Could peace come after? After what? Who will we be?
Award-winning playwright Lizzie Nunnery explores the fractured national identity and the violent legacy of British military intervention in Ireland with her new drama To Have To Shoot Irishmen which premieres at Londons Omnibus Theatre next month.
It is inspired by the true story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, an Irish nationalist and pacifist who was murdered during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.
Playing the role of Frank will be Gerard Kearns who is best known for playing Ian Gallagher in Shameless and appearing in the BAFTA Award-Winning The Mark of Cain, both for Channel 4.
Joining Kearns will be Elinor Lawless, Robbie O’Neill and Russell Richardson.
Here Lizzie talks to Stage Review about the production.
Why did you write this play?
I’m a history lover and about ten years ago I started reading a lot about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and got excited when I came across this story of the Sheehy Skeffingtons.
Hanna was an early feminist and suffragist and was imprisoned and on hunger strike twice in her life because of her activism for the suffrage movement.
She was this incredible woman and I really wanted to tell her story. So often women are written out of history and that’s very true of the events of the Easter Rising.
There’s so much focus on the heroic men involved and not very much on the heroic women. Hanna played an interesting part in that she was friends with the nationalist rebels who marched into town and declared a free Ireland.
But her, and her husband Frank’s position, was that Ireland could be free without bloodshed. They were pacifists and feminists as well as nationalists.
I think knowing what we know now, that’s a really moving and stirring vision of Ireland. I wanted to ask the question through the play: was there ever a peaceful way for Ireland to be free?
More than anything I wanted to tell Hanna and Frank’s extraordinary story of love, violence and loss. The extreme events of the Rising are a backdrop to a relationship blown apart.
What’s the focus of the play?
It’s about Hanna’s response to her husband’s murder by a British soldier, about the way it impacts on her and transforms her.
It’s also about chaos and the lack of control we all have over our lives: the words we can never take back once said, the ripples we put in motion that can’t then be stopped.
On a small scale that’s played out in the emotional warfare of the characters, and on a large scale it’s the British military rolling into Dublin with their bombs and their machine guns.
During the events of the Easter Rising, Frank was out walking the streets calling for peace and trying to stop looters.
While he was walking over a bridge near Portobello Barracks on the edge of Dublin he was pulled from the crowd and arrested without charge.
On orders from a British soldier, John Bowen Colthurst, Frank was held for two days in the barracks and then taken into the yard and shot before a firing squad with two other men.
I became haunted and fixated by this relatively recent history and these appalling acts of brutality. The story raises big resonant questions about Britain’s attitude to other nations.
I’m fascinated by the complexity of our relationship with Ireland then and now. In the play I explore the character of William, an 18-year-old Anglo Irish lad who guards Frank in his cell.
William wants nothing more than to serve the British military with honour- but as the events of the story unravel, his identity unravels too.
The title of the play comes from a quote from Bowen Colhurst. On the night before he killed Frank he was reported to have said, ‘Isn’t it dreadful to have to shoot Irishmen’.
How much research was involved in writing the play?
It took a long time because there was so much there. But it was easy in the sense that there was a lot of material available.
One of the characters in the play is Sir Francis Vane, the British officer who gives Hannah the news that her husband is dead. The real Sir Francis wrote several books about the art of warfare and his own experiences in conflict, so I had such intimate access to this real-life character through his own writings.
Is the play relevant to today?
I think it resonates with current conflicts. I want the people who see the play to feel the closeness of these events and feel that connection to now.
That question of what happens after the initial intervention stays relevant. It makes us think about Iraq, Afghanistan and the questions we’re facing in Syria now.
There is a false idea that you can contain violence, that you can go in and be strategic and precise, but history tells us repeatedly that this isn’t true.
That April morning in 1916 when the Irish rebels picked up their guns and walked into town with a heroic intention, they never knew where it would carry them or their country.
There’s a nice family link in our creative team too. The play’s designer Rachael Rooney is a distant cousin of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – her grandmother was Hanna’s cousin.
Rachael didn’t tell us this until after she got the job. It seems like a weird magical coincidence that she’s working on the story of her family. Also, it’s her first ever professional design job, which makes it even more special.
Directed by Gemma Kerr and produced by Nunnery’s Almanac Arts, To Have to Shoot Irishmen open at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, running from October 2 – 20 and will then tour until 6 November.
October 25 – 27, Liverpool Everyman Theatre (as part of Liverpool Irish Festival)
October 30, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
November 1 – 2, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
November 5, Mumford Theatre, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
November 6, The Arts Centre at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk.