In August of 1989, ten thousand Irish citizens marched from the center of Dublin to the British Embassy, calling for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. This was part of a larger movement that had been active in both Ireland and Northern Ireland for many years; the more passive side included marches and speeches, and the more aggressive side included bloody riots and bombings.
Twenty-years later, having watched the meteoric rise of the Irish economy, which miraculously lifted Ireland from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest, it is hard to imagine that things were so bad so recently. In 1989 the unemployment rate of Ireland was 18%, and much of the island was still without basic amenities such as electricity or running water. Another large portion, particularly those living in the northern province of Ulster, lived among the constant tension of violence between loyalists and republicans that could ignite at any moment into bloodshed. Indeed, several Irish Republican Army attacks resulted in the death of Ulster policemen that year, and the retaliatory violence left several notable IRA men dead.
1989 was also the year that Irish playwright Antoine O Flatharta wrote the play Blood Guilty. The title of the work is itself a play on the term blood guilt (the idea that one shares guilt by blood association) and also indirectly suggests the English oath “bloody,” the use of which etymologists attribute to Queen Elizabeth I of England in reference to her older sister Mary, and her “bloody” persecution of English Protestants. The very name of the play, then, alludes to two themes directly addressed in the work itself: the Old Testament idea that the sins of a father may be visited upon his family, and the generational struggle between Protestants and Catholics in England and Ireland.
Recently I had the chance to view Blood Guilty in a revival of the play staged by Bronx Company at Player’s Loft Theater off Broadway. The production was simple and elegant, a one act play running roughly ninety minutes and involving four actors. It begins and ends in a small cluttered room, in a shack shared by two elderly brothers in rural Ireland in 1989.
The younger of the two, Dan, is blind, and passes the time listening to a radio station in French, that he might remember that there is a whole world outside of their isolated little house on the small, poor island. His older brother, Pat, finds this practice intolerable, and threatens to take off to a home for the old and degenerate, and thus be rid of him and his “foreign station” on the radio. At first the banter between these two seems loving, but before long we realize that there is genuine hatred and a genuine threat in Pat’s words.
Soon, complications arise as another couple of men make an appearance at the door, young and rough looking, and who also happen to be brothers. They enter the shack under the guise of selling blankets, but before long are bullying the witless Dan who has let the men in the shack in Pat’s absence, asking for money and making threats. It is clear that the younger of the two strangers, Tom, is uncomfortable with this practice, but the threats of his older brother silence him unto compliance. Before too long, Pat returns and the tension escalates toward tragedy. The sins of the old are visited upon the young, brother is turned against brother and generation against generation, only to be reconciled, in the end, by grief.
It was clear from watching the play how rooted it was in Irish history and theater. The actors (who are all Irish) had a clear understanding of the weight of history their characters bore, as clearly did the Director, Kevin Collins, who studied theater in Dublin for some time. And this weight is significant, as evidenced by the major works of Irish playwrights and poets.
As an undergraduate I studied theater, particularly the work of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge, at the National University of Ireland in Galway. These works wove the rich history of Irish fairy legends and folklore with Biblical allusions and events from recent history involving Irish suffering at the hands of the English, and of one another. The Irish seemed to have a particular affinity with the Israelites of the Old Testament, laboring under an imperial rule, wandering in a great wilderness but moving forward assured of their place in the eyes of God. The Old Testament is clear that suffering is a major part of life, and does not cringe from describing the Israelites’ tendency to turn away from God and bring ruin upon themselves and their ancestors as a result. This is a theme explored over and again in Irish theater, and Blood Guilty is no exception.
Of particular relevance to the play is the story from Genesis of Cain and Abel. Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, makes an offering to God that is not pleasing, whereas Abel, his younger brother, pleases the Lord with his sacrifice. From jealousy or rage, Cain murders his younger brother while out tending the fields; the Lord comes to Cain saying, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground,” and banishes Cain from his presence to be a “fugitive and wanderer on the earth.”
In modern English translations, Cain responds to the Lord by saying, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” But in the Hebrew the word can be “punishment” or “iniquity,” or both simultaneously – as seems to have been the case with Cain. The burden of his sin was itself more than he could bear, its own punishment, and though he would eventually settle down in a distant land with a wife and son, he was estranged from his home, bowed under the weight of having killed his own dear flesh and blood.
Such is the iniquity/punishment that seemed to haunt Blood Guilty, and Collin’s treatment. Synge and Yeats certainly carried it as well, as did many of the Irish I met when I lived there who had “experienced the troubles.” They are a people straining toward freedom and light, who seem unable to break the cycle of violence, iniquity and estrangement that comes from so many hard years spend, generation to generation, passed from son to father. And yet they strain against it still.
Twenty years have passed since the play was written, and Ireland has scraped itself up economically and the IRA has formally disarmed. Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley shared a table last year for talks of cooperation and peace in Northern Ireland. It is a world none of us could have imagined twenty years ago.
After the play, I went out for a drink with Mr. Collins, the director, and we marveled at all that had happened in Ireland since the play was written. And we laughed and that he, a Roman Catholic, and I a Protestant – both of Irish descent – could share a Guinness and tell stories and bond over the aesthetic truth presented in the play and a couple pints – as Irishmen should. It drew out thoughts to that ragged, forlorn wilderness haunted by a people for so many years, a people that may be on the verge of finding their way home.