Unboxing Olive Swanzy

Kabosh and Creative Centenaries unlock the history behind a First World War nurse from Newry in a new play inspired by lost artifacts

Something there is about a box, a closed box, a box full of secrets and hidden history. Just such a box surfaced a few years ago in the attic of a house in Rostrevor, County Down, where it had lain quietly for decades.

Local artist Marie Claire Douglas came across it, opened it and saved it from almost certain destruction. Inside she discovered a veritable treasure trove: a collection of autograph books, crammed with poems, sketches, drawings, stories and cartoons, reflecting the thoughts and fears of soldiers who had been wounded in active service.

But that was not all. The large, apparently innocuous cardboard box also contained a number of beautiful watercolour paintings documenting both the horror of war and the natural beauty of the borderlands around Newry and South Armagh.

This precious archive turned out to be the property of one Olive Swanzy. Born in 1882, the daughter of a Church of Ireland minister in Newry, she joined the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses and went off to serve at the Western Front. There she tended to men who had been terribly wounded and saw things no person should have to see.

Unsure of what to do with her unexpected find, Douglas took it to the former BBC journalist and broadcaster Denis Tuohy, who shared her determination to preserve and reveal its contents. He in turn brought it to Kabosh and who, delighted to receive such a gift, have used it as the inspiration for a new play by the distinguished writer Carlo Gebler. It will be performed in the Ulster Museum over three weekends, alongside an exhibition of some of original items, which will run from June 3 to September 18.

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Kabosh artistic director Paula McFetridge described the privilege of being offered the collection as '... a once in a lifetime find. To have someone share that with you is emotionally affirming. To be able to create theatre that tells the story of an amazing woman in extraordinary circumstances is an absolute pleasure.

'The first glimpse of the material was incredible - to think that the soldiers in Olive’s care had entrusted these drawings and sketches to her and that she had faithfully kept them all those years and that they were just now coming to light was inspirational.'

The watercolours were painted by Swanzy herself. Her gift may not have been recognised during her lifetime, but these delicate little pieces open a door into an untapped artistic talent, a new artist emerging many decades after her death. Their warmth and charm convey the deep affection which she harboured for her homelands, images which must have brought her great comfort and solace during the worst of times.

'The brief was to write a play that would incorporate the materials contained in the box,' says Gebler. 'Writing doesn’t really work in a context of unlimited choice - it works when there are constraints. I had a character, a name, a birth date, a collection of watercolours and some autograph books in which the soldiers she nursed had written. Olive was a talented watercolorist, who had obviously studied the French impressionists. You can see it in the style of her work.

'I have incorporated the text of the autograph book into the play - well, not all of it, of course. There are about 80 pages. But I have used some of the poems, the squaddie doggerel, the jokes … the kind of stuff soldiers write. It was liberating, like writing a sonnet. You know where you are. You have a road map.'

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Gebler goes on to explain that the 45-minute storyline revolves around two individuals, played by Gerard Jordan and Abigail McGibbon, who recently won the award for best supporting actress at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards.

'There are two characters: Olive, who is real, and Jeremiah, an ex-soldier, who is made up. The day on which the play is set is 21 June 1922, a boiling day. For complex reasons, she is looking at the watercolours and autograph books while he is burning a load of privet clippings in the garden of the rectory. The scenario is plausible but not factual. Out of the conversation between the characters and the material itself came the play.'

The production and the accompanying exhibition have come to fruition with support from the Nerve Centre’s Creative Centenaries project, which began in early 2014.

'Creative Centenaries works with a number of organisations, partners and stakeholders and the project provides information and resources around the Decade of Centenaries in Northern Ireland,' explains co-ordinator Niall Kerr. 'It uses creativity and new methods of communication to make learning and understanding of events within the decade more accessible.

'We have already produced work commemorating the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the outbreak of World War I in 1914; this year we have the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme and coming up are the Civil War and Partition. It was a remarkable period in the history of this island.

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'The project has three strands: exhibitions, events and outreach, which offers innovative learning resources like comic books and animation to young people. We are really pleased that we’ve been able to help Kabosh bring The Box to life and to feature it as part of the programme at the #MakingHistory 1916 Exhibition. This is the first time that the paintings of Olive Swanzy will be seen in public. It’s very exciting to be a part of uncovering untold stories like hers.'

Gebler says that the central conceit of the play is that Olive is deciding whether or not to destroy the materials. Her dilemma throws up important questions and moral issues.

'Bound up in the books and the paintings is so much pain and misery. The two characters are veterans of the war, both of them Irish. Jeremiah is a British Army soldier; Olive is a nurse. The play explores the unexpected ways that they were crushed and touched by the conflict and the common cause they make after the war to help each other manage their trauma. Their lives have been atomised by war. In what I hope is not a pious way, the play asks what is the point of keeping things that are connected to so much human suffering.

'Theirs is the solidarity of the maimed; it is far from perfect but in the aftermath of war, when it is the only kind going, each must take what the other has to offer and make do with that because there is nothing else available. As any veteran will tell you, in the absence of what you want, you take what you are given.'

The Box is at the Ulster Museum at 12 noon and 3.00pm on Saturdays and Sundays, 5 to 19 June. To book tickets visit www.nmni.com, telephone on 028 9044 0000 or purchase direct from the museum. The #MakingHistory 1916 Exhibition opens at the Ulster Museum on Friday, June 3 and runs until Sunday, September 18. Find out more at www.creativecentenaries.org.