Irish soldiers of The Great War inspire 'Pals' drama

The hell of Gallipoli has inspired the latest drama from Anu, writes Padraic Killeen.

Irish soldiers of The Great War inspire 'Pals' drama

IN COMMEMORATION of the thousands of Irish soldiers who died in the First World War, the National Museum of Ireland is staging a site-specific theatre show that focuses on the fate of the 7th company of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, young Irishmen who were sent to fight in the disastrous Allied assault on Gallipoli in 1915.

The great majority of these men were very swiftly killed or wounded. Developed by Irish theatre company ANU, Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli, is a co-production between ANU, the National Museum, and the National Archives of Ireland.

The National Museum is itself located in Collins Barracks, the very site where these Irish soldiers trained from February to April, 1915. Recreating this period, ANU director Louise Lowe and the company’s co-founder, visual artist Owen Boss, have reinstalled one of the building’s original barrack dorms. The piece itself focuses on three real historical figures, members of the so-called ‘Pals’ company.

Owen Boss, ANU co-founder.

“These ‘pals’ companies were recruited throughout the UK,” explains Boss. “They saw men from the same villages or towns joining up with the understanding that they would serve with their ‘mates’, basically. But the army stopped doing it after a few years age because whole villages were being deprived of young men. A whole section of the community was just being wiped out.”

The members of the Fusilier’s ‘pals’ company were predominately young men of a middle-class Catholic background who had been recruited through the rugby circles at Lansdowne Road. In developing the piece, Boss and his cohorts have drawn heavily on the book ‘Pals at Suvla Bay’, a memorial written by one of the soldiers, Henry Hanna, upon his return from the war, as well as other historical texts.

“We found a description of one guy,” says Boss. “The Turks are throwing grenades into his trench and he catches them, one after the other, and throws them back. But number six comes in and blows him to bits. It’s absolutely frightening.”

In terms of visual design, Boss has been drawing on archive footage of damaged limbs as well as images from rugby of the era, teasing out the disparity between sports injury and war wounds. “We’ve taken this idea of ‘the damage done’,” he says. “We’re calling on images of war wounds and also videos of shellshock. You can see these videos on YouTube. It’s very sad. These are people who are so catastrophically scarred mentally that it is coming through in physical form.”

The show also dramatises the case of soldiers driven to enlist by poverty. Such motivating factors were very common, says Catriona Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives.

Catriona Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives.

“There were a number of people who enlisted in the army simply because they couldn’t get work, having been blacklisted after the 1913 Lockout,” she says. “ANU have found a character called Charles Brady, who wasn’t in the Pals’ company but was in the 6th battalion, which trained in the barracks at the same time.

“Charles joins the army but he doesn’t like it, and he absconds. However, one of the things that appealed to women at the time was the ‘Separation Allowance’ they got when their husbands were serving. It was their own money and it changed the lives of a lot of them. So when Charles absconds it is his wife who reports him missing so that she won’t lose her allowance. And Charles is brought back to the army.”

It was Crowe who suggested working with ANU to the National Museum’s curator, Lar Joyce, as the latter weighed up the options for commemorating World War I. Crowe had previously helped ANU on their provocative piece, the Dublin Tenement Experience, in 2013. And she had been hugely impressed with the Monto Cycle, the company’s acclaimed history of north inner city Dublin. What distinguishes ANU, she suggests, is the unique sense of engagement that their shows elicit from the audience.

“It can be scary for people to realise that the glass wall has vanished,” she says. “An actor can reach out to you and ask you to read this note for them or hold an item, or even ask you a direct question about yourself. In the Tenement Experience some people got so engaged with the performer talking about having to sell her bed that four or five times over the course of the show’s run an audience member said, ‘Don’t worry, love, I’ll buy the bed’. People were so carried away with the engagement that they forgot this wasn’t a real situation.”

It’s about creating ‘immediacy’ for the audience, says Boss: “When you place performers within the actual architectural structure that informs the story and its themes — as the barracks does here at the Museum — then that builds up a very complex layer of signs. When you add to that a real story, then the audience is placed at the very centre of it.”

That real story is itself central, of course. It’s the long-eclipsed history of Irish soldiers serving in World War I and, in this decade of politically sensitive centenaries, it’s a story that demands to be reconciled with.

“The slaughter of Irishmen in World War I far exceeded anything that happened during the whole decade of revolution here,” Crowe points out. “We lost about 6,000 people between 1916 and the end of the Civil War. At least 30,000, and perhaps 40,000 died in World War I.”

“People were actually ashamed to have had connections with World War I because of the subsequent history in Ireland,” she says. “So that part of Irish history lay suppressed for many years. But, in getting to this decade of centenaries, we have found an immense outpouring of interest from people in their ancestors who were involved in WWI — not to glorify them but to remember them and to acquire some idea of what life was like for them.”

  • ‘Pals’ – The Irish At Gallipoli runs from February 3 to April 30 at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

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