Walking to the Ark

Carlo Gébler’s new play serves up the Siege of Derry through the eyes of a family in crisis. 'What people think happened and what actually happened is always contested'

It’s not every play that announces their cast with a tour around Derry’s historic walls, complete with female lead atop a 17th century-style military horse named Billy Braveheart. Then again, it’s not every play that explores one of the city’s most memorable historical events, which surely calls for a certain sort of fanfare.

Walking to the Ark is the latest play from Carlo Gébler, one of Northern Ireland’s finest writers, who has a plethora of literary successes to his name. Indeed, Gébler has written everything from stage and radio plays to novels for children and adults, as well as television scripts and journalism. He has also been writer in residence at HMP Maghaberry since 1997, and is both a teacher and academic.

Writing is in his blood. Born in Dublin, Gébler grew up in London and now lives in Enniskillen, and is the eldest son of writers Ernest Gébler and Edna O'Brien, no less. Telling stories comes naturally, and his latest is based on real-life characters and on the very real Siege of Derry, which lasted from 1688 until 1689.

Gébler insists, however, that no prior or in-depth knowledge of the siege is required to enjoy Walking to the Ark, which tells the intriguing stories of four key players: Colonel Thomas Whitney, Irish Jacobite Captain Nicholas Darcy, Mrs Martha Darcy and the turnkey of a Derry prison.

'The play was inspired by a book called Fighters of Derry,' Gébler reveals. 'Only 100 copies were made, and I have one of those copies. It’s a book of providence – it lists all the people at the fight, inside and outside, but only the officers. It says where they came from and what happened to them.

'In this book, I came across a reference to Colonel Thomas Whitney, who was sent to prison for selling or giving horses, saddles and weapons to an Irish Jacobite Captain (and former prisoner) Nicholas Darcy. I realised that Darcy, who was later recaptured over the horses, ended up back in prison in Derry at the same time as Colonel Whitney.

'I don’t know what the relationship was between the two historical figures, but I thought this was very interesting. I came up with the idea that Darcy was Colonel Whitney’s illegitimate son. You think to yourself, "You’re the colonel of a regiment and one of your enemies is being released. Why would you sell or give them horses?" The reason might be because you’re related.'

Half of the story takes place in Mallow, where the characters are from, while the other half unfolds in Derry during the siege, mainly in the prison. To further add to the mayhem, Darcy’s mother (and Whitney’s mistress) is revealed as the wife of Whitney’s quarter master…

'The other thing about the play is that it revolves around letters,' adds Gébler. 'We live in the Internet age today, but in the past you could only communicate with people in two ways, talk to them or send them a letter. Letters were so important. So, in the play, everything involves a letter. There is one in every scene.'

Gébler is, of course, no stranger to writing about the siege. He scripted and narrated a television documentary on the historical event in 2013 for BBC Northern Ireland (see video above), and previously penned a book entitled The Siege of Derry, published in 2008.

'That book took four years and it was so hard,' he admits. 'With history, you have to stick to the truth, but what people think happened and what actually happened is always contested, especially in Ireland.'

Walking to the Ark was subsequently commissioned after the documentary was shown at the Celtic Film Festival in the Playhouse in Derry.

Walking to the Ark

So, what does Gébler hope the audience will take away from his latest work, and what mood does the play embrace?

'I hope the audience will give thanks they don’t live in the 17th century in Ireland,' he jokes. 'The message of the play is basically that we’re all mongrels. We’re all mixed up. Our history is very very cloudy. It’s not black and white, as the politicians try to make out.

'It’s also a play about trying to live a good life and do the right thing, and the terrible conflict that prevents us from behaving correctly. It’s all about conflict really, because Darcy longs to be accepted by his father, who he knows is Whitney, but this isn’t acknowledged. Whitney doesn’t want to own up and Martha has a horrible time. Also, the turnkey goes blind…'

Whether or not onlookers who recently observed cast member Tara Breathnach (Martha) astride the magnificent Billy Braveheart during a promotional photo shoot on Derry's Walls will be inspired to see the play remains to be seen, but the story is certainly a gripping one, finding new intrigue in a historical episode that has been told and retold in Ireland and further afield for generations.

Walking to the Ark runs at The Playhouse, Derry from May 27-30.