restricted access Amnesia and Recovery of the Great War in Plays by McGuinness and Barry
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Amnesia and Recovery of the Great War in Plays by McGuinness and Barry

Visitors to Belfast may be struck by the recurrence of the year 1916 in partisan graffiti. On Inishcarn Drive in Rathcoole, a mural depicts a graphic scene of trench warfare, under text that partly reads "The charge of the 36th Ulster Division at Thiepval 1st July 1916." The engagement at Thiepval was part of the Battle of the Somme, where Ulster divisions suffered some of the heaviest losses in the history of human warfare. Elsewhere, a mural on Beechmount Avenue off Falls Road shows a gunman of the Easter Rising, under the banner "Éirí amach na cásca 1916" (Easter Rising 1916). For Catholics, April 1916 marks the symbolic origin of the Irish Republic, when the Easter rebels attempted a military coup in Dublin. These two events, mere months apart, form the basis of modern partisan myths. For loyalists, 1916 signified fighting for the British Empire; for republicans that date meant asserting Ireland's independence. As one might expect, however, graffiti is rarely a vehicle for depicting a crucial, and enormously complicating aspect of Ireland's involvement in World War I: the historical fact that a large number of Irish nationalists and Catholics from all parts of the island served and fought in the British army. In fact, both the loyalist and republican communities have chosen to forget this chapter of history, loyalists as a means of protecting their identity as the lone Irish defenders of the British Empire, and republicans to maintain their image as the anti-imperial force of resistance.

Until very recently, literature and cultural criticism contributed to this historical amnesia. Fortunately, recent efforts to uncover the previously ignored role played by Irish Catholics in the war, by such historians as Myles Dungan, Keith Jeffery, George Boyce, and Terence Denman now provide essential historical backgrounds to understanding modern drama that portrays the Irish experience of the war.1 Sebastian Barry's 2005 novel A Long Long Way is the most robust reinstatement of Irish involvement in World War I to date; but another [End Page 110] frequently cited work concerning the Irish in the War, Frank McGuinness's play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985), does not address Catholic participation in the war.2

Observe the Sons of Ulster depicts a regiment of Protestant soldiers who have signed up to fight in the war and are preparing for what will retrospectively be called the Battle of the Somme. Praise for McGuinness's play generally follows two courses. First, critics argue that it marks a genuine attempt to bridge the partisan divide by humanizing the Protestant soldiers for Catholic or republican audiences. Emilie Pine notes "a conscious engagement with a competing mythology, and the challenges of crossing the barrier between self and other."3 Declan Kiberd summarizes the critical consensus on this point: although "some initial reviewers in Dublin took it for a scathing expose of unionist hysteria, it has come to be regarded as a genuinely sympathetic, if critical, exploration of the minds and hearts of young men who fought on 1 July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme."4 Likewise, Ulster loyalist audiences have seen the play as the attempt of a republican sympathizer to reach across partisan lines and to represent the loyalist community in a manner neither hostile nor purely critical.5 [End Page 111]

McGuinness's play has also been lauded for deconstructing Unionist ideology and revealing the contingent or "performative" aspect of it. Some argue that the character Pyper's homosexuality gives him a critical vantage point from which to critique the culture in which he was raised. Pyper's identity is "performative—rhetorical, constructed, assumed, in flux—rather than essential (intrinsic, fixed, innate)."6 His sexuality, and the self-awareness it has forced upon him, allows Pyper to see sexuality as unstable and "that any identity based on it can only be contradictory and tenuous." In acknowledging this identity crisis, Pyper "blows apart the structures that have defined identity for his comrades."7

These two forms of critical praise—that the play offers a sympathetic look at Ulster loyalism, and...