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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

‘Misfit’, a new play about Captain Jack White

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co-founder of the Irish Citizen ArmyReview of ‘Misfit’, a new play about the life of Captain Jack White.  Written and performed by Myles Horgan.  At the Cork Arts Theatre, 16th -18th June 2010

I’ve had an interest in Captain Jack White since reading an article about him by Alan McSimoin in Workers Solidarity many years ago.  Alan’s article pointed out how White had been ‘left out’ of the official narrative of Irish history despite his role as co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army.  Later on White gravitated towards anarchism – an allegiance that also appears to have done him no favours. (In official circles that is.)

In this context, Myles Horgan’s new one man show about White entitled ‘Misfit’ was a must see, although I almost missed it but for a late tip-off from a comrade over in Solidarity Books.  Still I got to the Cork Arts Theatre last Friday just in time for the final lunch time show.  It was well worth seeing.  At €10 entry price though – pricey.

‘Misfit’ is a short one act, one man show – a biopic that for the most part is faithful to the account that White gives about his life in his autobiography of the same name.  It begins with White telling of his arrival in Barcelona in late 1936.  From there the action moves back in time with White retelling the story of his life.  The material used here is well written, well presented and well acted.  We hear of White’s experiences in the Boer War, about his troubled relationship with Mercedes Moseley, and then of his involvement in the fight for Home Rule. From his political baptism of fire in Antrim, White went to Dublin where he became involved in the 1913 Lockout and, from then on, with the Irish radical left.  We hear about White’s role in the Irish Citizen Army and then about White’s arrest and incarceration in Pentonville prison just at the time that Casement was hanged.  The play finally returns to Spain and to White’s brief but interesting comments about the situation there.  It ends with a declaration by White that any true revolution must involve the inner transformation of the human person above all else.

Myles Horgan makes a fine hand of playing White.  Dressed in a light grey suit and wearing the signature  wide-brimmed hat that White was photographed in, he cuts the sort of swaggering figure that White may well have been.  He also makes a good hand of White’s upper crust accent and this alone is enough to make one wonder what his contemporaries made of him.  In a conversation with White’s son, Derek, a number of years back, it was pointed out to me that Jack White had a pampered and spoiled upbringing and that this facet was an aspect of this life until the day he died.  Whether this is true or not, there is no denying that White was of privileged stock and in the movement of the day this undoubtedly raised more than a few eyebrows and hackles.  Indeed if memory serves me right Larkin fell out with White about such matters since Larkin was not reticent in giving his opinions about White privileged background.

However while very welcomed, this play has shortcomings too, not least its focus on White as an the individualist and as an eccentric.  It is true that this is how White’s portrayed himself in Misfit , which was published in early 1920.  However Misfit only accounts for a part of White’s life.  It was also written in the context of White trying to explain himself to the Anglo-Irish and British establishment that he had rejected.  In other words those parts of White’s life that are most noteworthy now: his prominent role in opposing Loyalism and British imperialism; his work to help the Spanish Revolution and  his important opposition to Stalinism don’t really figure in this biopic.  This is a real pity as White’s views on the need to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a society more befitting human needs have real contemporary resonance and relevance.

That said this play is to be welcomed.  It was also enjoyable and interesting to see.  Hopefully it will see further on stage exposure and make a return visit at some stage.

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