Airbrushed from history: caught between no man’s land and home

Alan Owens


Alan Owens

The soldier is home: Jack, the fictional character in On the Wire, returns to Limerick after the First World War. Below, the Sailor's Home on O'Curry Street is the location for the play. Pictures: Ken Coleman
THE events of war are always horrific, vividly felt by all who have been scarred by them, likewise the aftermath of conflict. Returning to a country that has largely turned its back on you for fighting in that war is unimaginable.

THE events of war are always horrific, vividly felt by all who have been scarred by them, likewise the aftermath of conflict. Returning to a country that has largely turned its back on you for fighting in that war is unimaginable.

In the early 1900s, there was no British Army in these parts, it was just the Army, the prospect of a career going with it. Four army barracks existed in Limerick.

Estimates range as to how many men from Limerick went off to fight in the First World War. Local historian Liam Hogan has done work on shedding light on how many died in the conflict – more than 1,000 in total he has shown, the vast majority around the Western Front.

In compiling his WWI project, the librarian discovered his own great-granduncle had died in the conflict and was absent from memory. In contrast, another granduncle, a member of the IRA in the War of Independence, was feted.

Such was the nature of changing Ireland post-1916. Historians agree that the country all of these men left in 1914 was entirely different by war’s end, post the execution of the leaders of The Rising, and the destruction of the Irish Parliamentary Party along with it.

Events in Ireland during the war years dramatically shaped public opinion, moving away from aggressive propaganda and the war effort being a fixture of every day life. The unbridled call to arms issued by John Redmond in 1914 stood in stark contrast to the mood in 1918, when returning soldiers in British Army uniform were often treated as pariahs.

All of these things have influenced On the Wire, a new, devised piece of theatre from Wildebeest Theatre Company that explores a soldier’s return to Limerick after WWI.

Inspired by real life stories of those who left for war and those left behind, at its centre is the fictional story of Jack, who arrives home to Limerick in February 1919.

The war has finished, but is still very real for the soldier, suffering from shell shock – post-traumatic stress disorder simply did not exist then – and haunted by what he has seen.

It is an intimate, poignant journey through the aftermath of war, written and performed by a cast of Limerick theatre artists and directed by Terry O’Donovan.

It is based in the Sailor’s Home on O’Curry Street, a former police barracks now returned to the ownership of Shannon Foynes Port Company, who have been instrumental in helping this site specific theatre piece get off the ground, backed by City of Culture.

“Our relationship with the British Army uniform is complicated for various reasons,” sighs Mike Finn, part of the On the Wire team along with fellow devisers and performers Marie Boylan, Amanda Minihan and Shane Whisker.

“There was real physical airbrushing of the history for a long, long time.

“The 100th anniversary of the War is bringing a lot of stuff to the surface and there is so many people that have a connection with it, and some that people didn’t know that they had or barely half remembered. Our history is more complex perhaps than we learned in secondary school, which is a bit simplistic and one sided.

“They left one country and came back to find a country completely changed and those that did come back were bewildered at what happened.”

In his own case, Finn had a grandfather fight in the war, and return. Marie Boylan, founder of Wildebeest and the key driver of the production, only discovered her own familial connections when researching stories for the play. She admits to having “always had a fascination with it”.

“I just think it is an incredibly sad period in history and so many men were cannon fodder,” she says. “There hasn’t been anything about WWI in Limerick, or in Ireland for that matter.

“I think everyone knows a certain amount about it and seems to think a lot of it is about the British in trenches, or French or Germans and they kind of forget maybe that the Irish were hugely involved.

“This is a domestic story with a military background. It is fiction but based on fact and it is a documentary drama and, in that way, is completely different from what people might expect.”

Working from research by historian Eamonn T Gardiner, the cast and director came together to devise and work out the story through a workshop process, creating an “intimate story” using organic means.

“It was a nice process in that way,” says Terry.

“It was an exciting devising process, everybody brought different skills. There is quite a pressure as well, doing a piece about WWI, because people want it to be different things.

Marie adds: “But we are story tellers, that is what we do. Jack is a fictional character that we created. He is every soldier really, an everyman who went off and had to come back and deal with that.

“I don’t think we are looking to provoke a reaction, maybe more a discussion. We are not political.”

The Sailor’s Home has worked to inform the piece also, Terry explains, in its “crumbling and domestic” nature, similar to the central character attempting to put his life back together after the horror of war. The team hope to provoke discussion through the promenade piece, that opens on the anniversary of Armistice Day.

“Hopefully people will take away something from it,” says Terry. “That is the pressure. We decided to focus on one specific thing and hopefully have something that people will be emotionally affected by.

“It is interesting to tell such a different Limerick story that has existed for a long time. It is quite exciting. I think people will be interested in it.”

On the Wire runs from November 11-15. See