Frank McGuinness sees redemption for a province in the context of union with the rest of Ireland, writes Victoria White
It was 1985, we were in the dead centre of the last recession, the Troubles were in full fury up North, and hardly anyone I knew had ever spoken to a Northern Unionist.
That was the moment when Frank McGuinness put eight Ulster Protestants on the stage of the Peacock Theatre as they prepared to meet their end at the Battle of the Somme.
To say that it astonished us student theatre-goers of the time would be a massive understatement.
Even I, with an Ulster Presbyterian grandmother and at least one relation who drilled with Carson’s UVF, thought of Ulster Unionist as aliens from outer space.
I knew I had witnessed an important moment in our history as a nation and for years I hung the poster of that first production of Observe on the walls of my dingy bed-sits.
I couldn’t have put into words why Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme was important.
I’m not sure I can now. But what came across to me strongly that February night in 1985 was that the 36th Ulster Division went into the Battle of the Somme fighting for the Ireland they loved.
McGuinness has each man fighting for his river — his Bann, his Lagan, his Foyle — and ultimately for his Ulster. As they charge to their deaths they chant, “I love my home. I love my Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster. Ulster.”
The Irish Times critic of the day described the production as “one of the most devastating attacks ever made on Ulster Protestantism”. We all scoffed. What I had seen was the first real attempt to incorporate Orange Protestant history into mainstream Irish culture.
What unites many of us on this island is our powerful attachment to our land: Our homes, our rivers, our mountains, all painstakingly named and named again by previous generations.
On both sides of the border and on both sides of the sectarian divide, we love Ireland. McGuinness humanised his eight characters by having them fight for the Ireland they loved and it is the Ireland we share.
But as the years have gone by and the revivals have come and gone, the initial response of the Irish Times critic has gained a lot more credibility.
Critics now tend to focus on the fact that except for the narrator, Kenneth Pyper, the men are all dead before the play begins.
As Tom Herron writes in the influential journal Eire-Ireland: “What does it mean for a community, a people, to be allegorised as ghosts? ... If we take seriously the play’s closing moments, it is an epitaph for that community.”
I don’t see it that way. McGuinness, a Catholic from Buncrana, Co Donegal, whose early life would inevitably have been strongly marked by the Troubles, has said: “It was an eye-opener for a Catholic Republican as I am to examine the complexity, diversity, disturbance and integrity of the other side, the Protestant people.”
Observe is a sublime act of imagination which binds the Ulster Protestant tradition into traditional Irish patriotism.
Kenneth Pyper, upper class and a closet homosexual, is redeemed by love for one of his fellow soldiers and by loving his people and his place of origin.
In some ways it is accurate to call the play an “epitaph”, however. The men are all only memories, casualties of a catastrophic battle.
Of course it is the Ulster Unionist tradition itself which has foregrounded the Battle of the Somme as a glorious moment in their history.
Emilie Pine makes the point in the Irish University Review that Ulster Unionism may have learned the power of martyrdom from the Irish nationalist tradition.
It is true that McGuinness’s eight know they will die, which is surely not historically accurate. But it is necessary for the drama to work because the deaths themselves can’t be put on stage.
McGuinness sets the scene with what can only be called dramatic genius. There is silence before this, the final battle. And a strange smell which no one can name until a man called McIlwaine names it: It is fear.
So is this a vision of Ulster Unionism as essentially suicidal? There is that goosebumps moment at the end of act one when Pyper deliberately cuts his hand.
His eventual lover, Craig, bandages it and says, “Red hand.” “Red sky,” says Pyper. Then they both say, “Ulster.”
It is far too simplistic to say Observe shows the Ulster Unionist community as having a death wish. Being redeemed through blood was a theme worked by Pearse from the notions of glory which were common in that late Edwardian period.
McGuinness makes his Ulstermen fight for their homeland, a homeland shared by the playwright himself.
The smell of the Somme on July 1, 1916, is described by Pyper in painfully beautiful lines to men who will die that day, “It’s bringing us home. We’re not in France. We’re home. We’re on our own territory. We’re fighting for home.”
Later critics and foreign critics are not seeing the stretch it was for a man from a Northern Nationalist background to celebrate that this Ulster Unionist community defined itself by its relationship to the land — land to which the Nationalist community had always claimed as only theirs.
McGuinness here both accepts and annuls the whole experience of plantation.
I honestly believe that this imaginative leap was one of the early steps in the peace process, not the first time the Abbey Theatre helped write the course of Irish history.
When the play was performed to an audience of Ulster Unionists in 2004 as an initiative in the peace process, a common theme among playgoers was that it was only history and “for a view of what Ulster Unionists are like today, you have to go up the Shankill”.
Of course, it is a vision of this community “from the other side”.
As an “Irish Catholic Republican”, McGuinness looks for redemption for these Ulstermen through the symbols which matter to him: The land of Ireland, its lakes, and its rivers, “fair jumping with salmon”, and the ancient stone carvings on Boa Island which show the faces of both man and woman.
You could certainly read into the play that McGuinness sees redemption for a province in the context of union with the rest of Ireland.
Perhaps that didn’t make it “on message” during the early years of the peace process, but as Brexit threatens to hack the North off the body of Ireland, the words, “the province has grown lonely” have never rung more true.
And the healing of the final vision — the young and the old Pyper dancing together “in this deserted temple of the Lord” — has never been more needed.
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme opens at the Abbey Theatre on August 6
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