It felt good to be attending a theatrical event again – albeit a verbatim re-enactment of the 1921 Treaty debates in the Dáil – for the first time since the plague. But there was also a weird feeling for me of deja vu at Dublin's Mansion House on Monday night, heightened by the fact that Marcus Lamb was playing one of the lead roles.
The last time I had seen him in anything was during the far-off days of 2019, when he was part of a group performing Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall at the Beckett family church in Foxrock. There, because All That Fall is a radio play and because its author was a stickler for proprieties, the audience had to wear black eye masks, to prevent any visual contamination of his words.
This time, in a world unimaginable then, we were wearing mouth and nose masks, to prevent another kind of contamination. And of course, we brought our own.
But because Monday’s show was being recorded, the producers from Loosehorse TV were handing out fashionable black masks at the door, to make the audience look more co-ordinated. I now fully expect that the next time I see Lamb in something, we will be issued with black ear-muffs.
The Treaty debates were not originally envisaged as a work of drama, I'm sure. And despite the epic transcript being reduced to a bare hour – a masterpiece of editing by Colin Murphy – the words were all spoken by the real protagonists.
But knowing what we know now, the script might as well be a Greek tragedy, as the implacably opposed sides talk themselves into civil war, all the while obsessing about something that would soon be meaningless (the oath of allegiance) while mostly ignoring what turned out to be the real problem (the Border).
A striking thing about the debates is that, by the standards of the time, women were well represented – which is to say, represented at all. There were six of them, all featured in the re-enactment and all on the anti-Treaty side.
But if this was an advance for feminism, it was undermined by the fact that they were there as the voices of dead men; sons, brothers, and husbands. Their men were past compromising now and they weren’t going to do it for them. Thus they were among the least placable of the debaters. As far as the all-male pro-Treaty side was concerned, there was no talking to them.
A consequent star of the occasion, for good or bad, was Cork TD Mary MacSwiney, older sister of Terence who had died on hunger strike in Brixton jail a year earlier.
In the session of December 21st, 1921, she spoke for two hours and 40 minutes, a feat that inspired grudging admiration from The Irish Times, whose sketch writer noted she “had her quiver full of poisoned arrows, and she launched every one”.
The writer went on: “Still, it was a remarkable achievement. Possibly, it is unique. Men have spoken longer and better, but it is fairly safe to say that few women have equalled Miss MacSwiney’s feat. To speak for nearly three hours in any circumstances is beyond the power of most human beings. To sustain such a pitch of bitter fervour as Miss MacSwiney sustained throughout […] would have been considered impossible, if one had not heard her yesterday with one’s own ears.”
That report seemed to echo a line then recently written by WB Yeats, the one about the best lacking “all conviction” while the worst were full of “passionate intensity”.
According to the writer, the afternoon session was “monopolised” by two utterly contrasting speakers, MacSwiney and WT Cosgrave. And although Cosgrave’s politics were more to the newspaper’s liking, his speech did not impress. “He kept his audience laughing,” the report noted, but his remarks “would have been more effective had they been a little less flippant”.
MacSwiney was played in Monday's performance by Hilary Rose, better known for a very different kind of Cork drama, as a near namesake of the TD, Mairéad MacSweeney, long-suffering mother in The Young Offenders.
Rose is not given any comic lines in the debate dramatisation, alas, and yet she did raise a couple of laughs, perhaps unplanned by the producers.
To suggest the length of MacSwiney’s speech, of which only of a few minutes could be presented, the stage lights were dimmed briefly, twice. Both blackouts were followed by a ripple of laughter from the audience as the lights came up again to reveal MacSwiney still standing tall, while by contrast on each occasion, the rest of the Dáil seemed to have sunk a little deeper into their seats.