Observe the Sons of Ulster re-enacted in Thiepval

Seminal play performed in location where playwright Frank McGuinness set drama

Over 3,500 Irish men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, with many more wounded. Many of these men went to war in the hope of securing Home Rule, others with a desire to build stronger relations to the empire. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

In the 30 years since he wrote Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Frank McGuinness’s play has become a classic of 20th century Irish theatre.

On Wednesday night, it was performed for the first time in the place where McGuinness set the drama, facing the wooded knoll that the 36th Ulster Division attacked 100 years ago on Friday, with the loss of 2,000 lives.

It was an intense and emotional, never-to-be-repeated evening. Some 30 Irish, British and French theatre-goers joined old Kenneth Pyper, the fictional Somme veteran played by actor Seán McGinley, in communing with the ghosts of the First World War.

Over two hours, we watched eight young volunteers don green field uniforms and helmets, carry rifles and bayonets. They pair off: a cynical sculptor from a “swanky” family falls in love with a blacksmith from Enniskillen. Two Belfast shipyard workers are haunted by the sinking of the Titanic. A baker helps his life-long buddy, a weaver, to overcome his fear. A failed preacher is kept in line by the youngest recruit, who hides the fact his mother is Catholic.

Had he been told that his play would serve as Ireland’s contribution to centenary celebrations of the Battle of the Somme, and that it would be performed at the Ulster Tower, the oldest memorial on the Western Front, “I would not have believed it; I could not have believed it,” says McGuinness.

From a republican family in Donegal, McGuinness wrote the play while teaching at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Before they go into battle, he learned, Protestant soldiers exchanged their Orange sashes. That historical detail inspired him to write the play.

“It was a great act of imagination by Frank,” says Fiach MacConghail, director of the Abbey Theatre. “In the South, this play was the beginning of the understanding of a part of our culture that was never explained to us.”

The Abbey continues to produce plays by northern writers, in the hope of fostering understanding. “In the South, people think the problem is solved,” Mac Conghail explains. “It isn’t. Integration between the communities hasn’t happened, or is happening very slowly.”

Oration

Jeremy Herrin, the English director of the production, says epithets against “Taigs” and “Papists” are “historical realism, not shock tactics.” The love story between young Pyper (Donal Gallery) and Daniel Craig (Ryan Donaldson), seems in tune with our times, though MacConghail admits “in the past there would have been a tension about it.”

The 70th anniversary, for which he wrote the play, was barely noticed, McGuinness says. “The whole idea of commemoration has become much more popular. People are more willing to learn from the past, but also to say, ‘What courage.’ ”

The five-month battle claimed the lives of 420,000 British and Irish soldiers, with no decisive effect on the outcome of the war. “But if you see only the futility, you are missing something – the astounding sense of love between them,” McGuinness says. “If you don’t respect them, you are as bad as the generals who sent them to die; lions led by donkeys.”

Joseph Zimet, who heads the French first World War centenary mission, says he is thrilled with the Irish contribution. “Everyone else did military commemorations,” Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason explains. “Ours was the only cultural reaction.”

One week after the Brexit vote, the play struck a European chord. “In the time that’s in it, it shows young Irish people understand what a European ideal was about,” the ambassador says.

The play was performed before a bigger audience on Thursday night in Amiens. The Irish-British production will now go to Belfast, Derry, Armagh, Coleraine, Donegal and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Formal commemoration ceremonies will take place on Friday at the Thiepval monument, attended by British royalty, President Francois Hollande and President Michael D Higgins.

But no venue can replicate the power of the Ulster Tower, in the midst of the former battlefield. In drizzling rain among white birch trees as darkness fell, the illusion of a time warp was almost complete.

In the last and most powerful act, before dawn, the soldiers prepare to “go over the top”. To ward off their fear, they joke about the Easter rising (“this boy Pearse . . . who took over a post office because he was short of a few stamps”), play football, stage a mock battle between Kings James and William. The hymns they sing transport one back a century.

“This is the last battle. We are going to die,” Craig/Donaldson predicts. “Whoever comes back alive, if any of us do, will have died as well.”

Young Pyper/Gallery faces the German lines and exhorts the Lord to “Observe the Sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme.” The cry rises up and echoes across the hills of Picardy: “Ulster! Ulster! Ulster! . . . ”