More Than a Flag at Belfast Festival

Dan Gordon's world premiere exploring link between east Belfast and First World War

A century has passed since east Belfast answered a historic call to arms: for God, for monarch, for Ulster.

Welders and riveters, butchers and bakers, these ordinary men asked few questions when they headed for the Western Front, their collective story weaving itself into the tapestry of the Great War.

From 1914 until 1918, the bravery of units like the 36th Ulster Division, to use a well-known example, was as plain as the politics at home was violently muddled. Soldiers hailed from all over the province and populated a variety of regiments.

Their contribution formed a particular source of pride in northern Protestant, unionist culture, but, from the Newtownards Road to Mersey Street, the male populace of Belfast’s industrial east was among the first to swell the ranks of King George’s army.

For actor and director Dan Gordon there existed an irresistible draw in exploring the degree to which such service and sacrifice have taken on a visceral significance within working-class Protestantism.

More Than a Flag will run as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, from October 23 – 25, the result of Gordon’s work with three east Belfast flute bands. The festival programme describes the event – which revolves around the war’s place in the community fabric – as ‘a special performance with songs, poetry, music and drama to commemorate this vital part of the city’s heritage'.

That outline is vague, perhaps, though it is not a fact lost on Gordon as he continues to shape his vision. ‘This will look like what it looks like,’ he suggests, ‘I don’t know.’ It will not take the shape of a play, he says, rather the project will follow a less traditional route, so to speak.

‘It’s about zeitgeist. It’s about what I can get them to do, what they feel comfortable doing, what I think may be relevant and what they think may be relevant. It is what is. People can come and see it. It’s kind of what it says on the tin.’

If anything, Gordon hopes to effect ‘a process’ in which the participants can articulate whatever issues they feel are germane, with the war its crucial starting point. Due to be staged in the fairly unusual surroundings of Ballymacarrett Orange Hall, Gordon believes that More Than a Flag is best viewed outside any pre-determined prism.

‘I don’t want to be too prescriptive about it because I don’t want people judging it before they see it, before whatever happens happens. These are young men who have not performed like this before.’ Many elements will go ‘into the pot', he adds. 'We want to see what comes out.’

Having approached them with this tentative idea, Gordon admits that he was surprised by how willing the bandsmen – talented musicians in their own right – were to engage with the dramatic process. They are keen, perhaps, to subvert a public narrative which has not been especially favourable in recent years.

East Belfast infamously spawned the flag protests of late 2012, yet the title of the piece clearly pricks at any notion that this issue hangs over everything. ‘It goes a lot deeper,’ says Gordon. ‘In recent times, the tenor of how the media chooses to portray the situation is around flags and emblems but there is a great deal more to it. I would like to examine that. There’s a much wider fraternity there.’

He even hopes to facilitate some measure of cross-community understanding, whereby a divided society might, once again, be reminded of how much common ground endures. ‘I’m just, through the arts, trying to open both sides up to allow for viewing.’

That the broader conflict was a monumental waste of a generation, accomplishing little beyond the nourishment of Nazism’s seedling shoots, is essentially irrelevant. During a period of smouldering political turmoil in Ireland, the men who had pledged themselves to Carson in resisting Home Rule turned away from rebellion, surrendering life and limb for the king they had once sworn to disobey.

The 36th Ulster Division, and countless others, suffered grave losses; this was an oath paid in blood. That swirl of contradictions has long defined modern Irish history, yet, for Gordon, it heightens the sense that this remains an outlook only its holders, and now their descendants, shall properly unpack.

The era represented a ‘major transition', he contends. ‘You had a whole division within the country that was boiling up... It’s in that psyche because the Ulster Volunteer Force had been recruited from the Protestant community and then went, en masse, to fight on the front. It’s ingrained because it was such a big loss.’

In the months since he began this journey, Gordon has been impressed both by the energy with which his young charges have approached their first experience of arts-based expression and by their characters, individually and as a group. He concludes: ‘The young fellas that I’m working with, I think if they’d have been in that situation, they would have volunteered and gone too. There’s a great parallel there.’

More Than a Flag runs Ballymacarrett Orange Hall, Belfast from October 23 – 25 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.