The Embodied Irish Experience of ‘The Great War’: ANU’s Production of PALS

This is the first of a series of posts written by MA Geography students reflecting upon creative workshops run by performance and visual artists as part of the module, ‘Places, Landscapes and Mappings’, taught by Dr. Karen Till. The first set of blogs will describe MA Geographers’ responses to PALS – The Irish at Gallipoli, a performance by the place-based theatre group ANU, which was based on historical research about Irish soldiers who stayed at the Collins Barracks before departing to Gallipoli. ANU is directed by Louise Lowe, and the actors in PALS included John Cronin, Liam Heslin, Laura Murray, Kevin Olohan, and Thomas Reilly. In March 2015, Louise Lowe ran a special workshop for postgraduate students and postdocs from Maynooth Geography. PALS ran from 3 February to Thursday 30 April, and their critically acclaimed production will run again from 4th August to 6th September due to popular demand (click here for ticket information).

The Embodied Irish Experience of ‘The Great War’: ANU’s Production of PALS

By John Herbage

There’s a story waiting to be told by that badge in the glass case of a museum. There’s a scene that was witnessed by the inorganic stone wall of a building. There’s a memory inscribed below a statue at a memorial. There are tears, long since evaporated, that fell on a floor. A story can travel through the hearts and minds of each generation, but first-hand experiences of historical events such as war offer a different interpretation and experience.

Figure 1: PALS at Collins Barracks

oneSource: ANU Productions, 2015.

In ANU’s performance of ‘PALS – The Irish at Gallipoli’, four men and one woman unravel the harsh realities of the real and composite characters which they portray in gripping, realistic, and truthful performances. When we witness these largely untold stories of Irish men who fought for the British army in World War 1, our emotional journey follows their very personal experiences at Collins Barracks, at Gallipoli and at home afterwards, for those who managed to return. It can be unnerving to see how they were treated, either by their fellow soldiers or other citizens. Harassing men with a while feather on public streets is an example of this (Figure 2), and for me seemed unbelievably cruel.

Figure 2: The White Feather.

twoSource: Bennett, 1914.

While the social pressures and forms of nationalism at the time must be considered, the performance lets us know that there are life and death consequences when groups support dominant discourses, beliefs and values which underpin society at a particular time.

In the case of Ireland, the diversity of our stories about World War I remained unacknowledged for years due to stigma. Yet soldiers’ and family stories have begun to be retold, rearchived, and represented in recent years. We now have a (relatively uncontroversial) memorial and annual rituals to recognise the lives of those who lost their lives and fought in this international war. For example, Ann Rigney’s (2008) personal story describes how her grandfather felt when visiting the newly furbished Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge, a memorial that had been neglected since its erection in 1938 due to the stigma of Irish soldiers fighting for Britain. Ann recalls her grandfather’s memories of the memorial as a neglected place, ‘a purpose-built site of memory, but no group visibly identifying with it’ (Rigney, 2008: 89).

Figure 3: First World War Memorial, Islandbridge.

threeSource: Kavanagh, 2014.

50,000 Irishmen lost their lives in Word War 1 serving in the British Army. Of course, before the outbreak of World War 1, the idea of self government with continued allegiance to the British monarchy was being fought non-militarily in Ireland by John Redmond. As such, many men joined the British Army thinking it would be a fast track to achieving Home Rule. When these men were fighting, the Easter Rising took place, and the declaration of the provisional government of the Irish Republic was proclaimed and signed. The Irish Civil War broke out as a result of partition in the early 1920’s, which further fuelled resentment to all things British (Rigney, 2008). Following the end of WWI, there were national disputes about the idea of remembrance and the politics of what was being commemorated. Supporting (or not) one version of nationalism reflected an understanding of what Ireland should mean, and what it represented to its people and to the outside world. For this reason nothing was built until 1938. In essence, the site today not only represents and commemorates those who fought in World War 1, but also this long standing relationship Ireland has with Britain and Britishness. With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and a national referendum that the Republic would forgoe its claim to the six counties, these controversial, stigmatised and forgotten memorials have became national places of commemoration.

Memorials and museums remind us of who we are as humans, and who we are as a nation. These national spectacles tell us again and again what we have done as a people. While history may be written by the victors, we continue to build for the future even when it is unclear whether we are winners or losers. We see this through our history: from a colonial past, to independence, to a Republic; from a Celtic Tiger boom to a recession and austerity; and from a religiously suppressed country to a national Referendum on Marriage Equality. Where we go next is anyone’s guess, yet the stories about our memorials and museums, and how we remember the past, help us understand how the past has shaped and led us to where we are today.

Another way of commemorating Ireland’s role in World War 1 was ANU’s performance of PALS. Through a tour of the Collins Barracks, the audience is given an introduction to the context of the outbreak of the war and the different reasons why men may have signed up to fight. As our guide is explaining this, Jasper (Liam Heslin) leads Charlie (Thomas Reilly) into the square, marching him in, whilst calling him a coward and throwing other insults at him. Charlie eventually stops and insists that he will do no more exercises, no matter what Jasper says to him. Meanwhile, Charlie’s wife Lizzie (Laura Murray) appears in the square. She is looking urgently to find Office Q, as her husband just deserted the army and she needs to make sure that she doesn’t lose the allowance to support her family. Jasper goes back into the barracks, as Lizzie approaches the tour group. Her attire is typical for 1910s women, and she speaks with a Dublin accent. She shows a pink piece of paper to the audience and asks specific individuals for help to find the office, as she explains her story. The piece of paper she has reads “Separation Allowance for Wives and Children of Soldiers”. Charlie had deserted the war after their leave to return home for Christmas. It was Lizzie who told the army where he was, and he received punishment in the main square in front of the other soldiers. In this case, punishment was carried out via humiliation. Lizzie explains her husband’s desertion to the tour group, until she spots him in the middle of the square. She marches up to him screaming about how much of a coward he is, as Paddy (Kevin Olohan) and Hamilton (John Cronin) laugh from the windows of the barracks. Jasper returns to the square and tells Lizzie she can’t be on the square. Charlie just stands still, motionless, and doesn’t say a word.

Figure 4: Jasper attempts to stop Lizzie shaming her husband.

fourSource: ANU Productions, 2015.

Jasper then escorts Lizzie off the grounds, as she loudly continues to insult her husband in front of the crowd (the tour group).

Figure 5: Jasper escorts Lizzie off the square.

fiveSource: ANU Productions, 2015.

After Jasper returns, he wants everyone to ‘clear the square’, and leads Charlie and the tour group into the barracks. The group follows Jasper up the stairs, while passing Paddy going down the stairs looking for someone. We arrive into the soldier’s dormitory and are asked to take a seat on one of the barracks beds. As we sit, listen, watch and engage with the actors, the story of each of the soldiers, both as individuals and as a group unfolds.

The next scene starts very quietly with Jasper removing his coat and shoes. Meanwhile, Hamilton plays out his post war experience in the centre of the dorm, by getting drunk and removing his shoes and jacket, and nearly his shirt as well. We learn later that Hamilton became the leader of the battalion after Paddy was shot in front of him. He makes the decision not to continue over the ridge in Gallipoli. The bullet hit Paddy in the head, and pieces of him flew at Hamilton. He cradles Paddy in his arms, before making the decision to not keep going. [Fn. 1]

Figure 6: Hamilton cradles Paddy after his death.

sixSource: ANU Productions. 2015.

We are introduced to the friendship and camaraderie of the four men as friends before they enlisted, and these vignettes are interlinked in the performance with their war and post-war experiences. The men drink and sing, they celebrate birthdays, and they play rugby — times of joy that are interspersed with sounds of whistles and bombs, flickering lights, smoke, and chaos as they run around the room preparing their guns or crawl under the beds. A mound of sand is located at one end of the room, to represent the ridge they had to try and get over as part of their mission.

After Paddy describes his letters to his parents, Laura Murray walks into the centre of the dormitory to deliver the official news that a soldier has died in action; she says the names of all those who died, while throwing envelopes with their names written on them around the room. The dormitory is not a pre-war sanctuary, but becomes a nightmare as the actors tell us stories about the frontline in Gallipoli.

Those who ‘survive’ are faced with further traumatic experiences. Hamilton is cared for by a nurse (Laura Murray) in a hospital after injuring his foot in battle. She comforts him in the middle of the night, after he is heard screaming in his sleep. The nurse helps him stand up, and Hamilton insists that she dance with him. She carries out his wishes, but eventually the fun and joy fades from him. He starts crying on her shoulder and she consoles him. Jasper had the experience of staring at the stars, as he lay paralysed under the bodies of his friends after being hit by two bombs. Eventually, he managed to crawl himself out, after spending a few days watching other battalions march over him. We learn that his first suicide attempt was on the way back to England when he attempted to throw himself off the side of the ship. At Latchmere Hosptial, Jasper was diagnosed as insane at a facility for those experiencing shell shock. He was let out after his family intervened, but was deemed ‘medically unfit’ to return to the war (Bunbury, 2014). We learn about his tragic story not only from Jasper but his sister (once again played by Laura Murray), who stands at the top of the room matter-of-factly describing his last moments to us, as if to a Guard (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Jasper and his sister.

sevenSource: ANU Productions, 2015.

Once out in London, he is handed a white feather by a woman in a restaurant, effectively pushing him over the edge. [Fn. 2]

Figure 8: Presentation of While Feather in Downtown Abbey.

eightSource: The Telegraph, 2011.

Jasper’s story of post-traumatic stress disorder reflects the effects of survival. If you weren’t killed in body while in combat, you were killed in mind when you returned home. The devastating psychological outcomes of war is demonstrated by his sister’s retelling and her inability to put words to Jasper’s suicide. As he leans over the train track, front-lit the sound of the train is deafening as it approaches (Figure 9). We are left behind to acknowledge the realities of the aftermath of wartime experiences.

Figure 9: Jasper at the train track.

nineSource: ANU Productions, 2015.

The final scene of the performance returns the audience to the day that the four men leave Dublin for war. They ask us to run out with them to see their families in the square of Collins Barracks from the windows. They ask us to take their photo, and then Jasper takes charge and leads the men down the stairs to the square. We are thrown into the scenes of joy and celebration, as they walk through the crowds of Dublin people there to see them off. We, as the audience, are left to reflect on what we know happens to each soldier, and what we are seeing on the day they left for Gallipoli. In the beginning of the performance, war is seen as a heroic endeavour, but by the end we learn about realities of death and mental illness. It was an honour for each of us to witness their stories.

PALS make us again question our own understandings of the reasons people go to war, and how those left behind became patriotic about their support for soldiers, zealots who harassed men not in war, protestors against the violence and death that wars bring, or remained silent due to shame. The glory of war and visions of heroism are evident in ANU’s performance, as masculinity and being a man can be seen as well through the character of Charlie. Patriotic support of war might be associated with genealogy, such as Paddy’s family history in the military. Other patriotic men went to war to support Home Rule, only to be treated badly when they returned due to events that occurred on the home front. Surviving soldiers experienced dismemberment and physical injury, as well as damage to their mental health, the latter of which may have continued even when their physical scars healed.

As stated by Connerton (1989), ‘it was through acts performed at a sacred site that the illusion of mundane time is suspended’ (p. 43). Visiting memorials such as the National War Memorial and performances like PALS at Collins Barracks inscribe places that represent the past with meaning and emotion. Because our understandings of past events define our present, it is important to remember even the difficult realities of our national history to help us become more tolerant as a people. We saw this no better with the landslide victory of the marriage referendum. As well as this, we can be thankful of our society’s growing understanding of mental health and what it means to be masculine or to be a man. PALS represents the reality of a war at a transitional moment in Ireland’s history, and within this decade of centenaries this truthful representation of a controversial war is a welcome portrayal that helps us critically reflect upon our country’s foundations.

John Herbage is an MA student in the ‘Art, Culture and Environment’ stream at Maynooth University, Department of Geography.

Notes

1. ANU director Louise Lowe commented that she suspects a love story here, but no evidence has been found.

2. A fictitious representation of such a scene is represented in Figure 8.

Sources Cited

— ANU Productions. (2015) [Online Photographs]. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/anuproductions/photos_stream (accessed 19 April 2015).

— Bennett, A. (1914) The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting [online photograph]. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/nicoletta-f-gullace/white-feather-girls-womens-militarism-in-uk (accessed 19 April 2015).

— Connerton, P. (1989) How Societies Remember. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

— Kavanagh, M. (2014) The Edward Lutyens-designed Irish National War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, Dublin [online photograph]. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/first-world-war-through-prism-of-political-allegiance-1.1950823 (accessed 19 April 2015).

— Rigney, A. (2008) Divided Pasts: A premature memorial and the dynamics of collective remembrance. Memory Studies, 1 (1), 89 – 97.

— The Telegraph. (2011) White Feather Women didn’t Impress those on the Front [Online Photograph]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8774295/White-Feather-women-didnt-impress-those-at-the-Front.html (accessed 19 April 2015).

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