By Jennifer Laverty, Head Guide
2016 was a seminal year for the Irish government.
The commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising was one of the most important in the history of the State. National institutions such as RTÉ and the Abbey Theatre had programmed an entire year’s worth of theatrical events to commemorate the centenary alongside official State ceremonies. The itinerary included plays, poetry readings, historical re-enactments and concerts. The perspectives of those involved in the Rising were revisited and examined, including the role of women, a role which many felt had been reduced to a mere footnote in history. It was this particular angle of the commemorations that inspired both me and my co-writer Eilis O’Donnell to write an original piece for Dublin Castle. We felt there were many female stories beyond that of the wives of soldiers – or of the female rebels – that had not yet been explored. The role of Irish nurses during the war was one such example of an untold Irish story. Whereas Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth had highlighted the role of British nurses during the war, it seemed there was no Irish equivalent. The success of the National Museum’s Our War exhibition and ANU Theatre’s production of Pal’s: The Irish at Gallipoli at Kilmainham Hospital had shed some light on the Irish contribution in WWI, but many aspects of the history were still left unexplored. It is against this backdrop that we conceived of the play The Crown and the Red Cross.
I have worked as a professional actress and Dublin Castle tour guide for almost thirteen years.
During this time, it has been an ambition of mine to produce a site-specific theatrical event set against the backdrop of the eighteenth-century State Apartments. Dublin Castle has been at the heart of the almost every significant event in Irish history, including that of the Easter Rising. It was the first building to be attacked the morning of the insurrection and it was also the site of the first fatality, Constable John O’ Brien. Nevertheless, the average Irish person knows very little about the individuals who lived and worked at the Castle during the Easter Rising or about the existence of the Red Cross Hospital stationed in the State Apartments between 1915–1918. Thousands of Irish women served as nurses and Voluntary Aid Detachments during the war, many of them stationed at the State Apartments. Like the female rebels involved in the Rising, they too felt they were patriots. Both sides thought they were doing their bit for Ireland, but attitudes towards Irish soldiers would change dramatically after Easter week. According to many, they left Ireland as heroes and returned as the ‘enemy’.
When it comes to such dense subject matter, I am a great believer that theatre can be used as an effective education tool.
Many people would shy away from the prospect of a two-hour history lecture but would flock to see the latest production of The Plough and the Stars. The theatrical device of ‘living history’ has worked extremely well in other historical buildings, for example, at the Tower of London and Hampton Court. As this was the first time Dublin Castle would host a production like this it was imperative that it be done correctly. Getting it right required a combination of historical accuracy regarding content and costume, and an engaging story that would hold an audience’s attention. In order to achieve this, I approached Eilis O’Donnell, an actress and writer friend of mine to co-write the piece with me. We had trained in The Gaiety School of Acting together and shared a similar interest in history. We also shared a similar mindset on the question of Irish identity. I was born in Northern Ireland but have lived in Dublin for many years. Eilis was born in Ireland but raised in Manchester until her early teens before returning to Ireland. We had often discussed the idea of what is was to be ‘Irish’, having both felt at one time or another in our lives that we were not ‘Irish’ enough for some people. This experience helped us in writing the play, as the theme of national identity would become an intrinsic part of the piece.
Eilis and I researched for several months, poring over every book and article we could find about Dublin Castle during the Rising and the Red Cross Hospital.
We even made a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons to view a note book that had belonged to a doctor who had worked at the Castle during the Rising! With the help of the Irish Military Museum, The Costume Mill and the Abbey costume hire we were able to recreate the accuracy and mood of the period on the stage. Our costume mistress Rowena Cunningham, producer Melissa Nolan and fellow OPW colleague Aisling Gaffney were pivotal in the production of the play. Matthew Ralli, our fellow Gaiety School classmate who had displayed a great sensitivity and vision when handling historical plays in the past, was our choice for director. He had previously written and directed an original piece about the theft of the Irish crown jewels which was performed in the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle.
We decided that key historical figures in the British-Irish executive in 1916 such as Augustine Birrell, General Maxwell and Sir Matthew Nathan would be explored in the piece alongside Red Cross nurses, Castle constables and wounded soldiers. The play was performed in promenade style during which the audience was guided through three to four rooms in the State Apartments by a narrator character and witnessed scenes of private conversations, political revelations, and conflicting opinions. The effect this achieved was that of a ‘fly on the wall’ experience for the audience, giving them an alternative view of the events of Easter week, one that many people had never heard before.
The Crown and the Red Cross ran from the 22nd September to 2nd October 2016 and was by all accounts a great success. We received many kind words and reviews in the aftermath of the production, many of which were posted to our Twitter and Facebook pages. If you would like to read some of the reviews, you can follow these links: Red Curtain Review, No More Work Horse.