AMBITIOUS should be Seamus Finnegan’s middle name because his latest play I Am Of Ireland is quite magnificent in terms of its scope and breadth.
It is a modern day history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, told over the course of just two hours. Quite brilliant. In turn amusing and horrific. Never boring. Always interesting. Scenes come thick and fast like bullets in the troubles.
Directed by Ken McClymont – a long term collaborator with Finnegan – the play embraces a list of characters longer than a starting team sheet for a Gaelic football club. Between them, they cover issues that have scarred Ireland and Northern Ireland for years – sectarianism, religion, the Catholic church and racism.
There is Dominic (Euan Macnaughton), one of the play’s central planks. Over the course of the play, he tells us how he became an IRA assassin in the wake of Bloody Sunday – and then attempted to come to terms with the crimes he committed – and was never charged for. To begin with, he stands in the Roman Catholic church that ‘made’ him a catholic. The fact that the church was built with the help of money from the Protestant community is not lost on this tall, gentle giant of a man. An irony of ironies.
Then there are Theresa (Shenagh Govan) and Joseph (Macnaughton again) Mahon from Galway whose daughter Mary (Saria Steel) has decided to give her life to the church and become a nun. Theresa is distraught, Joseph more understanding. As the play unfolds, the impact on Theresa is near catastrophic.
Into the Irish stew are thrown Bishop Foley (Richard Fish) and Father Adams (Sean Stewart). The Bishop with a liking for a drop or three of whisky and a man who we later discover is as hard as nails as he defends the church’s role in society. The Father, we soon discover, has ‘history’ (as many Roman Catholic Priests have) and he is sent packing to South America. The Bishop’s housekeeper, Mrs Fitzpatrick (Govan), is a sharp cookie and is a voice for the current as opposed to the past.
There is more. Harry (Fish) and Sean (Stewart) whose past is connected with involvement in the republican movement. While Harry has stayed put in Ireland, Sean has moved on a new life in London. Resentment simmers and occasionally threatens to boil over as Harry questions Sean’s Irish desertion.
Completing most of the jigsaw is Father Flannagan (Jerome Ngonadi) who is stabbed on the streets of Dublin by Barry (Angus Castle-Doughty). Not for his faith but because he is black and hails from the Caribbean. Then there is Derek (Castle-Doughty), another racist who ends up in prison and marvels at the fact that he is in the presence of loyalist legend Sammy Nelson (Fish) who killed more Catholics than anyone else. It is a relationship that does not end well.
Quite a jigsaw which takes quite a while to fathom as the play zig-zags across Ireland but it all comes together neatly in the end.
Although the short scenes mean the stage sometimes resembles Clapham Junction at rush hour as actors pour on and off, they help maintain the play’s pace. It is all given a hearty pulse by thrilling music that embraces Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Pogues and Tantum Ergo. The play’s opening rendition of Ireland’s Call – when the cast come on in different symbolic guises such as a bowler hatted orange man and rugby player wearing the green shirt of Ireland – is pulsating.
I Am Of Ireland is fantastic theatre. Some of the acting is exceptional with Macnaughton (as Dominic), Fish (as Bishop Foley) and Govan (as Mrs Fitzpatrick and as Father Finlay, ranting and raving a litany of religious fervour at a young Dominic) all catching the eye.
Yes, it is hard work. Yes, some of it is delivered in the form of static monologues or sermons which require full concentration. And yes, it is ambitious. But it is worth it. I am a big fan of I Am Of Ireland.