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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland can be proud of itself only if it can confront its shameful deeds

Druid’s magnificent new staging of the O’Casey trilogy should be a source of national pride

In February 1926, on the fourth night of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which is set a decade earlier during the 1916 Rising, stink bombs were thrown from the auditorium of the Abbey Theatre, the stage was rushed and the actors were physically assaulted. The anger was understandable.

In a letter to the Irish Independent supporting the protests, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband, Frank, had been murdered in cold blood by the British army during the Rising, raised a very valid objection: “In no country save in Ireland could a State-subsidised theatre presume on popular patience to the extent of making a mockery ... of a revolutionary movement on which the present structure [of the State] claims to stand.”

She was probably right. Except that, as is obvious from Druid’s magnificent new staging of The Plough and the Stars together with its companion pieces, The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, at the Galway International Arts Festival (and coming soon to Belfast and Dublin), this anomaly should be a source of national pride.

While the controversy over the play was still raging, WB Yeats gave a talk on his own work in Dublin. In response to a question from the audience, he made a brilliant distinction between national pride and national vanity.


“The moment a nation reached intellectual maturity,” he pronounced, “it became exceedingly proud and ceased to be vain and when it became exceedingly proud, it did not disguise its faults ... but when it was immature it was exceedingly vain, and did not believe in itself, and so long as it did not believe in itself it wanted other people to think well of it, in order that it might get a little reflected confidence.”

There is a kind of paradox here – the test of whether a nation is really proud of itself is whether or not it can bear to confront its own most shameful realities. Part of what makes Garry Hynes’ staging of the O’Casey trilogy so wonderfully vivid is that it reconnects us to the electric current generated by this apparent contradiction.

In the contest between national pride and national vanity, vanity for most of the history of the State was the clear winner. The cost was fearful: to keep the vision it wanted to see in the mirror clear and clean the State ruthlessly excised all the human realities that clouded the consoling self-image of Catholic Ireland as a shining example to the world.

What has been happening this century is that, as Ireland has begun to “believe in itself”, it has less need to believe in its own lies. As national pride has grown we have been able to confront the shame of the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries and the mother and baby homes.

And this has created the opportunity to go back and look afresh at what O’Casey was doing during the birth of the State: forcing it to confront its own self-deceptions. It’s an opportunity that Hynes seizes with the theatrical relish and ferocious energy that makes her company one of the best in the English-speaking world.

At the heart of The Plough and the Stars is a character we can never see or hear: Nora’s stillborn baby. It lies, in the heart-wrenching last act, in a crude wooden coffin, in the arms of a young girl who has died of tuberculosis – the silent and invisible embodiment of a stillborn nation.

How on earth did Ireland deal with this searing image? In its own special way: by killing it with over-familiarity.

Here’s the joke. After the riots – which had the virtue of registering and expressing the psychic shock of O’Casey’s assault – the Dublin trilogy was regurgitated as the Abbey’s staple diet, the bacon and cabbage of the nation’s dramatic repertoire. One statistic says it all: in the 50 years after 1926, the Abbey staged The Plough almost 1,000 times. Juno and The Shadow were similarly shopworn by repetition.

But the plays have never been staged together. It is remarkable that DruidO’Casey is the first ever performance of what forms, taken as a whole, a unique national epic. No other country that I know of has such a potent contemporary dramatisation of its own birth, written and staged before the blood was yet dry.

When you do see them together – ideally, as the Druid production makes possible, on the same day – you realise what an extraordinary thing it is for a young country to have this trilogy in its cultural DNA. All nations celebrate the heroism of their creation. How many others have such a relentlessly and fearlessly anti-heroic alternative vision of their origins? I guess none.

An alternative title for the trilogy might be The World Turned Upside Down. But it’s not just the revolution that is turning things upside down – it is O’Casey that is turning the revolution upside down, forcing us to see it from the bottom up.

The bottom is occupied by the people one character refers to as “slum lice”. They are the inhabitants of the inner city tenements who actually suffered most of the casualties during the Rising, but who benefited least from the change of regimes.

But – and this emerges with stupendous force in Hynes’ brilliantly cast production – O’Casey also turns this world itself upside down by viewing it primarily from the perspective of women. What makes O’Casey himself so revolutionary is that he stages his own theatrical revolt against masculinity.

Almost without exception the men in these plays are embodiments of national vanity: puffed-up, self-aggrandising but ultimately hollow. They are poseurs, already halfway to being theatrical characters who perform versions of manhood. Marty Rea, Rory Nolan and Aaron Monaghan capture this quality superbly.

It is the women, embodied most powerfully in Hilda Fay’s Juno, who have the real flesh and blood in this cartoon world. O’Casey’s constant intertwining of farce and tragedy is also a startling mesh of male performativity and female practicality. If it feels as though in each of these dramas there are two plays going on at the same time it’s because there are – and these productions keep them both moving in a dizzying spin.

It’s all shocking and entertaining, hilarious and heartbreaking, breathless and brutal, enmeshed in death and wildly alive – which is to say as gloriously contrary as it should be.

Sheehy-Skeffington, in that letter of protest in 1926, used the phrase “morbid perversity” about O’Casey’s play. She was dead right about the perversity but wrong about the morbidity.

There is such a thing as a vibrant, invigorating, life-giving perversity. Ireland needed it a century ago. The perverse joy of DruidO’Casey is that it makes it urgently plain that it still does.