INTERVIEW: Dave Duggan

The Oscar-nominated writer takes a break from rehearsals to tell CultureNorthernIreland about his new WWI drama Still, The Blackbird Sings

The conflicted loyalties of an Irish nationalist fighting for the British in World War I are at the heart of a challenging new play from Dave Duggan, opening this week.

Still, The Blackbird Sings is an 'imagining' of the months the acclaimed poet and adventurer Francis Ledwidge spent after the Easter Rising at Ebrington Barracks in Derry, before being shipped off to his ultimate doom at Passchendaele.

The drama examines the protagonist’s struggle to stay loyal to his barrack-room friends, (a number of whom are unionists), to Ireland, and to the Crown campaign – all the while maintaining his private loyalties as a citizen and a writer.

Duggan, a long-time admirer of Ledwidge, acknowledges the drama has allegorical resonances to the recent political disputes at Stormont.

'Pre-1916, unionists and nationalists were being promised very different things by the British to ensure their support for the war,' he explains.

'On the one hand, the British were holding out the prospect of Home Rule, while on the other they were guaranteeing the Union. The tension in the play eventually breaks on this issue: Ireland as united with Britain, or Ireland as independent. And ultimately the question arises as to whether the loyalty, for either group, is worth it? Or should people simply desert?

'There are many modern echoes in the recent talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein. But I’d posit that no matter how tense, delicate or insecure the current political negotiations are, it is better than having them disputed by scared armed groups, as was the case here in 1916.'

It bore heavily on Ledwidge that he was a friend and literary contemporary of executed Rising leader Thomas McDonagh – indeed, he wrote a lament to him.

But at the same time, the poet’s patron was Lord Dunsany, who gave him use of a writing-room in the Officers’ Quarters at Balloughry, on the outskirts of Derry (later the residence for the Christian Brothers in the city).

'Dunsany was the man who helped steer Ledwidge’s poetry into book form,' says Duggan. 'In Derry, however, Dunsany’s role was that of Captain and Training Officer, responsible for delivering men back into the war. In the play we see also the pressure coming on officers from above to get men back from leave, or invalidity, into combat.'

Ledwidge’s divided loyalties lead to him losing a stripe, after a row erupts in a local pub. And while again this scene is invented, the poet was indeed court-martialled.

'There’s no record of why this happened, but from his writings we do know he was deeply conflicted about his role as a soldier.

'At one stage in the play he talks about the Rising, which he missed because he was soldiering in France until May. He says that had he come back to Ireland a month earlier, he mightn’t be in Derry now.'

The Derry cityscape and River Foyle are strongly present in the play. Ledwidge’s parade-ground slopes down towards the riverbank, providing the soldiers with a stunning vista of the city, its two cathedrals, 'hundreds' of other churches and the green adjoining hills.

The officers’ billets at Balloughry, on the other side of the river, have a similarly panoramic view, which Ledwidge enjoys while 'walking out' along the Foyle with the housemaid, Rosie Friel.

'She’s a completely fictional character,' interjects Duggan. 'But while Ledwidge was supposedly a bit shy, there is evidence that he did do a bit of walking out. He certainly got around in Derry – visiting the pubs and Thomas Maguire’s Bookshop on Carlisle Road.

'Ledwidge uses Rosie to discuss his relationship with Dunsany, who views him as a son. But the poet is aware that the father doesn’t want the son to grow up.'

It is apposite that the bulk of play’s action takes place at Ebrington Barracks, as the base has recently been 'returned' to the city to develop a new arts quarter, after decades of use as a military site.

The play will actually conclude its Irish tour with two performances at the as yet un-renovated barracks complex in mid-March.

Still, The Blackbird Sings will premiere this week, however, at the new Playhouse on Artillery Street, recently redeveloped to the tune of £4.6 million. Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin and produced by Jonathan Burgess, it is the first play commissioned for performance by the new facility.

Duggan, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1998 for his film Dance Lexie Dance, has already two further projects of his own in the pipeline.

Having just scripted RTE’s entry for the 2009 International Radio Drama Series Everyone’s Got a Mountain to Climb, he is now working on an Irish-language play for the station.

And he is also working on a stage-play – a family drama – set on board a cruiser on the Shannon.

Still, The Blackbird Sings opens at The Playhouse on Thursday February 25 –27, The Project Arts Centre in Dublin, March 1-6; The Balor Theatre in Ballybofey, March 9; and An Culturlann in Belfast, March 11-12. The production finishes its run back in Derry, at Ebrington Barracks, March 13-14.

For further information or booking please contact The Playhouse on 7126 8027.

Garbhan Downey