As we sat in the auditorium I tried to imagine the scenes at the Abbey in February 1926 when the first production of the play was greeted by riots of a similar kind to those which had greeted Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Then it was the use of the word ‘shift’ on stage that did it but with O’Casey the objection was not moral but political.
The problem started in the second act. Incidentally, did you know that this was originally written as a one act play called The Cooing of Doves? It slotted right into the middle of the story of ‘little red-lipped Nora’ and her husband Jack Clitheroe, who in Act One is sulking because he ‘wasn’t made a captain of’. Act Two opens with the prostitute, Rosie Redmond, setting the scene in the public house. This was shocking enough but provoked nothing like the reaction caused when three men in uniform, Clitheroe (now promoted and in the thick of revolt), Langon and Brennan entered carrying the two flags of the combatant Irish forces: the tricolour of the National Volunteers and the plough-and-stars of the Irish Citizen Army. On the fourth night of the 1926 run there was present a large number of women closely associated with the men who had fought, died or been imprisoned in the 1916 rising. The sight of the flags sparked off massive resistance to what was perceived as an insult to the patriot dead. Women screamed and hurled shoes, they invaded the stage and were thrown into the orchestra, blows were exchanged and one young man swung on the curtain which was being hurriedly lowered. The pandemonium caused a panic among the audience, who dashed for the exits and added to the confusion.
In the days that followed, Yeats gave a public lecture at which he said that the rioters had ‘rocked the cradle of genius’. Just ten years after the Easter Rising, people believed that O’Casey had failed to honour the sacrifice of the Irish heroes. In the current run of the play the bar in Act Two cleverly doubles as the platform for the speaker addressing the crowds gathered on the streets of Dublin in the days leading up to the rising, usually presented as a silhouetted figure in the window. It is he who declares: ‘War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing’ and that Ireland should welcome war as the ‘Angel of God’. Echoing the words of Pádriac Pearse, he justifies rebellion against the British: ‘Ireland, unfree, shall never be at peace.’
I cannot think of the Easter Rising without remembering a chapter in my own life. I was the ghost writer for a church leader’s memoirs, Paul Reid of Christian Fellowship Church, Belfast. In 1993, the publisher gave it the title A New Easter Rising, rather pretentious I thought, given that the 1916 one didn’t go too well. Portentous, even, because although Paul’s story is a truthful account of his journey into faith and church leadership, CFC also failed to produce what it promised.
The book's origin was in an Easter gathering of churches north and south, Protestant and Catholic, at Mosney called 'Together for the Kingdom'. Great crowds, great worship, great preaching, great everything, apart that is from the amusements which were a health and safety nightmare! In his forward to Paul’s book Roger Forster called this cross-border, cross-community congregation an ‘historic conference’. The declared vision was to see ‘new churches springing up through the length and breadth of Ireland’. In that spirit of hope, Paul predicted that CFC would plant 400 churches in Ireland by 2010, not to mention one in Europe. Paul stuck his neck out in print and I was party to it and we were soon sorry. Paul has had an amazing ministry in Belfast and beyond but to date we have only one church plant in its infancy. Sadly, 'Together for the Kingdom' was also short-lived. In just a few years the event was cancelled amidst murmurings about 'pushy northerners' and cultural differences.
He has risen! He is not here.