Just who is the real father of modern Ireland, WB Yeats or Padraig Pearse?
Adam Shaw talks spoke to writer Neil Weatherall about the interplay between art and history in shaping the Ireland we know.
The role and reputation of art is something that will forever be debated. Is it something which should be produced purely for aesthetic means or should it have a more far-reaching purpose?
We have seen, as recently as the latest general election, that it can be used to influence people in terms of their political thinking. And artists will tell you time and time again that what they turn out is more than just pleasing to the eye; it is meant to invoke certain feelings.
Padraig Pearse certainly followed this train of thought.
A revolutionary first and foremost, he was also an artist. And he believed that one could utilise art to further one’s cause. So when a showing of John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World made its way to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, its usefulness, in his eyes at least, was clear.
This should be a performance of majesty, but it should also be one that painted the people of Ireland in a favourable light.
The reality was somewhat different.
History has proven that the play is nothing short of a masterpiece but, instead of championing the Irish, it showed a nation full of violence, murder and corruption.
The reaction from Pearse and his contemporaries is well-documented. A series of riots ultimately changed the course of history and this, in effect, shows the power art holds.
Neil Weatherall – a British playwright with no Irish heritage – has tacked onto this. And through his latest work, The Passion Of The Playboy Riots, he seeks to examine the role of art in influencing Irish history, as well as that of humanity in general.
“It looks at the extent to which art can be used as propaganda,” he says.
His play brings together three important figures in the history of Ireland – Yeats, Pearse and Lady Gregory – and their separate approaches to art.
“Yeats and Gregory, they gave their artists absolute freedom,” he explains. “Padraig Pearse, on the other hand, believes that the plays aren’t sufficiently republican.
“Pearse and others who went to go and see it expected to see the Irish equivalent of the Last Night of the Proms but they actually got EastEnders and they were furious.
“The theme is the two different ways of looking at Irish culture and Irish art.
“Yeats thinks it needs to be beautiful and true to the artist vision. Pearse says ‘no, it’s got to paint Ireland in a positive light’.
“The audience that night supported Pearse’s philosophy. Upset at seeing their countrymen portrayed as barbaric, they proceeded, somewhat ironically, to riot in protest. It might not have directly led to the 1916 Easter Rising but it certainly had some lasting impact. What’s more, it proved the point that art, whether intentionally or not, had the ability to alter the course of history.”
Neil believes that is never more pertinent than today.
With the DUP on the verge of entering a pact with the Conservatives and with the permutations of Brexit on the horizon, the issues addressed in the play are entirely relevant.
“It couldn’t be more topical right now. I read somewhere that ‘suddenly everyone’s an expert on Northern Ireland’,” he says. “I’ve grown up through the period of the Troubles – away from any danger, I must add, but seeing it all over the news.
“And I was mystified that some people fighting for either side had some sort of death wish or lust for blood and violence.
“Researching Pearse, it seemed as if he wanted to become a martyr.
“There are quotes in this play like ‘bloodshed is a cleansing thing and without bloodshed there can be no redemption’ and ‘the earth needs and admit it’s a factor.”
This all sounds very serious but, as Neil notes, it is something which needs to be taken into account when looking at the psyche of various nations. It extends to the very real situation facing Ireland today and the uncertainty surrounding the UK leaving the EU.
“The Irish guys in the cast are having lengthy discussions with one another about the prospect of a hard border,” he says. “Will this bring in police and the army and we’re back where we were 30 years ago?
“It can sound stupid and petty but it’s a genuine thing that needs to be addressed.
“We can learn from history and I think everyone involved in negotiations should know at least as much as what is covered in the play.”
Politics aside, the play is a witty piece, aided by the fact that its content comes from three bright and intriguing individuals. And while it’s a cliche that history is always destined to repeat itself, the Abbey Theatre riots, and subsequent events up to this very day, prove that it holds some truth.
One thing, however, is for certain – art, and theatre, will always have a role to play.
• The Passion of The Playboy Riots is showing at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, London from 27 June to 8 July.