Declan Hassett and Pat Talbot have teamed up to create a play about Jack Lynch’s incredible feats in both sport and politics, writes Jo Kerrigan.
March brings a new play to Cork, of Cork, by Cork. Declan Hassett, a former arts editor of this newspaper, has created his latest drama around the life of one extraordinary man whose achievements both on the sporting field and in the political arena would be hard to surpass.
And this year, 2017, is the centenary of his birth. In Cork of course, where else?
In the world of GAA, Jack Lynch was a superstar before superstars were even invented. Regarded as one of the greatest dual players of all time, his winning of six consecutive All-Ireland medals (the year he didn’t win the hurling, he won the football) has never been bettered.
Some say he surpassed Christy Ring. Mild-mannered, friendly, unassuming, but determined, with a supremely strong sense of fair play, he took some persuading to go into politics, but once he did, became one of the most popular politicians ever to be elected in Ireland.
As Taoiseach, he held the helm steady during one of the most turbulent periods in our history. And now Hassett’s play, dealing with that man’s life and achievements, comes to the stage. It’s been quite a while in the making — four years in fact.
“Pat Talbot first approached me to suggest the idea of writing a play about Jack Lynch,” explains Hassett.
“He said it would be a shame to see a generation growing up that knew nothing about his achievements. I myself had grown up with the legend of this incredible player. My father was of the opinion that Jack Lynch was the greatest hurler and footballer of all time.”
Patrick Talbot Productions has become known for the immersive way in which it creates an atmosphere of living reality, which makes audiences feel they have stepped back into that period.
This was done to great effect in A Great Arrangement, the tragic love story of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, seen last year.
“Strangely enough, Jack actually predates A Great Arrangement,” says Talbot. “I had thought it would be a good thing to do his GAA career, but also wanted very much to open out the times in which he grew up, with poverty, rationing, the Emergency, all of that.”
The creative duo realised that they couldn’t possibly deal with those early sporting years without showing how it developed into his later political life.
“By any measure it was an extraordinary career. I was fascinated that this mild mannered, quiet man won six All-Ireland medals, and then became leader of the country, at a time when it confronted its greatest crisis. He didn’t choose politics, politics found him; and yet he achieved that top job and navigated the country through a very turbulent time indeed.”
Didn’t Declan find it difficult to write a play about someone who achieved such fame in both fields? “Well, what was it Jack Lynch said himself? That he learned as much from Thurles and Croke Park as he did from Leinster House? I think that was the key to the man he was.
“On the field he had a reputation for fair play at all times, and when he moved into politics, he brought that with him. Unassuming in many ways, it didn’t do to underestimate him. He wasn’t for turning, and he didn’t give in to pressure.”
Declan Hassett, says Pat Talbot, is a walking talking encyclopaedia of the GAA. “He also has a great feeling for that period in our history.
The political story is quite compelling, and we’re using an array of different material — speeches, interviews — so it has real authenticity. I’ve a great interest in journalism itself as well as theatre, and what I did with A Great Arrangement was to fuse the two, using a lot of newspaper accounts of the run-up to the Civil War, etc.
“Now we’re introducing the same sort of elements to the Jack Lynch story, which creates a tension-filled narrative: Northern Ireland, and then the 1971 Ard Fheis when he was challenged and had to face it down. That was a very risky time for the government and for Ireland.
“It could have gone any way and it’s a tribute to Lynch’s diplomatic skills that our country made its way through those exceptionally choppy waters.”
Working together on the play is something writer and director have polished to a fine art.
“Once I bring the finished script to Pat, the work really starts,” says Hassett. “He really lives and breathes the play when we’re working on it.”
As indeed does the playwright. “I think I’m more Jack Lynch right now than myself.”
Some directors might object to having the playwright in constant attendance, but Talbot sees it as part of the process.
“It’s a new play, so an evolutionary process and a new three-dimensional reality. We are constantly doing little chops changes, cuts, edits and that’s the excitement of it, making it come together, teasing little bits out here and there. If the original script is a car, you take it apart and put it together again.”
He pauses as a thought strikes him. “You know, I think Lynch’s favourite car was a Ford Capri. It’s the centenary of their opening in Cork this year as well!”
So does the play trace Jack’s life from schooldays through hurling and football to the Dail and eventually the top post of all? Hassett chuckles.
“I think audiences are going to be surprised and intrigued to see the way the action moves, because it isn’t the obvious route at all. We’ve worked on it continuously, and what we now have is something unusual and, I feel, exciting in its design and effect.”
Talbot nods. “We thought it would be more interesting if we played around with the timeline. It’s an organic story and it goes in different directions at different points, very focused on the person it is revolving around.”
It’s a play that will appeal to a wide audience, he feels.
“Jack was a Corkman and his GAA exploits were on behalf of Cork, but they are also of interest to anyone who follows sport. In politics he worked on behalf of Ireland, and anyone thinking about where we came from and how we coped with events, will want to see it.”
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