Twisting the Irish in “The Ferryman”

Ideas and Issues

New York City     By happen-chance I went with my family to see a well-reviewed Broadway play, “The Ferryman.”  It’s not ordinarily something that I would do, and in fact I can’t really remember the last play I may have seen, but it was a while ago.  Having recently been in Ireland though, I was engaging more with Irish organizations, and had an emerging chapter in Northern Ireland the scene of the Troubles, so I thought maybe I could gain some insight, so signed on for the experience.

Here are the details.  Good reviews in the US press.  Written by Jez Butterworth, who the internet seems to hold in some regard and directed by the famous film director Sam Mendes famous for an Oscar for American Beauty and marrying Kate Winslet.  Ostensibly the play had seemed somewhat political.  The focus is on the large family of a former IRA fighter during the Troubles who are now farming to export grain to feed pigs in Poland.  There is a cast of thousands or so it seemed with seven children, two great aunts and a great uncle, a sister-in-law and her son whose husband has been missing for a decade, plus a trio from the IRA, a couple of cousins down the road who come over to help on the harvest, and a spineless priest.  All of the play is set inside the house in preparation for harvest, during the harvest feast, and its aftermath.

I’m not a qualified critic, but the play is way long with a running time of three hours and fifteen minutes, so once the body count is done at the curtain call you look over to your seatmates to make sure all are still living and well.  Some of the play is off putting when you feel that you are waist high in clichés.  The Bushmills, the Irish whiskey of Catholics, just as Jameson’s was the Protestant distillation until both were amalgamated by the same company, flowed like water from dawn until dawn when not chased by stout.  Headphones were available to some of the crowd who might have had trouble following the brogue.  There was a bit of a Riverdance at one point.  There was singing and whatever that seemed disjointed, along with another great aunt who was the deus ex machina of the play and seemed mostly a fabricated ornament when not allowed to be a voicebox.

In the political background of the play, hunger strikers, including most famously Bobbie Sands, were protesting the refusal of the Thatcher government to recognize them as political prisoners until their death.  A great aunt who was a staunch supporter of the IRA whose favorite brother had been killed earlier in the conflict became their voice in the play, but the overarching drama of this basically domestic play, was the violence and terror of the IRA and its calculating and manipulative leadership who had killed the missing brother and were still a threatening presence to the family during the 1980s setting of the play as they tried to transition to a political party.  Occasionally, there was a call for justice counterpointed to the need for revenge on all sides.

I found the play often more confusing than entertaining and very troubling politically.  I wasn’t surprised to read the Playbill and find that it was the Troubles as written by the English.  I’m glad I went, but I would have to unlearn anything they might have been saying about Northern Ireland and the Irish, in order to enjoy it as a simply a loud, fascinating, and sometimes humorous concoction.  Just like going to the movies, it’s important to remember, “hey, it’s a play,” and not real at all.