Easter Rising, Curtain Falling – Frank McNally on the 1916 play still awaiting its Abbey premiere

An Irishman’s Diary

When writing recently about his 1922 book on the “Irish Olympics” (aka the Tailteann Games), I knew little else of the obscure author, T.H. Nally. But as I have since learned, he has at least one other remarkable, if unfortunate, claim to literary fame.

He was also the writer of a play scheduled to open in the Abbey Theatre on Tuesday April 24th, 1916. Other events intervened, not least the unavailability of cast members. Arthur Shields, for one, was by then an armed rebel, fighting in the Metropole Hotel and GPO.

Entitled The Spancel of Death, Nally’s drama is still waiting for its Abbey premiere 106 years later. The only full production I know of since was in Boston. But ill-fated as it may have been, in one way the play was spectacularly well timed. For behind its grim storyline, it was also was a political metaphor urging the break-up of the Act of Union.

The plot was based on real-life events in 1770s Mayo and on a grisly custom then practised in parts of Ireland, which is also mentioned in the folk tales of Jane Wilde.

Known as Buarach Bháis in Irish, the spancel of its title was an unbroken hoop of skin, cut from a corpse along the entire body, shoulder to foot, accompanied by incantations, and then wrapped in silk of the colours of the rainbow.

The finished article was a love charm, or "spancel", a couple together. And it was with this intent that a woman named Sibby Cottle approached her local practitioner in 1777 about using its powers on a certain Sir Henry Blosse Lynch. Cottle was a Catholic governess. Lynch a Protestant landlord, already the father of her several children. Now he was planning to marry within his faith. Extreme intervention was required.

The spell seems to have worked. In real-life, the landlord predeceased Cottle and, with no legitimate heirs, left a large amount of property to her and their numerous offspring.

But in Nally’s play, bowing to the market demands of 1916, the wily woman undergoes a death-bed repentance and hands the buarach over to a priest to be destroyed. She deeply regrets the evil union it had spawned. And there’s your political metaphor.

WB Yeats liked the play, hence its inclusion on a three-part bill for Easter Week also intended to include his own Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the one about which he later asked: "Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?" Answering in advance, Sean Connolly, who was to have had the lead role, instead became the first republican victim, shot dead while trying to capture Dublin Castle.

Later readers were not as enamoured of Nally’s drama as Yeats. On the Rising’s 50th anniversary, writing for this newspaper, Micheál Ó hAodha recalled reading it for a possible radio production once. He had found it “lurid and melodramatic” in parts and in general “poorly constructed in an outworn style”.

Even so, he could "still recall vividly its subject and plot". And 20 years later, in 1986, it finally earned a premiere, albeit among what Patrick Pearse had called "our exiled children in America".

That was in one way an Abbey production. Tomás MacAnna had just stepped down as artistic director. He now staged the full Easter Week bill at Boston College, as visiting professor of drama. And Nally's work won glowing reviews from the college paper, at least. By contrast, the critic found Yeats's more famous play "not as well developed".

Whether The Spancel of Death has ever been staged anywhere in Ireland is unclear. In his capacity as Mayo historian, my late friend Steve Dunford wrote of a "mock-up version" somewhere in the 1980s and deemed it a flop. Otherwise, the play appears to have been lost in the Rising's crossfire.

In an irony not universally appreciated at the Abbey, by the way, the violence left the actual theatre unharmed. This was a big disappointment to one of the directors, St John Ervine, who had long wanted to rebuild the place but could never secure funds. Now, given its location in the line of fire between a British gunboat and the GPO, the exciting possibility of compensation arose.

But as he recalled years later: “When at last the rebellion was quelled and I went down to Marlborough Street in high hope, what did I find? Houses on the other side of the street were level with the ground, mere heaps of hot ash, but not a pane of glass in the Abbey was broken. I cursed the Government and the crew of the Helga for their incompetence, and bitterly regretted that I had not gone down on Easter Monday and fired it myself.”