the moral, emotional and political complexities of the time and to do so via three characters. Malone’s Gracie is a gay onetime revolutionary and war veteran, who tries to help Jane, another former rebel, to escape the city after she kills an abusive stevedore. This brings them into conflict with Jack, a younger ideologue in the Dan Breen/Tom Barry mould, who wishes to prevent their train filled with soldiers from moving.
The ideals that underpinned 1916 are still really important to us now but it took almost 100 years for the likes of Gracie Grace to be accepted in our society
“You’re trying to tell the story of all the conflicting impulses and decisions,” says Kinahan. “They move out into monologue and storytelling and then into the scene. The notion is that they’re ghosts who return to this moment every year, because it had a huge impact on all their lives. And it’s a way of reflecting, because these stories are our stories. We came from this. Our history is built into those redbrick walls and these ghosts lurk in every corner. So it’s like the audience have just got a chance to meet them for a moment and get a little window into the passions of that time.”
There are also layers that are of particular significance now, she says. "Gracie went to the first World War as a young man, thinking it was an opportunity to travel the world. He became a pinup for the Munster Fusiliers and a member of a theatre troupe on the front.
“There were theatre troupes during the first World War, and there were a small, select group of soldiers who were very convincing young women. They used to actually get swapped from battalion to battalion so they wouldn’t be killed. They kind of were pinups within the kind of madness of that. He found great solace in women’s clothing in velvet and lace and silks and all that femininity in this dystopian, violent, male-dominated world. And Gracie is fashioned in France and he kind of predates the idea of transgender . . .
"The ideals that underpinned 1916 are still really important to us now, but it took almost 100 years for the likes of Gracie Grace to be accepted in our society"
Kinahan is interested in people who were left behind and disappointed by the Irish State. She talks about the actor Arthur Shields, a working-class Church of Ireland revolutionary, who was in the GPO with Pearse only to be appalled at the small-minded Catholic state that emerged.
“I remember watching him being interviewed about his career in LA and they were asking about that time in the Abbey in Dublin in 1916 and he started talking about it. ‘It was an extraordinary time . . . There were meetings and conversations . . .’ and then he just kind of stopped and said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. Is the camera still running? I don’t want to talk about it.’ He was so despondent, so disillusioned by what it had become.”
Kinahan’s job as a playwright, she says, isn’t just to celebrate history but to question it.
“I really think that [the commemoration in] 2016 was extraordinarily successful and momentous for us, as a people and as a nation, because we accepted the fact that a very simplified narrative was given precedence over everything else . . . I think it’s so sad that because of Covid, we’ve lost a whole year’s commemoration . . . I think to lose out on the big national discussions around the War of Independence is not a good thing.”
You certainly have to be very respectful of the facts but then you take flight. You've got to put fear in your back pocket
Is there a particular power in site-specific work? “There’s a huge resonance and a real soundscape at Connolly Station already,” says Kinahan. “There are beautiful arches in both locations that are resonant of the period. Hopefully [the audience] will never go into Connolly Station or around Dublin Port again without thinking about what happened there 100 years ago.”
Both Kinahan and Culleton have had a lot of experience with this sort of production. Culleton laughs at the challenges of lighting and electrifying non-theatrical spaces (he misses wall sockets, he says), but he also says that it’s worth it because of the ways it “blurs the lines between what’s theatre and what’s real life . . . We did a site-specific show back in 2006 around Temple Bar on a trail. You’d see a couple having an argument and you’d stop and watch and then realise that was a real couple.”
When Fishamble put Colin Murphy’s 1916 play Inside the GPO in the actual GPO in 2016, one woman came up to the actor who played Connolly to thank him for being so kind to her father. “Her father had been in the GPO when he was 17 and then he became a father in his 60s and she was now an old woman herself,” says Culleton. “She thanked the actor because she never got to thank Connolly.”
The research process for work like this is painstaking, says Kinahan. Peter Rigney, a historian with Irish Rail, helped a lot. He brought her to a building with "piles and piles of old files" which she sifted through, finding reports on civil disobedience. In a book by the historian Charles Townshend she found a mention of a man being tarred and feathered and yet continuing to drive the train. "And this image of a man tarred and feathered, driving a train out of rage, just haunted me and it became my key to help tell this story."
Is it intimidating taking on national myths and real history?
“I remember the first time I did it,” says Kinahan, “meeting with historians and just feeling mangled at the end of it, because they’d be saying, ‘The schoolteacher wouldn’t be called Hennessy. There were no Hennessys in that town.’”
She’s accustomed to the challenges now. “I’m writing a play for the Abbey as well, a commemoration of Bloody Sunday. I’ve written a play all about the Jewish community in the ’20s and ’30s in Dublin. I’ve written a 1916 play. I’m about to write a Civil War play.
“You certainly have to be very respectful of the facts but then you take flight. You’ve got to put fear in your back pocket. You’re always going to be walking through somebody’s experience and people don’t always like what they see, particularly if you’re showing them a truth that’s unpalatable. You’ve got to take yourself out of it, really, and just go for it.”
Culleton stresses the care and respect with which they approach a project like this. Kinahan says, “I’ve been dancing with these ghosts a long time.”
In light of the recent Level 3 announcement, Embargo, scheduled as part of Dublin Theatre Festival from 1 – 11 October, will be altering the way that audiences interact with the piece. Performances in Connolly Station will no longer physically take place, and Fishamble are in discussion with Dublin Port Company about performances taking place on location there. Fishamble would like to reassure audiences that this remarkable story will be shared with audiences in some form. At the time of this feature going to press it looked most likely to be online. To find out how to watch this play go to fishamble.com