Like many residents of Liverpool, I’m proud of my Irish heritage. While some can trace their ancestry back through the Great Famine to the days of Wolfe Tone, the United Irishmen and beyond, my Celtic bloodline is wholly imaginary and only really extends as far as an exhilarating Pogues gig I saw at Sheffield University in 1985. Nevertheless, when Ray Houghton scored for the Republic of Ireland against Italy at the 1994 World Cup, my Guinness cup did indeed runneth over.
So it was only right that I should occupy a seat at the sold-out performance of Liverpool Lambs at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre recently. This new play, written by Peter King and Steve Nolan, has been developed together with a large community cast drawn from St Michael’s Irish Centre in the city. As King and Nolan told me when I interviewed them for Northern Soul, it forms part of a programme of events commemorating Liverpudlian involvement in the Easter Rising – the armed rebellion that attempted to wrest Ireland from British hands at Easter 1916.
It doesn’t take a Master’s degree in history to spot that 1916 was right in the middle of the First World War, and this fact was both cause and opportunity for the rebels. Conscription had been introduced on the British mainland earlier that year and was widely believed to be on its way for Ireland too. Indeed, moderate Irish nationalists urged their countrymen to join the British army in the hope that they would be rewarded with Home Rule once the war was over, and many thousands did heed that call. But for others, it seemed that the time to choose a different army had arrived.
At the heart of Liverpool Lambs is the King family – the real-life ancestors of Peter King, the co-author. As an Irish family in Liverpool, three of the sons were members of the Liverpool Volunteers, a group formed to defend any future Home Rule Act from being subverted, but which found itself taking a more offensive role as radical Irish nationalists made their decision to act. The group was affiliated with the Irish Volunteers who, along with the Irish Citizen Army, formed the bulk of the rank and file rebels during the Rising.
The story sweeps us through the excitement and anxiousness of the pre-Rising period, with British call-up papers arriving and the counter-call being issued from the rebel leaders in Ireland. It moves on through the preparation for battle in Dublin’s Kimmage garrison – including making bombs from cans of condensed milk – to a powerful sequence detailing the chaos and bloodshed that followed. From a thrilling sense of purpose to resignation and surrender after six days of fighting, the cast manage to capture the sense of being part of, and yet at the mercy of, historic events.
Steve Nolan, King’s fellow co-author, takes multiple roles in the play, and his experience as a drama teacher and theatre-in-education practitioner shines through. The rest of the performers have little or no previous stage experience but, as director, Nolan has helped them create a lean piece of theatre that tells its story powerfully and passionately.
Memorably, there is a good deal of music, including stirring narrative folk songs that add a melodic lustre to the acts of defiance, along with traditional airs played on harp and mandolin. And there’s dancing too, with a 16-hand reel swallowing the Unity’s small stage and some stiff-bodied tapping and leaping that looks a great deal more authentic than the stuff you see at your average Michael Flatley show.
But if the music and dance serve as punctuation, it’s the story fashioned by King and Nolan that provides the narrative core. They have drawn on impressive quantities of source material to create a play that is part family drama and part historical epic, with elements of knockabout comedy at times, and commemorative set pieces that add real emotional weight. And this show – like the Rising itself – is far from being just a tale about men. The very first line of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was unambiguous, calling for the attention of “Irishmen and Irishwomen” equally, and the crucial role of the Cumann na mBan – the republican women’s organisation – is also placed centre stage.
King and Nolan haven’t been overwhelmed by their research but have remained admirably clear-eyed about the story they tell. While it comes, unapologetically, from a position of sympathy with the rebels and their cause, it also serves as an accurate and evocative primer on the Rising from its causes through to its eventual, probably inevitable, defeat. There is another story to be told of course about what happened afterwards – the War of Independence, partition and the devastating Civil War – but given that the Rising is so little understood in Britain, this play could, in the right context, play a valuable educational role.
I couldn’t help reflecting on this aspect once the play was over. While I was immersed in the story of an armed rebellion that had taken place just 150 miles from where I live – rather closer than London in fact – my son was involved in a school production of Les Misérables. Guns, barricades, the rising of the masses – the two shows might share revolutionary inspiration, but whereas one is now a flag-waving romp fit for the school stage, we’ll be waiting a long time before the Easter Rising becomes an excuse for an end-of-term knees-up.
I got the sense, however, that for most of the audience at the Unity – Liverpool Irish judging by the accents and conversations around me – the facts about the Rising itself are already well known. What seemed to come as a surprise to many though was that so many Liverpudlians were involved at the height of the fighting, and in this regard, the play really does break new ground. As the lights came up on a sweet-voiced eight-year-old boy singing The Foggy Dew, and the volunteers were marched off, hands raised in surrender, to internment and an unknowable fate, it was hard to escape the conclusion that we were party to an act of recognition and remembrance rather than simply watching a play.
There are strong performances throughout, but as a community effort that can only have come about as a result of a great deal of very hard work by all involved, I’m loath to pinpoint individuals or name names. And till now, perhaps that’s how it’s been for the Liverpool Volunteers themselves: sometimes single-minded and at other times confused, they were absorbed into a struggle that was a great deal bigger than themselves.
Not now though. Thanks to Liverpool Lambs their moment has finally come. At the play’s end, every name is projected, every individual is given the credit they are due. And while I might actually be as Irish as the River Thames itself, I’m sure my imaginary Celtic ancestors are raising their arms in salute.
Photo Credit: Liam Walsh of Whitebox Photography
Liverpool Lambs was at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, on March 31, 2016.
The full programme of Liverpool Easter Rising 1916 events can be found at www.liverpooleaster1916.org