1912, A Hundred Years On

27 short scenes telling the story of the Irish Home Rule Crisis of 1912

1912, A Hundred Years On is a deliberate and ambitious attempt by Philip Orr, a local historian, and Alan McGuckian, a Jesuit priest, to present the contentious history of 1912 in a fair and balanced way.

The purpose of the play is to increase understanding between Unionists and Nationalists at the start of the so-called ‘decade of political centenaries’.

Two young actors, Ciaran Nolan and Neil Wilson, perform the one-hour drama on and around a small, layered stage. The scene shifts from a hill in the Glens of Antrim to the floor of the House of Commons, from the docks of the Belfast Shipyard to the meeting room in a rural Orange Hall.

Each shift is telegraphed through the use of potent props and symbols, with the stands of Belfast’s Celtic Park becoming the circular table draped with a Union Flag on which Sir Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant in Belfast City Hall.

This fast paced passage through the history of 1912 is driven by the great skill and immense energy of the performances. Actors Nolan and Wilson shift quickly and easily from aristocrats to farmers, from politicians to militia. One second they are marching or debating and the next they are praying or rioting.

Of course, the play follows the progress of the Third Home Rule Bill, which promised Ireland a parliament of its own in Dublin, and the deep opposition from Unionists, who sign the Ulster Covenant. However, the play includes much more than this. 

The writers mix the voices of the ordinary citizens with the famous words of political leaders, clergy and trades unionists. There is space for the story of lesser-known figures such as the Protestant clergymen who opposed the ‘Every means that may be necessary’ words of the Ulster Covenant.

Orr and McGuckian manage to weave the Nationalist story with the Unionist story, the rural story with the urban story and the wider context of a looming Great War in Europe is a constant backdrop.

There are fascinating insights into the sort of detail that is often forgotten in the headlines of history. Have you ever heard of the ‘Castledawson Sunday School Outrage’? Then there are unexpected moments of song and poetry to add to the richness of the texture, once again, delivered with vibrancy by the actors.

The only missing element seems to be the voice of women, although to be fair, inequality for women is referenced more than once as part of the social and political context of 1912.

Each performance is followed by a facilitated discussion, when the audience explores questions such as: How was life different in 1912 from 2012? Did you learn anything new that challenged your assumptions about the history of 1912? How do you think these events should be remembered in 2012?

At the performance in Ballymoney Town Hall several members of the audience commented that is was unusual to see this era of Irish history presented in its entirety rather then telling just one side of the story.

1912, a Hundred Years On is a sincere and successful attempt to move away from a ‘them and us’ approach to history towards a shared understanding of the past. The drama is an entertaining, educational and thought provoking contribution to the decade of commemorations.

1912, a Hundred Years On has been commissioned by The Centre for Contemporary Christianity supported by the Community Relations Council and is currently in the middle of an initial two week run in 14 community venues across Northern Ireland.