Blood Red Lines: Play reveals personal tales of Troubles tragedy

Catholic man and former British soldier use the stage to find their own route to the past

Armagh man Dessie Trainor shares a stage with 10 others, but they all share much more than a stage.

Over the course of two hours, Trainor and his fellow performers reveal deeply personal stories of the tragedies of the Troubles, and the impact that they have had on their and many other lives.

“We were told the next morning that our mum was dead and little did I know then that the next 40-odd years would be a nightmare,” Trainor confesses to a large audience at the Liberty Hall Theatre in Dublin.

His story is part of a new play called Blood Red Lines created by Scottish writer-director Robert Rae who was commissioned by the Derry Playhouse as part of a peace process initiative to look at issues of the past.


The participants in the play include Aidan Shields, who lost his mother, Maureen, in the 1974 Dublin bombings, and Mary Casey, the Co Monaghan woman whose father Jack McCann was killed along with eight others when an IRA bomb detonated prematurely at a Border customs post in 1972.

Casey told her story for the first time to The Irish Times in an article published last October that was shown by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to EU leaders at a European Council meeting in Brussels to warn that the possibility of a return to violence if there was a hard border after Brexit was "very real".

That moment at the council dinner is itself recalled on stage.

The stories told in the play are as harrowing as they are intimate, made all the more powerful by the people performing as themselves

The play had its premiere at Newry Town Hall in February and has been performed in Belfast, Dundalk and Dublin. Such is the emotional punch it packs and the important stories it tells that the people behind it would like to bring it to more audiences and further afield, perhaps to England and the United States.

The stories told in the play are as harrowing as they are intimate, made all the more powerful by the people, all non-professional actors, performing as themselves and telling their own and their families’ stories.

Trainor was 13 when his mother, Dorothy, was murdered and his father, Malachy, was injured in a gun attack on April 1st, 1975 by members of the Glennane Gang, the notorious loyalist gang made up of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary policy officers.

Dorothy, a Protestant, and Malachy, a Catholic – parents to 11 children – were walking back through a Portadown park from a night out at the British Legion when they were targeted by the UVF gang.

“I think they kept the details from me to protect me but my mother and father lay in the park for two hours before they were found,” he says in the play.

From there, Trainor’s life unravelled.

His father was “never the same man again”, he says.

Eight months after losing his mother, Trainor lost his brother Ronnie after their home was blown up in a bomb attack on December 15th, 1975. Another brother, Tommy, and a friend were murdered on March 8th, 1978 while going to sign on the dole in Portadown.

My parents met in England. Fate took them back to Portadown. Life was beautiful, was lovely until the
Troubles came

For the past quarter century, the 48-year-old, who lives on the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown, has been tending to his mother's grave in the cemetery at the Protestant Drumcree Church, for years the epicentre of Orange Order anger over the defence of their tradition to parade through a Catholic area.

Trainor recalls how when the Orange protests were “hot and heavy” in the 1990s and “police wouldn’t let us through the lines” he asked to pass through so he could look after his mother’s grave.

“That’s just the way fate was. My parents met in England. Fate took them back to Portadown. Life was beautiful, was lovely until the Troubles came,” he says. “It was just a typical childhood. I remember going out and playing cowboys. It all changed. I had to grow up real quick.”

Trainor is "still on a journey looking for the truth" about what happened to his family and "living with my memories". He battles with alcoholism and depression but now admits that "all my energy and hope" is for his children Louise and Conor and his granddaughter Mila.

For Trainor, Blood Red Lines has not just been about confronting his own demons but has also helped explain to his family what happened in the Troubles and how it affected him.

“It really helped my two children to understand. I couldn’t explain the trauma that I had been through and the trauma that I had put them through,” he says.

Trainor is not the only participant on stage to benefit from the process of remembering. Relatives of other cast members say they have seen them become more confident and open since participating in the play.

One performer, Lee Lavis, a former British army soldier who served in Northern Ireland in the early to mid-1990s, recalls how he has been affected by his time in Crossmaglen. He says there was a constant risk from the IRA and "a sniper with a 50-calibre rifle" to soldiers on patrols or at checkpoints.

Lavis, who is from Staffordshire but lives in Northern Ireland, talks in the play about the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers from as a result of his experiences and his recovery from heroin addiction and a suicide attempt.

“When I used not talk about memories, they damaged me because they owned me. When I talk about them, I take ownership of those memories,” he says.

There is anger expressed too in the play, at the military training that took away Lavis’s impulse for independent thought, for dehumanising civilians, for looking at “kids” from the nationalist community as “nothing more than tomorrow’s IRA”. He recalls how time spent in that community changed his views.

“For the first time ever I found out what it was like to be on the other side of a house search or to be stopped for the 14th time as you were trying to get your kids to school,” he says in the play.

The strength of his anti-war, anti-military sentiment spills off the stage.

“In the past, I would have directed my anger towards myself. Blood Red Lines allows me to direct that anger outwards. That is hugely cathartic,” he says.

Bringing together people from different, previously conflicting backgrounds was not without its challenges. Lavis admits there was an “edginess” when he first met some cast members, including Trainor.

The play totally dismantled stereotypes – the Brit, the loyalist, the republican, the victim

“All they could see was a guy who had been in uniform but, as they got to know me as a person, they decided there was a story in this uniform person,” says the former soldier, now a member of Veterans for Peace.

Gradually they saw him not as a former soldier but as “another victim” of the Troubles.

“The play totally dismantled stereotypes – the Brit, the loyalist, the republican, the victim – it just sweeps through that and it is another human being who has been hurt,” he says.

The play’s creator, Robert Rae, admits that early tensions between some cast members were overcome with “a cigarette outside” or “a cup of tea”.

“In terms of the tension, they are really good friends now. They have sort of bonded as human beings because they are very open about what happened to them,” he says.

Rae sees the play as a contribution to that “important collective effort” of documenting the histories of the lost, the forgotten and the unheard. The current threat posed by Brexit and the talk of a return to a hard border has given the project “contemporary relevance, urgency and focus”, he says.

Blood Red Lines is both “a piece of theatre and a piece of journalism,” he says. He draws a parallel with how war poets dealt with the conflicts of the past by “taking people into the human side of things”.

“It is about empathy and creating empathy,” he said.

As Northern Ireland, without a parliament for more than 2½ years, struggles to deal with the legacy of its tortured past, the play’s cast members see projects like Blood Red Lines filling a gap.

"In the absence of a top-down mechanism such as the Stormont House Agreement, all we have are things born from the bottom up and that is why Blood Red Lines is an example of people seizing the nettle for themselves, no matter how painful, and finding their own route to look at the past," said Lavis.

Trainor sees benefits from others going through what the cast have experienced.

“There is only 11 of us in one play. Imagine if you scaled that up and had discussions so that people could come and talk to others about what happened,” he said.

“It would be a long process but, at the end of it, people would be walking about six feet high. I know it helps people in the audience. If it helps one person in the audience, it has done its job.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times