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Frank McGuinness - Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme


It's a good day at Blackrock, Dublin, where it may be the fag-end of January, but where the day is imitating a glorious spring day, chock-full of something that smells like hope. ''It hasn't rained for weeks,'' says playwright Frank McGuinness. He's done a full morning's teaching by the time I knock on the door of his little blue-fronted house. The lunchtime news is just finishing on TV, going over the headlines. Some war or other. The Omagh inquiry. The Bloody Sunday inquiry. McGuinness strokes his beard, grabs his big flappy coat, and we hotfoot it to his local before the weather forecast goes and spoils it all.

''We were always taught about 1916 in terms of the Easter Rising,'' he says, recalling the origins of his play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme in the early eighties, and which receives a new production this week at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre. ''But the First World War was an absolutely crucial part of Irish history, through this story of the Ulster Regiment.''

A strange subject, perhaps, to be explored by a Catholic Republican from Donegal, but one which challenged McGuinness's own prejudices.

''What it means to be a Republican is to believe in unity. But not the banal nonsense that is preached by extreme groups like the IRA, which are sectarian and which are about imposing their will on people. If you do believe in unity then you believe in difference and diversity, and part of that is finding out about the people you're told are the opposition, and learning to respect their differences. We're still not trained to do that on this island, so finding out that information was my political gesture with the play.''

Sons of Ulster is a play that inexplicably taps into some kind of zeitgeist: it brings together eight disparate young Ulstermen who've fallen by various degrees for the myth of king and country. Their shared experience on the front brings about intimate alliances, particularly between the cynical Pyper and Craig, who saves Pyper's life with a kiss, in more ways than one.

As much as it's about ritual, Sons of Ulster is all anniversaries, too. In the play, the battle of the Somme takes place on July 1, the same day as the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Its 1994 revival was decided on the same day the IRA's ceasefire was announced. And this Thursday will be the thirtieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers were gunned down by British troops in Derry.

Like the Somme, it's yet another day that has captured the imaginations of writers, including McGuinness himself, whose play Carthaginians looked at the conflict in a way that couldn't be further away from the two television films that have marked the occasion in the past week. McGuinness is keen to see both, even though, with both Sons of Ulster and Carthaginians, he pretty much said all he wanted to about the conflict.

''I'm more interested in sexual politics,'' he says, ''and I wanted to put a serious gay relationship onstage. Remarkably, this was the first time an Irish playwright had depicted homosexuality on an Irish stage without resorting to either camp cliche or out and out abuse. 

''This was a form of censorship that Irish theatre had imposed on itself,'' he says, ''and it was time to break that silence in this context, which confronted the stereotyping of gay sexuality, and showed that there was a certain manliness in the love between Pyper and Craig, and that it was a part of their masculinity that they had to learn to accept, and learn to live with.''

Even with such a taboo busted, the prejudice lingers in certain quarters. ''I've seen companies refuse to do it,'' he says. ''These two men make love, and if you don't show that, what's the point?''

McGuinness expresses a fondness for director Giles Havergal and the Citizens' Theatre, and is delighted they're doing Sons of Ulster. He asks about the theatre's studio spaces, and expresses a hearty desire for his play Baglady to be done there, with actress Maureen Beattie, an old friend, in the title role. ''She was born in Donegal,'' he says, his face aflame with pleasure, looking after his own.

Looking back at Sons of Ulster some 16 years after its premiere, as it opens in Glasgow, a city which has also clung on to the scabby coat-tails of sectarianism, and with the ongoing peace process blighted by institutionalised and ingrained hatred on both sides of the border, McGuinness is more pessimistic than he was.

''I was a young man when I wrote this play. I was 29 and I had a whole lot of hope for things changing in Ireland.'' And now? ''Now?'' he shrugs, helplessly aghast, mouthing words that never come, and shakes his head. As gestures go, it says it all. Outside, the sky is just that little bit darker, and the gathering clouds look like battlefields. When the rain comes, all you can be sure of is that they'll pass.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, opening night Friday, 7.30pm. Free preview Thursday 7.30pm.

The Herald, January 29th 2002

ends


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