“I am of Ireland”, a new play from Seamus Finnegan, aims to explore what it is to be Irish in 2018. Perhaps the timing couldn’t be any more apt, with the Irish attempting to deal once again with a divisive political decision that was out of their control.
Although the play tracks the lives of six Northern Irish Catholic boys, we see the stories of other characters, which in the main are apart from the ‘core’ characters, but sometimes link with each other. Angus Castle-Doughty gives tight, electrifying performances as the angry young men Barry and Derek, both angry at the same thing, but directing their blame at different targets. Richard Fish provides three studies of repressed rage and despair, one of whom meets Derek. Finnegan asks us how a country which has been divided by others can heal its wounds when so many have suffered and have made their neighbours suffer alongside them. How can religion guide both Northern and Southern Ireland, when both countries and churches want to guard their own corners?
Sean Stewart gives us four characters who have learnt to survive through their blank faces; the Irishman who moves to England and who can now only ever bear to visit the land of his birth, a priest whose future lies in the hands of his bishop, a detective, and sergeant. Jerome Ngonadi brings enlightenment through his priest from Monserrat, where Irish slave-owners gave the modern-day residents their names, and gives us a wise Mother Superior for Saria Steel’s Mary, wanting to become a nun against her mother’s wishes. Mary, a determined and devout young woman, has a heart full of love, but is that enough to build a future in the embattled Catholic Church?
Shenagh Govan provides an always-diverting support as Mary’s mother, with her other roles also providing a vital background as a bishop’s housekeeper and as a detective. Her housekeeper is something of a Greek chorus, providing a thorn in the side for her bishop on the role of women in the Church. Are women the key to a more compassionate, modern Catholicism? She seems to think so. Euan Macnaughton plays a devout supporter of his daughter Mary, but also tells us the story of his one-time IRA soldier, radicalised by Bloody Sunday and now finding himself seeking absolution in a society which has officially moved on. Catholicism built him, but does the Catholic North need him any more? Finnegan asks us; what happens to a people who define themselves by conflict, once that conflict ends?
“I am of Ireland” asks many questions, with many stories, but has the wisdom to intertwine humour with what are strong and often disturbing performances. Finnegan doesn’t shy away from both the horror and the mundane aspects of the fault lines of hate through Irish society. His own experience of leaving Northern Ireland for England and childhood of being raised by the Irish Christian Brothers features as an ever-present backdrop to the stories of others, but doesn’t overpower them. It would be difficult to do so, as the many voices in the play are all strong, even those of supporting characters. The audience are reminded twice during the play that the Easter Rising is only 102 years old, a counterpoint to the attempt of England to rewrite its imperialist history as something very far in the past. The various issues raised during the play, deliberately without any satisfying answers, is also a timely reminder that the inclination of the English press and establishment to ignore Irish politics is an unwise one.