A note from Jimmy Fay, director

A note from Jimmy Fay, director

In January 1925 Jim Larkin staged and performed The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory at a union benefit concert in the Queen’s Theatre on Pearse Street. Big Jim held the view there was no real need to learn the lines; they would occur naturally and spontaneously to him during the excitement of a performance. By all accounts the resulting performance was spontaneously excitable and possibly hilarious with Larkin playing to his “butties” in the stalls, but had little to do with Lady Gregory’s play. Larkin attacked politics in the same way, with a relentless energy, a welter of notions, a pugnacious strength but, perhaps, a lack of preparation. Learning lines is a good idea if you want to inhabit, discover and reveal the play, but Big Jim wasn’t happy to settle for being a performer. He needed to be the creator, the catalyst, the destroyer. He was always going to win or fail only on his own terms.

The Dublin to which Larkin came to preach his divine mission of discontent in 1908 had a population of 305,000 of whom 87,000 lived in the dire tenement ghettos of the city. Children and old people scavenged bins in order to survive. Infant mortality was the highest in Europe. Larkin’s great skill was to organise the unskilled and casual workers of Dublin, the dockers, the carters and factory workers, all of whom worked long hours for starvation wages. He gave the exploited a voice, a rabble rousting cry and most importantly, he gave them hope. That hope was encapsulated in a vision of something better. A fairer society.

James Plunkett was Jim Larkin’s secretary in 1940s Dublin. By then Larkin was a walking legend and like a former prize fighter propped up on former glories, full of chat. His life now was petty squabbles and union fixtures. He had his cohorts and his enemies but his glory days were past. He had spent some years hard labour in Sing Sing in New York. Still Plunkett knew that, more than anyone since Parnell, Larkin came close to transforming Ireland in a social revolution. Not a rebellion, not a nationalist split with the old enemy. But what could have been a profound shift in attitudes and a break with industrial feudalism had been stopped by superstition, starvation and misinformation.

As his secretary, a young Plunkett had an office just beside Larkin’s and when things were slack Larkin would wander in, prop himself on Plunkett’s desk, light a pipe and chat. Ceaseless, flowing chat full of opinions and memory, contradictions and argument. Ghosts of the past appeared through the dusty aromas of tobacco smoke; the tantalising vision of a fairer society almost grasped. This bear of a man, whose spellbinding speeches were peppered with references to Dante and Shakespeare and reworked Marx, fascinated Plunkett and changed his life. The Lockout was a folk memory, dormant in the public’s imagination; superseded in official Government histories by the blood sacrifice of the Easter Rising.

When Big Jim died in 1947 and thousands of Dublin citizens lined the streets on a dreary day in January to pay their final respects, the younger Jim began to write about him and the events that had made him; simple and short pageants for Union shows. Characters began to emerge – Fitz (a reimagined young Larkin), Annie, Mr. and Mrs. Hennessy, Rashers – the past, which was thick with the smog of conflict and myth, began to be glimpsed. He was asked to expand his scenes into a radio play. He did, calling it Big Jim and setting it during Larkin’s funeral (1947) and recalling the Lockout (1913). Then, taking O’Casey as a role model, he expanded it into a play for the Abbey Theatre in 1958 titled The Risen People and it premiered, fittingly, under the direction of the original Rosie Redmond, Ria Mooney. The characters didn’t leave Plunkett after the final bow and the evolutionary process continued, the play forming the basis for his 1969 masterpiece, the novel Strumpet City. Hugh Leonard adapted it into an epic and much loved 1980s RTÉ television series.

The brothers Jim and Peter Sheridan staged a production of The Risen People at the Project Arts Centre in 1977, which saw Jim using the texts of 1958 and 1962 as a basis for an edited, Brechtian version of the play. By all accounts it was a landmark production: a vibrant young theatre director and his company creating an immediate, vivid, textured and imaginative Dublin of 1913.

Padraig Yeates, the key historian of the era, classifies the Lockout as a failure for the workers, while others recast it as a draw. What can we learn? The Lockout, which the play makes clear, wasn’t a war between the British and the Irish. It was a class war between the Irish themselves. It was a war between those with wealth and power and those without. It was and is still going on. That fairer society, so tantalisingly glimpsed, is still a long way off. There’s no imagination in those who would lead, no inspiring, galvanising Larkin performance. The hope that could ignite a tinderbox of public indignation is buried under a welter of broken promises. But some other things never change as there’s going to be plenty of hungry, cold families and individuals this winter; isolated, weighted down, despairing.

The late singer and folklorist Frank Harte said that “those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs, and, given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.” The Lockout holds an abiding fascination for us. It’s one of our key historic events, known to us primarily through music, drama and oral testimonies.

The Risen People is by dint of its textual history a pliable text. No standard true version exists and in this production, we’re hoping to build on the work of our antecedents in order to allow the play speak to a new generation. I’ve been working on the play’s text, using versions from the Abbey Theatre Archive and the National Library, Jim Sheridan’s published playscript and small elements from Strumpet City, folk songs, music hall devices and socialist ballads. Alongside this text-based process, the work of Colin Dunne and Conor Linehan, on movement and music, has been an integral part of the production as an expression of the world it represents. The action of the strikers and the poetry of their oral histories is woven into the body of the text and we want to foreground it; to allow it to demonstrate the passion, the energy, the anger and the hope of a people in an actual protest at their lot.

Your Comments & Reviews

1 Comment

The aim of “allowing the play speak to a new generation” is a noble if elusive objective these days and strikes a chord with me.
Although I am no historical buff, I am of the age to remember with affection and concern, the characters of Strumpet City.
At this stage my eldest son at 17 years, is very much of this own generation and rightly so. Notwithstanding this I would earnestly hope that he and his contemporaries, would know and feel empathy with this very recent reality in our countries history.
After all history is where we find our glimpses of the future as well as the traces of our past.

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