Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness

Opening of Part Three:

The sound of water. Light up on Boa Island. Craig rests, smoking. Pyper enters.
Craig: Well?
Pyper: Good. Good place.
Craig: I hoped you’d like it.
Pyper: You rowed out here every day?
Craig: When I had the chance and I wanted to be on my island.
Pyper: Your island?
Craig: Sorry. Boa Island. I stand corrected. I meant when I wanted to be on my own.
Pyper: Nobody ever comes here?
Craig: Very few.
Pyper: Strange.
Craig: This place? Yes.
Pyper: The place is definitely strange, but strange too, people shouldn’t come.
Craig: Why should they come here?
Pyper: The carvings.
Craig: What are they?
Pyper: Signs.

This play won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize in 1986, and I was lucky enough to see it thirty years later, at the Abbey Theatre for the 2016 production commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Reading the script now can’t really do justice to the memory of the theatre production, which starred Donal Gallery as Pyper, and crucially used the space of the stage to make the story come alive.

It’s a reflection on eight soldiers recruited to the Ulster Division during the First World War, exploring their understanding of the universe, life, love and loyalty. The narrative is bookended by Pyper in old age reflecting on how he survived and his friends did not (so the fact that seven of the eight die is signalled early on).

I find the third act the most effective, the eight characters back home on leave and split into four pairs, two on Boa island, two at a church, two at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and two at the Field where Orange marches finish (which historically was at Finaghy, close to where I grew up, though I do not know if that was the case in 1915 or 1916). It gives the men a chance to explain themselves to each other, a sympathetic but informed audience.

By the lakeside in Fermanagh, Pyper and Craig make love, which must have been rather shocking in 1985 and was still a bit unexpected in 2016. (Also the weather must have been very good that day.) All of the characters reflect on the place of Ulster in Ireland, in Britainm in Europe and in the empire. There are some very good lines:

Old Pyper: Those I belonged to, those I have not forgotten, the irreplaceable ones, they kept their nerve, and they died. I survived. No, survival was not my lot. Darkness, for eternity, is not survival.

McIlwaine: The whole of Ulster will be lost. We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

Younger Pyper: I have seen horror
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: They kept their nerve and they died.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: There would be and there will be, no surrender.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The house has grown cold, the province has grown lonely.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: You’ll always guard Ulster.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
Younger Pyper: Save it
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The temple of the Lord is ransacked.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
(Pyper reaches toward himself)
Younger Pyper: Dance in this deserted temple of the Lord.
Elder Pyper: Dance

You can get it here.

This was the non-sf fiction book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves. Next in that pile is The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, by Flann O’Brien, but it will have to wait until I have finished my 2016 books.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

One thought on “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness

  1. I saw this at the Barbican Theatre at some time in the nineties, sitt a group of American high schoolers who had obviously been randomly booked in for the cultural evening of their trip. They watched the play in complete bemusement until the gay love scene, at which point they freaked out that such a thing was allowed on stage in Britain.

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