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Review of Ailliliú Fionnuala (Camden Palace, Cork)

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Donal O’Kelly after his performance in Ailliliú Fionnuala at Camden Palace, Cork.

I first saw Donal Kelly perform the one-man show Catalpa in the mid-90s. Catalpa is the epic story of six Irish Fenians rescued from prison in Fremantle Prison in Western Australia in the 19th century.  Given that the Catalpa rescue involved transportation across continents, Fenianism, Australia, a sea voyage and a prison break, it hardly seemed possible that it could be encapsulated in a one man show.  Yet Donal O’Kelly managed all of that.  It is no surprise that Catalpa has won many awards and has been performed to acclaim worldwide.

Bat the Father Rabbit The Son was another of O’Kelly’s plays and a character from this – Ambrose Keogh – has now returned as the main figure in Ailliliú Fionnuala.  In the years since Bat The Father… Keogh has prospered and is now working as a PR consultant for Shell Oil.  Employed in Erris (Co Mayo) he is  privy to the underhand activities that Shell is engaging in in its efforts to smother resistance to its grand-scale theft of Ireland’s natural gas resources – located off the Mayo coast.  But unfortunately for Ambrose things start to go wrong.  As Benbo Productions’ synopsis of the plot explains:

When the Tunnel Boring Machine he named Fionnuala sinks into the bog in Erris Co. Mayo, he is magically confronted by Fionnuala of the Children of Lir. Fionnuala puts a geas on him – he’s bound to tell the truth about Shell’s operations, such as the attack on Willie Corduff in the Shell site at Glengad. During his ordeal, Ambrose meets his primary school classmate, Malachy Downes, an anti-pipeline activist, and echoes from the past resound.

Keogh is forced to confess the details of the sordid and underhand work that is taking place at Erris.  The truth comes out but there is also the element of justice (finally!) being meted out to Keogh and (possibly) Shell Oil.  The repression of the locals and connivance of the Irish State with what is going on in Mayo is explored.  You and I are being robbed and the Irish establishment is in on the deal – sound familiar?

As a work of theatre Ailliliú Fionnuala is powerful and direct.  In part this is due to the personalised nature of the one-man show.  Donal O’Kelly has honed this form well and appears to be quite at home with the multiple characters and streams of dialogue.  His facial expressions, accents and delivery are excellent  and we are very easily drawn into this inventive and strange story of Ambrose Keogh’s reckoning with mythical Fionnuala.

Ailliliú Fionnuala is also a dark story about Ireland and where it is at even now.  Someone on the night I was present mentioned that this play should get the award for the best political play of the year.  Surely it must.  Mind, would there be a lot of competition?

Running at about an hour in length, Ailliliú Fionnuala can only do so much.  There is plenty more no doubt that could and will be said in time about Shell and its activities in Mayo.  Personally I was left wondering again how something like what is happening in Erris can so easily go on under our noses.  The heavy handed police work is one side of this but the other is the enourmous giveaway deal that has been cut for Shell’s enjoyment at all our expenses.

An important and poignant aspect (of this connundrum) that is broached in Ailliliú Fionnuala is quiescence in Irish society.  Keogh’s confrontation with his old school mate turned anti-Shell activist, Malachy Downes, is the occasion for this.  In the years that have passed since they last met Downes has travelled along a different route to Keogh.  He was sent to Letterfract for rebellious behavior at school.  At Letterfract Industrial School he was abused.  Through Downes, Donal O’Kelly acknowledges the mentality prevalent in Irish society that was and is all about ‘letting things be’ or ‘shur isn’t that’s the way things are’. To hear Downe’s story is to be disturbed and reminded of what Ireland was like not so long ago at all.  Ailliliú Fionnuala asks if the same sort of societal mentality is sill hard at work today, once again foiling our interests in favour of the powerful and wealthy?

This show performed at the Camden Place on Friday, May 24th.

Related Links

Next performance:  Thurs 6th June, Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire (with the film The Pipe and a post-show talk.)

Benbo Production

Listen to Donal O Kelly talk on RTE arts show Arena about his show Ailliliú Fionnuala

Letterfract Industrial Schools

Shell2Sea Campaign

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