Former soldier Tom Clonan didn’t expect his involvement in a dance show to be such a transformative experience, writes
TOM Clonan has had a multi-faceted career and faced many challenges in his professional and personal life. A former army officer, he became one of Ireland’s most high-profile whistleblowers when his research on sexual violence in the Defence Forces led to a Government inquiry.
He has written about his experiences in two books, is an in-demand security analyst and is also known for his campaigning on disability rights. But not even he could have foreseen his latest role, as a dancer and
Clonan is appearing on stage in Soldier Still, an acclaimed production from Dublin-based dance theatre company Junk Ensemble, which is spearheaded by American sisters Megan and Jessica Kennedy. The collaboration came about when the pair read Clonan’s book Blood, Sweat and Tears, about his experience as part of the Irish/UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.
“Megan and Jessica contacted me over Twitter in 2016. I met them in Dublin and it turns out they had read the book. Their dad was in the US military and had fought in Vietnam. We had this immediate, amazing
connection. They invited me to collaborate with them artistically, to explore trauma, grief, conflict, identity, through movement and dance. There is a lot of research that shows movement and sound can help people with trauma.”
Clonan was deployed to Lebanon in 1995 when tensions were running high in the region.
“In the spring of 1996, Hezbollah really stepped up their attacks on the Israeli military positions in the Irish area of operations. Lebanese civilians were being caught up in the crossfire between Hezbollah and the Israelis every day. The Israelis launched a punitive operation called Operation Grapes of Wrath in March and April of 1996. They declared the Irish and UN areas of operations as a free-fire zone and they saturated the area with airstrikes, and helicopter gunship attacks. It was hell.”
It all culminated in the Israeli massacre of more than 100 men, women and children in the village of Qana. “The refugees had gone on to a UN post to escape the shelling, they thought they would be safe there but they were hit directly by Israeli fire.”
The aftermath of the attack was horrific, with the victims’ bodies literally rendered apart by the shelling.
I can’t even begin to describe it to you. Irish soldiers were the first on the scene, with no medical training, trying to give help where they could, comfort where they couldn’t.
Only a day after the attack, Clonan was told he was going back to Ireland.
“When I got word I was going home, I took off the combats I was wearing and I burned them in a barrel with diesel. I got all the letters from my mother, all the holy medals and prayers she sent me, and I burned them too. I was just completely sick. Twenty-four hours later, I was walking down Grafton Street holding hands with my girlfriend. I had to completely bury that experience. I went off to Lebanon with 220 other soldiers in October 1995 but I never came back — somebody else did.”
Clonan carried on but in the years that followed, the reprisals due to his whistleblowing, along with the deaths of his mother, his sister, the loss of a baby daughter, Liadain, and his son Eoghan’s diagnosis with a neuro-muscular disease eventually proved too much to bear. “All my connections and community support was gone and I was totally traumatised.”
Clonan says while writing a book about his experiences proved therapeutic, being part of Soldier Still has been even more transformative.
“Writing is a solitary experience, a journey into the interior but being able to do something with others, to work with Megan and Jessica, and all the other dancers, has been like an exorcism.”
No-one was more surprised than him when he ended up taking a central role in the piece. “Megan and Jessica had first suggested we record me reading some stuff... then when they saw me interact with the dancers, they thought I might have some kind of presence on the stage. Now I am dancing and performing in it throughout. And, a sentence I never thought I would utter: I have a dance solo at the end,” he laughs.
Clonan says the piece also exemplifies Junk Ensemble’s mission to engage diverse audiences through the creation of accessible dance- theatre work that sheds light on important societal issues.
“A lot of my friends and neighbours came to see it in Dublin. They wouldn’t have been a traditional dance audience, and this is contemporary and modern. For a lot of them, it was they first time they ever went to a dance production and they were really blown away by it.”
The production also had an impact closer to home, says Clonan. “One of my sisters has come to see it several times now and she told me it’s the first time she ever really understood where I was coming from or what happened. My experience in Lebanon was out of the ordinary but losing a parent, child or sibling, these are things that everyone experiences. Anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma, this work will speak very directly to them.”