Too long have the Irish who fought in the British army during WWI been lost to obscurity. Whitewashed in the national memory by the nationalism that followed the 1916 Easter Rising, stories of their conflict still go widely untold. In February 1915, the rugby men who comprised the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers converged on the Royal Barracks for their final stage of training before sailing out to fight, presumably in France. Their destination was in fact the sun-drenched beach of Gallipoli, Turkey, in what is now remembered as one of the most disastrous military operations of all time.
Site-specific innovators ANU Productions stage a commemoration on the site of the former Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks, location of the National Museum of Ireland). The 7th Battalion was a ‘pal’ battalion – a military unit that organised soldiers to serve alongside friends and neighbours. Appropriately, this too is the spirit of director Louise Lowe’s staging.
It begins as a museum tour, with a guide giving facts about a haphazard campaign. We hear of casualties (one of which, Paddy Tobin, was the son of a physician tending to Sean O’Casey, and whose father’s heartbreak inspired the WWI drama The Silver Tassie) and of an astronomical rate of desertion. Fittingly, this is when a woman from 1915 (Laura Murray, well kitted out in Niamh Lunny’s historical costume) curtails the tour looking for her missing husband. Across the courtyard we find the pale figure of Charles Brady (Thomas Reilly) holding tightly to his rifle, absent and voiceless in the exchange between his wife and his superior.
Comparatively, Brady is brought to life in the company of his fellow soldiers. Ushered up to the dormitory of the 7th Battalion, we witness gracious scenes of laughter and joy, the celebration of a birthday and a game of rugby. It is through the electrifying effects of Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting and Carl Kennedy’s sound design that the room transports between the horrors of the battlefield and the camaraderie of the sports pitch, a space wherein mid-air a thrown rugby ball transforms into a deathly grenade.
Are there any answers to give to the panicked lieutenant, played whole-heartedly by John Cronin, who reaches out and asks if we would have lead his men any differently? Has awareness of the effects of shellshock and depression, represented in a tactful turn by Liam Heslin, changed all that radically since 1915? Such images are juxtaposed with scenes full of life and even romance, especially in a beautiful waltz between an injured soldier and a nurse in soft lamplight. Lowe’s staging feels aware of the absences of these extraordinary men from public record, and seeks to summon them in all their vigour.
At one point the actor Shane Whisker gently delivers Paddy Tobin’s two very different letters to his parents, one detailing a disorganised military itinerary to his father, and the other convincing a safe operation to dispel the worries of his mother. It exemplifies the intermingling of dark and light that carries through the production to its conclusion, as the soldiers excitedly prepare to disembark for the war while archival images projected by designer Owen Boss show veterans returning injured and disabled. It’s a sad reminder as to what’s on the horizon.
But what resonates the most is a soldier’s question in a moment of crisis: “Do you think Ireland is proud of us?” In ANU’s considerate production, rescuing their traits of friendship, kindness and compassion from one of the most hellish battlefields on earth, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
Pals – The Irish at Gallipoli is playing at Collins Barracks until 30 April. For more information and tickets, see the Pals website. Photo by Patrick Redmond.