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5 April 2007 Edition

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Reliving the Border Campaign

TV Review. The Patriot Game, TG4.

TG4 continues to outshine RTÉ in presenting excellent documentaries on Irish history and culture. This programme broke new ground, being the first TV documentary to deal in any depth with the IRA’s 1956-62 campaign.
The programme told the story of the campaign in the words of interviewed survivors  – Bob Kehoe, Patrick O’Regan, Breandán Ó Raghailligh, Eamonn Boyce, Labhrás Donnelly, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Tony Meade. They spoke honestly about their straightforward and often simplistic view of the campaign. The programme emphasised the anti-Partition rhetoric of politicians in the 26 Counties at the time and how many young people took them at their word but, unlike the establishment politicians, were prepared to act on those words. Patrick O’Regan recalled the stirring articles in the Sunday Press about the IRA’s actions during the Tan war and how he wished he had been there.
The programme may have given the impression to some viewers that the campaign was a wholly Southern-led and operated one, but this would be a false impression. While it was correct to say that most Volunteers from the 26 Counties had never been North prior to participating in the campaign, many Volunteers from the Six Counties and the Border counties participated and they certainly were very familiar with the RUC, the B-Specials and unionism. In this context it was a pity some attention was not given to the 1955 elections in which two IRA prisoners were elected as Westminster MPs in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster.
Similarly, little attention was given to the election of four Sinn Féin TDs in the 26 Counties in 1957, after the campaign had commenced. The programme-makers clearly wished to focus on the military struggle. The interviewees certainly made plain the meagre resources available to the IRA in terms of arms and training. It was a fight very much against the odds, despite the dedication and determination of the republicans.
The programme included fascinating footage of republican events, including the 1952 Bodenstown commemoration. Some more information on this and other previously unseen footage would have added to the programme. That said, the whole package made compulsive viewing for anyone with an interest in Irish history.
In the end the survivors had mixed views as they assessed the campaign from the distance of 50 years. Most recognised that they had taken on a task far beyond the ability of the IRA of the time and that the conditions to sustain the campaign, let alone achieve a military victory, were just not there. Nationalists in the North admired the bravery of the effort but had no belief in its prospect of success and must have known in their bones that a much deeper and longer struggle would be required to move the unionist monolith and the British occupation.
Those conditions changed and led to the next phase of struggle beginning in 1969. Ach sin scéal eile do lá eile agus clár eile.
By Mícheál MacDonncha


Brilliant evocation of O’Casey masterpiece

Shadow of a Gunman, New Theatre, Essex Street Dublin

Parts of Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman are extremely funny and this was brilliantly evoked by the cast of the New Theatre where the play is enjoying an extended run. But apart from being a comic masterpiece it has elements of pathos and tragedy and it was interesting to watch the audience reaction to both and especially the tragic conclusion to the Second Act.
The most important character of the play for me is Minnie Powell, superbly acted by Vanessa Fahy, who meets her end because of her infatuation with Davoren who she believes is an IRA Volunteer on the run. Davoren makes the most of this situation for romantic reasons, a personal flaw thankfully completely absent in the most recent generation of republican activists!
The only actual republican who appears is Maguire, played by the enigmatic Jer O’Leary, who arrives into Shields and Davoren to deposit a bag of Mills bombs for safe keeping. Gallagher tells them he is off to Knocksedan in north county Dublin to catch some butterflies. Later they hear that he has been killed in an ambush on the Brits.
The play was first staged in the Abbey in April 1923, in the closing weeks of the Civil War. Apparently it was greeted mainly for its comic relief. The scene where Mr. Gallagher, with the aid of Mrs. Henderson, addresses a letter to “Gentlemen of the Irish Republican Army” soliciting help against anti-social neighbours is hilarious. The comedy ends however with the raid on the house and the scene in which a British soldier menaces Davoren and Shields marks the transition of the play towards it tragic denouement.
Amusement at the characters’ false bravado abruptly ends when news of Minnie’s arrest and death become known. Strangely some of the audience still thought this was funny! Whether through drink or lack of empathy I am not certain. What O’Casey does, however, is present the stark reality of the war raging outside on the streets of Dublin. That must have had a powerful impact in 1923.
I suppose then the fact that some people fail to comprehend some of what is being portrayed is a sign of how far removed that time is, and how little even some educated Dubliners actually know or care about the period, that some of them think that the whole thing is comical. In fairness however the vast majority of the audience clearly understood what was happening as evidenced by their silence.
It is a superb play and probably the only one of the Dublin trilogy – that also comprises Juno and the Paycock and the Plough and the Stars, – that republicans would not find fault with in O’Casey’s representation of the period from an ideological point of view.
There is evidence of what later emerged as O’Casey’s ‘pacifism’ but which in reality was a rejection of revolutionary violence at least in an Irish context. At one point Shields declares that the people are dying for the gunmen. Not difficult then to see why his work was attempted to be incorporated into the anti-republican propaganda offensive of the 1970s and ‘80s. Dismissed at the time by one cynic of my acquaintance as the “Why O’Casey would have supported extradition” school of literary criticism.
But like all great works of literature and drama, O’Casey’s best plays have outlived differing interpretations and survive as more than just a record of the times he sought to portray. Director Ronan Wilmot, the cast and the New Theatre are to be congratulated on reviving the Shadow and hopefully will go on to stage more classics.
The play runs for at least another week and it is well worth making the time to see.


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