A grisly tale of cannibalism at sea

A scene from rehersals of The Unlucky Cabin Boy

The true story of an Irish cabin boy eaten by his shipmates is now a play, writes Colette Sheridan

CANNIBALISM, the last taboo, is the grisly subject matter of The Unlucky Cabin Boy, a new musical based on the true story of a 15-year-old Limerick boy who was sacrificed and eaten by the crew of the capsized Francis Spaight ship in 1835.

Devised by Gúna Nua Theatre Company in conjunction with playwright, Mike Finn, this chilling tale is brought to life by the music of Limerick-based the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra.

Finn, who is from Limerick, says he had the idea at the back of his head of writing a play about the tragic Patrick O’Brien. “It’s a fairly well known story in Limerick. The late politician, Jim Kemmy, wrote about it in the old Limerick Journal. That’s probably the first time I came across the story. A lot of Limerick people are into their local history and would have come across it. But I’ve encountered local people who hadn’t heard it. The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra had an idea to do something on it for Limerick City of Culture and they asked me to become involved. It’s a cracking story.”

As Finn explains: “This thing known as the custom of the sea said that in really difficult circumstances such as big shipwrecks, if you had no other choice, you could actually kill somebody and eat them. It happened quite a few times. One instance of it inspired the famous oil painting, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’. It’s about the famous French shipwreck in the 19th century where cannibalism was resorted to.”

The American writer, Jack London, wrote a short story based on Patrick O’Brien and his fate. “The story was also reported on in the newspapers so there are some contemporary accounts of it. I did a fair bit of research, including reading a book about cannibalism at sea. I like history. A lot of my plays are about the past. This story is right up my street. Another great thing is working with David Blake who wrote the lyrics. The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra is a really good rock band. We found ways of weaving the music into the story.”

As Finn says, musicals are traditionally associated with the old MGM extravaganzas. “We often think of musical theatre as being very jolly and usually about boy meets girl. But Les Miserables is not exactly a bundle of laughs. There’s no reason why serious stories can’t lend themselves to musicals. Music is a short cut to the emotions. This is essentially my first musical.”

Some elements of the story are fictionalised as the accounts of it are sketchy and vary somewhat. “We had to take certain liberties. We start our story in Limerick before the ship and its passengers set out to go to America. We focus a lot on what Patrick O’Brien’s circumstances were. There is every likelihood that Patrick and his widowed mother lived in the local workhouse. For the purposes of the story, he runs away and joins the ship as a crew member, working as a cabin boy.”

After the emigrants disembarked in the New World, the ship, including O’Brien and the rest of the crew, was returning from New Brunswick to Limerick, carrying a cargo of timber. A ferocious storm resulted in the ship capsizing. Several crew members drowned. For those surviving, there was no food left. Captain Timothy O’Gorman resolved that one crew member should die in order to prolong the lives of the others. O’Brien drew the death lot and was killed and eaten by the crew.

The problem with stage violence is that you can’t be too graphic. “It’s not like the movies where you can do special effects and cutaways. We have stylised the action in the show. The locations move from Limerick onto the docks and the ship. It’s pretty spectacular.”

The Unlucky Cabin Boy is at the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick from Wednesday to Saturday


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