Still, the Blackbird Sings

Joe Nawaz thinks the blackbird in this production has hit a sour note

Much has been written about Ireland during the First World War. The received histories of both traditions generally speak of the war years in terms of great mythic deeds both at home and abroad, be it the ‘glorious’ Easter Rising or the ‘heroic failure’ of the Somme.

Sure enough, for Irishmen of all religious persuasions the years 1914 -18 proved to be a time of turmoil, contradiction and confusion to compete with anything our current stripe of social decay can throw up.

The long strived for Home Rule Act was held back once again in 1914, ransom in return for the loyalty of Irish Nationalists. Up north, Ulstermen saw it as their duty to defend their corner of the Empire from the Hun hordes on the rampage across mainland Europe.

It is into this troubled milieu that Dave Duggan’s much heralded new play (which has just finished a mini-tour of the north) throws its audience.

The setting is Ebrington Barracks, Derry 1916. The central character is the real-life poet, war hero and Irish nationalist Francis Ledwidge. The incidents in question concern the stay of Ledwidge and his religiously and geographically mixed Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers at the barracks as they regroup and recuperate before one final fatal return to the front.

Still, the Blackbird Sings conjures much of the contradictory malaise and uneasy comradeship that pervaded the Irish war effort and allows Francis Ledwidge’s own conflicting loyalties to bring the broader hypocrisies at play into sharp relief.

Ledwidge, for example eulogised his friend and Easter Rising leader Thomas McDonagh in verse one moment, yet fiercely defended his decision to fight for the British to show them ‘we’re keeping our end up’ the next.

The half-lit gloom that the stage is shrouded in lends a spectral air and with period uniform, bayonet and banter also present and correct (sir), allows us the almost tangible illusion of sneaking a glimpse back in time. It’s also gratifying to hear some old well-known war songs being used with their original more earthy lyrics restored. And I thought a long way to Tipperary was about missing your sister...

Director Catríona McLaughlin completes this deft sleight of hand with the choreography of a military drill providing a chill mechanical contrast to the playful interactions of barracks life. The scenes where Ledwidge (Mark Fitzgerald) and his fellow soldiers play cards, debate political points, antagonise, placate, carouse and fight offer a genuine warmth that transcends the underlying tensions between the loyal Ulsterman in the company and Ledwidge’s rebel poet.

There is a flawed idea reinforced here that poetry and indeed poets somehow offer a means of redemption or succour in such times. But surely most First World War poetry was as much reportage and reaction to the scarcely imaginable horrors than a balm for them?

When some of the more literary-minded leaders of the Easter Rising are described as 'poets of the insurrection', it’s hard not to raise a smile, especially if one has ever happened to run an unfortunate eye over the florid doggerel that Pearse called verse.

Unfortunately, the weakest thing about this play is the verse of Ledwidge himself. Duggan includes as much of it as possible, and Fitzgerald delivers it with a certain panache. But Ledwidge’s work strikes me as being a little too in love with love, nature and all things beauteous at a period when there was surely little time for romanticism. 

Perhaps I do Ledwidge a disservice; it is writer Duggan after all who allows him many whimsical reflections on wildlife.

Two scenes that bookend the play redeem and delight as much as they do move the viewer. The opening, when we’re shown a tangled mound of khaki limbs, which gradually unfurl and reveal themselves to be individuals singing, joking, swapping stories about recently vanquished Turks is a great piece of direction and oddly affecting – it sets the tone brilliantly.

Near the very end, the play is again shaken out of a curious sense of lethargy by another incendiary moment as a terrified Private Gamble refuses to return to the front while his comrades cover for him. It’s a surprising, upsetting but perversely welcome emotional jab, made all the better by the performance of Conan Sweeny as the buffoonish but loveable Gamble.

Still, the Blackbird Sings, in conclusion, is a thoughtful, commendable but only partially successful attempt not only at examining a particularly fractious period of Irish History but also the parallels with modern imperial adventures and the divided loyalties that they still incur.