restricted access The Shannon Scheme, Rural Electrification, and Veiled History in Conor McPherson's The Weir
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The Shannon Scheme, Rural Electrification, and Veiled History in Conor McPherson's The Weir

It is a commonplace observation among critics of Conor McPherson (b. 1971) that he is an apolitical playwright, largely uninfluenced by Irish history or Ireland's twentieth-century emergence as a modern postcolonial state.1 A native Dubliner whose plays are typically set in present-day urban environments, McPherson has, in the past, steadfastly resisted references in his works to the longue durée of British colonial rule, or for that matter to the birth, and the associated birth pangs, of postcolonial Ireland. However, in McPherson's most recent play, The Veil (2011)—his first in five years—he has shown himself to be thematically engaged with Irish history and identity; it is a period piece set in rural Ireland in 1822 at a bankrupt Anglo-Irish landed estate, where a bad harvest and starving local peasants bring the household's inhabitants to the psychological breaking point. The play's haunted Ascendancy estate and hostile environs become, as several reviewers have noted, a synecdoche for Ireland—including its troubled colonial history, its centuries-long position as a subaltern culture, its traumatized national psyche.2 [End Page 67]

In interviews, McPherson has endorsed this reading of his play, confessing to a newfound interest in Irish historical and political events dating back some two hundred years. In a September 2011 interview with the Guardian, for example, McPherson states that he set The Veil in the 1820s because of the similarities between what he calls the "big economic crash following the Napoleonic wars" and the recent implosion of the Celtic Tiger. Citing the "post-colonial corruption and mismanagement" of the Irish economy, McPherson adds that prior to Ireland's economic collapse he would always have said, "I was born in Ireland, but I'm not an Irish writer—I'm a writer. Now I realise: of course I'm an Irish writer."3 In another 2011 interview, McPherson describes how, as the Irish economy started to disintegrate at the end of 2008, he began taking notes on Irish economic history. "For the first time," he says, "I realised the public can share a dysfunctional psyche, and that psyche can be generational. The Irish Famine is only five generations ago. I began to realise the mess we'd got ourselves into must have come from some tremendous trauma. For the first time, I accepted I am Irish—up till then I'd always felt European or a citizen of the world."4

But is the playwright's political and historical consciousness is an entirely new development, or has been there all along, albeit in less overt forms? It would be easy to accept McPherson's own assessment of himself and conclude that he has arrived at an epiphany at the age of forty. And yet, a rereading of his early breakthrough play, The Weir (1997), which he wrote when he was just twenty-five-years-old, suggests that an attention to a formative Irish historical event—and an awareness of a literary precedent for using that event—were both influences in his formulation of the play dating back to its first production in 1997.

The Weir is widely celebrated for the psychological and emotional depth of its characters. Less widely noted are the ways in which it also masterfully links the nascent Free State government's harnessing of natural resources in the 1920s, specifically the damming of the lower Shannon River, with the "New Ireland's" rage for economic development at the cost of a vanishing landscape some seven decades later. In doing so, it also calls attention to Denis Johnston's [End Page 68] The Moon in the Yellow River, a play that made its debut at the Abbey Theatre in 1931 and which is set, like McPherson's work, against the backdrop of the much-trumpetedhydroelectric project at Ardnacrusha.

Although McPherson has singled out James Joyce as one of his influences, Johnston's play is clearly the most practical antecedent for The Weir.5 Michael Rubenstein's recent Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (2010) has usefully posited that the problem of modernity confronting...