Frank McGuinness and the Sons of Ulster.
That battle is, of course, a milestone in the history of Ulster loyalism. Over six thousand members of the Ulster Division were killed in a single day of fighting. Entire streets of Belfast and small villages of Antrim were left without young men, because the authorities had made a point of bonding new recruits with neighbours from their own communities. That policy died the death after July 1916 but while it lasted it meant that recruits were deeply committed to one another as they went over the top. They had to be, because an edict just before the battle confined commissioned officers to headquarters. (2) This meant that many units going into battle had nobody above the rank of captain leading them. 'In the end, we were not led, we led ourselves', says the sole survivor, Kenneth Pyper, at the start of the play: 'We claimed we would die for each other in battle.' (3)
By a strange kind of irony, much of the IRA campaign in the streets of Belfast and Derry in the decade before the play seemed to feed off similar feelings. The journalist Mary Holland reported the insistence of a Derry IRA man that he was dying not so much for a united Ireland as to protect the neighbours in his street. It is also true that many loyalist gunmen saw themselves as community defenders. Moreover, the idea of an independent Ulster, as a real alternative to integration with either Britain or the Irish republic, had been openly considered by many loyalist leaders. This was in keeping with the growing awareness of regional cultures which had developed not only as a response to the ever-larger bureaucracy of the European Economic Community but also as a direct consequence of the introduction of local radio and publishing houses committed to the study of local history and culture. McGuinness's play was as much a product of the 1980s as it was a study of an Ulster mind-set which achieved definition all of seven decades earlier. For perhaps the greatest irony of all about the soldiers at the Somme was their discovery of a version of their own Irishness. Back in Dublin, over the previous two years, Patrick Pearse and Desmond FitzGerald had feared that the very notion of an Irish identity would disappear in the trenches of the Great War: (4) but quite the reverse happened. New and unprecedented ideas of Irishness emerged, as so often in the past, as a consequence of an intense experience overseas. In the muddy fields of the Somme, a generation achieved a form of self-definition.
Observe the Sons is open to many interpretations. Some have read it as a suggestion that a repressed homosexuality underlies unionism. (5) This possibility might have troubled some minds following the Kincora Boys' Home scandal of the early 1980s, when the attempt by loyalist politicians to hush up an expose of coercive sexual activity with orphaned boys made headlines. It might even be possible to think of McGuinness as reversing the famous process by which the British authorities of 1916 imputed homosexual behaviour to the patriot Roger Casement, before executing the nationalist leader for high treason. Such readings, though clever, would slight the tenderness with which the playwright renders the homoerotic feelings between the male characters. These men are at their best in moments of personal integrity, which are set off against the horror of the war itself.
The action opens with the elderly Pyper preparing for his own death and recalling the deaths of those he left behind at the Somme. This first section is titled 'Remembrance'. The word echoes the familiar Armistice Day slogan 'lest we forget' and it also questions the amnesia of the southern state, which for many decades had allowed the memory of the 150,000 who fought in that war to be extirpated from the official record. Many of these had joined up in defence of the rights of small nations, actuated by the belief that Home Rule would be the reward for their loyalty when hostilities ended. By 1985 their role had been all but forgotten: and even the rebels of 1916 were no longer commemorated with the fervour which once they had aroused. There was a real danger that all the dead would be forgotten.
The boys and men of the Ulster Division had very different hopes from those of their southern counterparts in the British Army: they wished by their loyalty and bravery to stave off Home Rule. 'Who knows', asks a historian, 'how many had felt cheated of a fight with the menace of Irish nationalism by the suspension of Home Rule at the outbreak of the war?' (6) This may be why McGuinness has the soldiers imagine their unseen, unknowable German enemies as Fenians and Catholics. The battle, after all, was to fall on 1 July, at the height of the Orange marching season and a date which some believe to have marked the actual Battle of the Boyne. Such a symbolic coincidence could only have increased the ardour of those who wore sashes and shouted 'No Surrender' as they faced the German gunners.
'I do not understand your insistence on my remembrance', opens Pyper, but to whom? One critic has suggested that the dying man is defiantly addressing his God, with a rebuke for the mass-slaughter orchestrated in his name. (7) Certainly, the opening monologue, which threatens to become endless, sounds remarkably like that issueless Protestant confrontation with conscience on which many of the texts of Samuel Beckett are based. (8) Pyper searches with similar compulsiveness for the liberating and exact phrase which would bring his suffering to an end, and also his monologue. But that monologue may also owe something to the overture to James Joyce's 'Sirens' chapter of Ulysses, for key phrases in it will be repeated and elaborated in later sections.
Pyper appears to be rebuking contemporary unionist leaders, who honour his comrades, or perhaps even castigating this playwright, who exploits him for his own artistic purposes. He wishes to deliver no celebration of slaughter: 'Invention gives that slaughter shape. That scale of horror has no shape' (p. 12). Nobody has the right to excuse such suffering in the act of making it a lesson for others. McGuinness is imagining the resistance of the dead to assimilation into any narrative written at the mercy of the present moment. He conceived of the play when he saw the names of dead soldiers on a memorial and began to imagine them back into life. In effect, his work seeks to restore the possibilities of their youth, before public events fully swamped their private lives. The title is a deliberate echo of an old Ulster saga, Oidhe Chloinne Uisnigh, or The Fate of the Sons of Usna, one of 'the three sorrows of storytelling'. In it the warrior Naoise and his brothers must leave their home province for love of the beautiful Deirdre. They rather than she are the focus of the oldest accounts, exponents of a blood brotherhood according to which all actions are performed under geasa, as injunctions based on honour rather than on clear psychological motivation. The tale will end when the king's promise to receive them back in Ulster as esteemed friends is cruelly broken and the old knightly code is exposed in all its bankruptcy, revealing the brave warriors as mere pawns in an aristocratic game.
McGuinness's revisionist version needs little straining to recast itself in terms of World War I. By late June 1916, over 170,000 shells had been fired at German positions and soldiers were assured that the capture of those few enemy operatives still at their posts would be a formality. However, the lies of army propagandists were already under scrutiny and 'not all of the men accepted the confident prediction that they were destined for little more than a lively summer stroll'. One young man wrote back home to the secretary of his Orange Lodge: 'When you receive this note I will be dead'. Rations and rum were issued in generous measure to men who feared they were being fattened for a sacrifice.
'I enlisted in the hope of death', says Pyper. Already he sounds not unlike his southern counterpart, Patrick Pearse, who admitted as much in a Gaelic poem:
Thugas mo ghnuis ar an rod seo romham, ar an ngniomh a chim, is ar an mbas a gheobhad. I have turned my face to this road before me, to the deed that I see, and the death I shall die. (9)
As if to confirm that implied equation, the aged Pyper is soon laying claim to other elements of Pearse's mythology. Cuchulain is 'ours', because his people fought to defend Ulster; and so also is the Sinn Fein title because 'it is we, the Protestant people who have always stood alone' (p. 10). This was a point which had often been made by Bernard Shaw: that Protestant notions of self-election were far more in keeping with the Sinn Fein ideal of self-reliance than were the universalist pretensions of Roman Catholicism. By 1985 advocates of an independent province, such as the Ulster Defence Association, had not only adopted a mural of Cuchulain in their head office, but also much of the old nationalist rhetoric of exceptionalism, of exterior threat and of a code in imminent danger of eclipse. They were becoming in their way just as anti-English as some of the more extreme nationalists had once been. They were caught in a syndrome described and diagnosed by Douglas Hyde: anglophobes who were also anglophiles, eternally denouncing the culture which they rushed to imitate. Their assertions of independence could never fully compensate for a humiliating sense of dependence on an England which scarcely cared two pence for them. The debacle at the Somme seemed perfectly scripted to capture at once their spurned loyalty and utter vulnerability.
Kenneth Pyper returned from that humiliation, denied the death he had so strenuously sought. No longer was he flippant about the gods of his loyalist forefathers, for now he wanted only to serve them: 'The world lay in ruins about my feet. I wanted to rebuild it in the image of my fellow companions' (p. 10). He gave up the life of a sculptor and jester, opting instead to manage his father's estates and the workings of the province. But to all intents he was one of the living dead, sleep-walking through life, for his heart was left with his dead comrades. In order to honour their sacrifice, he had to subscribe to the cult of loyalist courage and quell all doubts as to its value. The death wish of the 1890s poets was consummated in the trenches and the old Pyper is stark in the lesson which he deduces: 'That is hate. Deepest hate. Hate for one's self. We wished ourselves to die and in doing so we let others die to satisfy our blood lust' (p. 12). All he can do now is summon the ghosts of fallen friends, including that of his younger self, so as to hear what they may have to say to him. It is a wan parody of the classic homoerotic encounter between a wise old man and an initiate in search of his level of understanding.
Other responses to the carnage might have been possible. Many young Britons died at the Somme and those who survived saw it as a reprise of the old story of cannon-fodder sent to certain death by a cynical and manipulative elite:
After World War One the British ruling class would never again be able to despatch slum dwellers and peasant labourers to perdition en masse. But the unionist psyche chose to ignore that exploitation and betrayal and turn the sacrifice of the Somme into something more positive. It became an affirmation of Ulster Protestant loyalism. (10)
A class-driven analysis could never have made headway among estate-owners like Pyper, and it was they who set the agenda. Yet that radical analysis provoked real pain, even when it was made among socialists of the British left, for it implied that the sacrifices made by beloved brothers, fathers, and nephews had been quite pointless. Those like Pyper who returned from war felt a terrible guilt for surviving at all, along with the dire necessity to confer some meaning on the carnage. Pyper's ambivalence perfectly captures the conflicting interpretations. It is the vestigial radical in him who insists that the slaughter not be given a consoling shape, yet he also feels obliged to draw some sort of conclusion: 'Ulster has grown lonely' (p. 11).
Nor was it in Ulster alone that survivors supplied such a shape. The Somme was unusual in the appalling number of casualties, but in general most soldiers who took part in the war survived it. Yet the cult created around the warrior dead proved invaluable to comrades as they faced a new world which had little inkling of what they had been through: and it also became a means of accounting for the mediocrity of the present. (11) The older Pyper's disillusion with the state of his society would have had its counterpart in the bitter disappointment of many veterans of the Easter Rising at life in the Irish Free State. One way of coping with such frustrations was to insist that the best, bravest, and brightest had been the ones mown down by enemy guns. In those respects, too, the symbolic meaning of 1916 for loyalists and republicans was remarkably alike. The only major difference was that in the Great War the lingering theme was of 'doomed youth led blindly to slaughter by cruel age', (12) whereas in the Easter Rising the young, if anything, sent out a call to their elders. If July 1916 was sought by Pyper and comrades as an escape from the discontents of modernity, Easter 1916 was a confrontation with such modernity, as the young in Dublin sought to impose their ideas on the old. The Rising might never have happened were it not for World War I: and the dulce et decorum rhetoric was common to both enterprises. But abiding differences remained. One of the major objectives of the Easter rebels was to take their compatriots right out of the carnage of the Great War by reminding them, in effect, that each had a nation and a people of his or her own to defend. The Rising was, among many things, a protest against a war that was claiming hundreds of Irish lives each week and which had little enough to do with Ireland.
The second section is titled 'Initiation'. In it the young Pyper appears as a type of the artist and jester. With cryptic wit he exposes the stolidity of his army comrades to searching criticisms, as they arrive for enlistment at a makeshift barracks. At times he sounds like a doomed Elizabethan clown who speaks that bitter truth which will unnerve all others:
Craig: You're not in your grave.
Pyper: You're making yours.
Craig: What? (p. 13)
The histrionics are blatant, for all wars fought by conscripts must have a theatrical element. In real life, these fellows are millers, blacksmiths, clergymen, so it follows that military life, with the dropping of civilian garb for strange costumes, must be an act. (13) Moreover, the newly-recruited soldier must suddenly assume virtues which he may not actually possess and these are the virtues of an out-and-out actor: nerve, coordination, self-reliance, timing. (14) Pyper by his near-hysterical challenges might be seen as discomfiting his mates, but also as initiating them (in the manner of a slightly deranged sergeant) in the rituals of the military life.
It emerges that he may have homosexual longings and that he is also an artist. The artist in him sees through everything--the body of David Craig and the apple which he carves before Craig's eyes. He cuts his hand and asks Craig to kiss it better, but the recruit refuses. The invitation is not just sexual; it is also a primal urging 'to eat of the tree of knowledge and re-examine the tenets of inherited faith' in the warrior world of blutbruderschaft. (15) The blood on the hand portends the sacrifice to come. It is the first of many leitmotifs of the mythical Red Hand of Ulster: but it also evokes the great symbolic test of friendship and male bonding when Rimbaud plunged a knife into his hand to prove his love for Verlaine. Pyper has been to Paris and knows the value of such gestures among the community of artists. Later attempts by Pyper to repeat such a moment will prove more successful. For the present, he contents himself with looking intently at the body of Craig as he undresses. 'Did you not join up to die for me?' (p. 15), he asks, with an obvious pun on the Elizabethan meaning of die ('have sexual intercourse').
No superior officer appears onstage in the play, as if to suggest that they are not a felt force in the men's lives. Yet Pyper is soon impersonating a spit-and-polish version of the type. He does it so convincingly as to open the possibility that he is the sort of theatricalized man who can play everybody else's assigned part (soon he is playing Craig) but who will never be able to identify, much less play with conviction, his own. His effeminate quality disturbs the other recruits: 'I have remarkably fine skin, don't I? For a man remarkably fine' (p. 17). Never having engaged in physical toil, he may impersonate officers with ease because he shares their background in the upper class.
A good deal of stage business is organized around anxieties of masculinity in the ensuing scene. Told that he must make up his own bed, the UVF man named Moore scoffs: 'Woman's work. You don't join the army to do woman's work' (p. 18). When Pyper tells his mate Millen that he's fit for dying and wants it over quickly, the Coleraine man objects to such silly chat as 'more fit coming from crying women' (p. 20). Millen, it transpires, is a chef: 'Give him a skirt and he'll run you up a four-course dinner' (p. 24). This nervous jocularity has a darker, misogynistic side. Craig's father finds that his way of life as a blacksmith is threatened by the motor car and his skill is dying, but his way of coping is to take refuge in crude quips against his wife: 'You should meet the father. My ma often says he should have married a greyhound. He tells us behind her back he married a bitch, so she got her wish' (p. 23). The next arrival is Christopher Roulston, once a preacher as Pyper was once a sculptor. Craig recalls his hot-gospelling in Enniskillen: 'You certainly shocked us into changing our ways' (p. 25). Now, Roulston appears to suffer from nerves. There is an element of neurosis in the air. Millen asks each newcomer whether he sleeps on his right or left side: and the Belfastman Anderson smells a Taig in the barracks. Pyper chooses this moment to tell the story of his sojourn in Paris as an artist. Up to now his smart-alecry has been designed to unsettle his comrades' prevailing ideas of masculinity and femininity: but now he also begins to poke fun at their religious certainties. The play is all about the need to transgress fixed boundaries and to challenge psychosocial partitions: and so Pyper asks the men to believe that in France he met a nun-turned-whore possessed of three legs. They take the tale in literal earnest, though it sounds as if the whore may have been a transvestite male (the middle leg proving shorter than the other two). She 'died' on the wedding night, jokes Pyper, because he felt it his duty as a Protestant to saw her middle leg off--and then he ate her.
Later, praising the beauty of French women, he is asked by Craig: 'Men or women?' His answer, 'What's the difference?' (p. 31), dismantles the neurotic, manichean thinking off which loyalism, like nationalism, seems to feed. Pyper wishes to elude definition: for him a fixed identity is a barbarism. Yet some sort of individualism is necessary: it was in search of that that he fled the gods of loyalism for Paris. Those same gods can easily repossess his spirit. His byplay with the penknife may have been intended as a reprise of the Rimbaud/Verlaine exchange, but it threatens to lose that valency for a more fixed, Ulster meaning.
Pyper's energy verges on violence ('What are you like in a fight?' (p. 35)) and he actually strikes Anderson in the groin, before slitting his left hand with the penknife. On this occasion Craig needs no invitation but bandages the wound:
Craig: Red hand.
Pyper: Red sky.
Pyper: Ulster. (p. 37)
The image of one youth bandaging another has its source in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, but the fact that this wound is self-inflicted suggests that loyalism may ultimately destroy itself by the very energies it draws on. The account by Moore and Millen of the beating of a Catholic in Coleraine is not a good portent.
Part III, 'Pairing', presents the eight men home on leave after five months of exposure to war. The pairs may emphasize their difficulty in achieving individual identity but also the possibility that any one coupling has within itself the potential from which a wholly new society might be remade. They recall the pseudocouples of Beckett (Didi and Gogo), O'Casey (Joxer and Boyle), and Wilde (Algy and Jack). Although they have left the field of battle, it has not really left them. Pyper seems somewhat resentful of the fact that Craig in the intervening period has saved his life in battle: his tone is rather reminiscent of the character in Beckett's Murphy who says: 'You saved my life. Now palliate it.' (16) Craig makes no claim to heroism: he just did what his friend might equally have done for him. He brings Pyper to Boa Island on Lough Erne, a place famed for its hermaphroditic figures, in hopes that they may inspire him to create and sculpt again. The stage is divided into four scenes, each of which maps the 'pairing' between two of the men. Crawford, in another part of the stage space, urges a terrified Roulston to cease depending on traditional religion and leave the church a self-reliant man. Elsewhere, Millen encourages Moore to go across a rope-bridge and conquer his fear of the drop by looking straight ahead. And McIlwaine and Anderson conduct their own private Orange march to the Field at Finaghy. There McIlwaine learns a further meaning of the Red Hand motif: that if he is to play the Lambeg drum his flesh must bleed. In the course of their visit, they lament something rotten in the growing relationship between Pyper and Craig. They, for their part, are inspecting the figures on Boa island, which could be either male or female or both.
Each man experiences something akin to an epiphany in these expeditions. Pyper confesses that the personal care of Craig for him as a friend has brought him back to himself:
I turn people into stone. Women and men. Into gods. I turned my ancestors into protestant gods, so I could rebel against them. I turned my face from their thick darkness. But the same gods have brought me back. Alive through you.(p. 47)
Already, however, the various men are asking guiltily why they have been spared. Roulston suggests it may be God's will, but Crawford assures him that he was stunted by his church:
I'm a soldier that risks his neck for no cause other than the men he's fighting with. I've seen enough to see through empires and kings and countries. (p. 48)
Millen tells Moore to rely on the hand which is holding him up and to cross: but Moore sees only dead people, not living souls, on the other side. The rope-bridge might be taken as leading back to the war: but it could also symbolize a frail and now-threatened connection with England, which leads them to war. Even their deaths may not be enough to secure the connection.
There is no woman in the play, no character other than the soldier-comrades. The pairings have been cemented by the shared experience of a war which is incommunicable to anyone else. The lives of those at home and those in the trenches bore, in the words of one veteran, 'no relation to each other'. (17) What the soldiers home on leave felt for civilian society was an emotion more akin to contempt. In the words of Philip Gibbs: 'They hated the smiling women in the streets. They loathed the old men.' (18) It probably suited the rulers of society that soldiers found their front-line experiences incommunicable: for Lloyd George was sure that if the war were ever described in accurate words, people would insist that it be stopped at once. (19) Yet the shells that burst on the battlefield continued to burst in the ears of the men on leave, and McGuinness is enabled to show how combatants 'work through' their battle experiences in a home setting.
McIlwaine suggests that 'we're all going mad' (p. 51). Crawford, who has by now confessed to having a Fenian mother (thereby confirming Anderson's wily suspicions), suddenly asks Roulston to hear his confession. That confession is devoid of Catholic overtones, yet it may serve to prove that no matter how suppressed is the confessional impulse within Protestantism, it will erupt at moments of pressure. There is a sense in which the whole play is Pyper's confession to himself, yet another version of that never-to-be-concluded Protestant confrontation with the single question: why did we do it? In these scenes the younger Pyper develops a more credible account of his sojourn in Paris: his wife killed herself 'because she was stupid enough to believe I was all she had to live for' (p. 56). That sounds like an accusation about what he and his comrades are about to do for their Protestant gods. The escape to Paris was no escape at all: the 'non serviam' was followed not by creation but by a repetition of 'Carson's dance' which he had gone there to avoid: 'When I saw my hands working they were not mine but the hands of my ancestors, interfering, and I could not be rid of that interference. I could not create. I could only preserve.' So he rejected the woman who would continue his breed. Instead, he hoped to kill and die in their name. This would be his nihilistic joke, his revenge for fate's jest 'in making me sufficiently different to believe I was unique, when my true uniqueness lay only in how alike them I really was' (p. 57). The tradition of loyalism speaks most eloquently through those most sure that they had transcended it. But then Pyper met Craig, the unseen obstacle to his deep desire for death.
Some of the early reviewers of the play assumed that it was suggesting a link between an Ulster protestant identity and a cult of death. (20) Very probably it was, but only such a link as had already been made by, for example, Seamus Heaney between Mother Ireland and the self-sacrificing Sons of Irish republicanism. McGuiness appeared to postulate, even more radically, a necessary link between all stabilized identity and death. The Protestant tradition was strongest in Pyper when he was least aware of it and it pointed straight towards his own death. The blutbruderschaft was founded on a warrior code whose ultimate validation was death, a fact registered by D. H. Lawrence with excited repulsion at the height of a war which he was declared 'unfit' to fight: 'And even this terrible glamour of camaraderie, which is the glamour of Homer and of all militarism, is a decadence, a degradation, a losing of individual form and distinction, a merging of the sticky male mass.' (21) Pyper, on the other hand, is 'fit' for the grave. So were the Easter rebels. But Pyper seems fixated on the state of dying and being dead: they wished to look not just at but through death, to a future in which their revolt would carry a weight of meaning. The Ulster Division seem to be dying for nothing. Hence their jealous mockery of the 1916 rebels. The real blood sacrifice of 1916 was the loyalist one.
Such sacrifices also have a personal dimension and it is this which is brought out in 'Pairings'. Against the awful backdrop of war, the tender care of battle-scarred men seems not just miraculous but positively beautiful. The act of love between Pyper and Craig on Boa Island offers a positive countermelody to all the carnage. The deepening friendships between the other men are typical of the 'sublimated forms of temporary homosexuality' which Paul Fussell has found in many memoirs of the period. (22) The unprecedented levels of emotional self-exposure by one man to another seemed like a rehearsal for the moment when each would go 'over the top' and expose his body recklessly to German soldiers. 'There was extraordinary exaltation', wrote Wilfred Owen, 'in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly'. (23) One rehearsal was that enacted by Pyper and Craig in the waters of Lough Erne, which allows Craig 'to wash the muck of the world off myself'(p. 58) as prelude to healing. In the poetry and paintings of World War 1, the 'Soldiers Bathing' motif was endlessly recurrent, for reasons documented by Paul Fussell: 'There's hardly a better way of projecting the awful vulnerability of mere naked flesh. The quasi-erotic and pathetic conjoin in these scenes to emphasise the stark contrast between the beautiful frail flesh and the alien metal that waits to violate it.' (24) All the scenes enacted on the divided stage of 'Pairings' might he subsumed under the heading 'Pastoral'. Many of the soldiers who fought in the trenches carried a miniature copy of Palgrave's Treasury in their rucksacks: they were perhaps the first fully literate army in the world and their favourite poems emphasized green fields and blue lakes as a version of the home values for which they were staking their lives.
Home for most of the men in the play was an urban setting, Coleraine or Belfast, but their ideal images were of a field such as that at Finaghy, 'the holiest spot in Ulster' (a deliberate echo by McGuinness of Pearse's description of Bodenstown). The idealizing of rural life was part of a more general revolt in the years before 1914 against the catastrophic onset of modernity. Edwardian writing in particular had been filled with Arcadian images of the English countryside, in the novels of E. M. Forster or the childhood stories of Kenneth Grahame: and the most popular poets of the Great War were those who developed the theme. Rupert Brooke, for instance, presented himself as a sort of Pan. According to Granta in 1910, 'he plays simple tunes on a pan pipe, bathes every evening at sunset, and takes all his meals in a rose garden'. (25) Brooke suffered from severe confusion as to his sexual identity and a subsequent nervous breakdown. His life and struggles can be seen to inform the portrayal of Pyper (the name is a give-away), who shares his view of the long peace as a weary 'sleeping' which could end only in the clarity of death.
Even the narcissism of Pyper ('For a man, remarkably fine') has its part in the pattern so described. 'Prolonged threats to the integrity of the body heighten physical self-consciousness and self-love', says Fussell, (26) and the poetry of the period, from Pearse to Brooke, offers a recurrent complex of emotional immaturity and melodramatic self-sacrifice. It may be no coincidence that Craig, and not just Pyper, begins in certain scenes to sound suspiciously like Pearse: 'Sometimes I look at myself and I see a horse. There are hounds about me, and I'm following them to death. I'm a dying breed, boy' (p. 57).
This Cuchulain-complex might be characterized by asceticism, adolescent brooding, and a repression of instinct. Its roots lay in an anxious masculinity which found itself in flight from the feminine values of the domestic world so thoroughly disparaged in the recruits' opening exchanges. The alternative to that domesticity (which threatened to overtake all men now that machines were doing the work once reserved for the strong) could be found only in a world of empire and war. As Anderson chants near the close of the act: 'They will die for it. Die, die, die' (p. 59). The chant sounds like one from Lord of the Flies. That the attendant psychology may be no more sophisticated is suggested by Anderson himself when moments later he collapses and asserts: 'It's all lies. We're going to die for nothing' (p. 59). Each man will perish alone and the separation of space all through the act has served only to emphasize that loneliness: 'I'm on my own here, you're on your own there' (p. 59).
Such a sense of isolation need not have been a negative factor, if the surrounding context had been more supportive. Hannah Arendt has captured the exhilaration felt by men in the early years of the twentieth century who sacrificed all for empire:
Playing the Great Game, a man might feel as though he lives the only life worth while because he has been stripped of everything. [...] Life itself seems to be left in a fantastically intensified purity, when man has cut himself off from all ordinary social ties. (27)
The Ulsters fought with superhuman bravery at the Somme, going over the top in broad daylight: but their gains against huge odds 'were of no military consequence as they could not be exploited, so widespread had the failures been elsewhere'. (28) Their own immediate objective was reached, 'though with such dear sacrifice of men that there was won nothing but glory'. (29) All along the lines hundreds of thousands of men had sacrificed their lives 'to accomplish precisely nothing'.
Part IV of the play shows the men in a Somme trench, engaged in the final act of 'Bonding'. Pyper's background in the privileged classes has now been revealed, but his fighting abilities are none the less admired: 'Nobody's watching over me except myself' (p. 63). He has blotted his copybook and is on his own with all those other persons put to their shifts. McIlwaine decides to relieve the tedium of waiting for the attack with a zany anecdote about events back in Dublin. It concerns 'this boy Pearse' who 'took over a post office because he was short of a few stamps' (p. 64). His account is tendentious. The rebels were cry-babies, unable to spelt the word 'republic' and quite unwilling to take the predictable punishment for traitors. Pearse cries that he has a widowed mother, but as he is led away the old woman grabs a rifle from a Tommy and shoots her son herself, shouting 'That'll learn him, the cheeky pup. Going about robbing post offices'. Fenians, McIlwaine contends, cannot fight and are a disgrace to the male sex.
The tale is bizarre, distorted, full of unexamined prejudices and half-suppressed phobias. Anderson may be dimly aware of just how much the mentalites of the Somme and Post Office have in common and the jocular yarn may be a way of warding off that difficult analogy. But deeper still may lie a pained recognition that Pearse and his comrades had a definite sense of a future republic which would give their deed its meaning. They were in the moment of truth able to imagine each death as part of a much wider pattern. The soldiers at the Somme were undergoing a more terrifying experience, which would make it hard to believe in any values outlasting the life of the individual. Experience in the trenches was entirely ad hoc, at the mercy of the moment and the lesson of the Somme was that the ruling class had no grand plan which might give the deaths a shape.
This was the ultimate nightmare of World War I. Its destruction of a developmental notion of history outraged even the more intrepid intellectuals of the time, such as Henry James, who wrote with deep concern: 'To have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making and meaning is too tragic for words'. (30) The deepest wrong lay in the fact that the Protestant bishops had blessed the soldiers who went off to fight in a war which would destroy all respect for authority-figures, including those ecclesiastics, while the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland denounced the Easter rebels, who none the less found the courage to evolve an alternative theology which gave their act its moral sanction. (Many ordinary priests, of course, privately blessed individual rebels as they went out to fight.) The effect of both official church policies, despite their differences, was to weaken the teaching power of hierarchies. The young men of the Somme had at least the comfort of visiting the churches of their fathers without guilt before their final sacrifice. The official religion of Protestantism has always been more fully integrated into the loyalist ideology than was the code of Catholics into the republican philosophy, with the consequence that much unionist hatred of the enemy is theological, while most nationalist hatred is political.
No Catholic appears in the play, yet it is made abundantly clear that the whole identity of the Protestant recruits relies on the existence of such people, for (in the words of Barry Sloan) 'anti-Catholicism is not viewed merely as a negative posture' but as 'an essential mark of Protestant identity, a sign of God's chosen people'. (31) So Pyper must pretend that Germans speak Gaelic 'for badness' and that their army is infiltrated with Fenians. (There is some evidence that the rebels were seeking a military alliance with the Germans, but it amounted to little enough in the end.) The myth of Ulster loyalism requires a definite enemy in order to guarantee its own continuing existence. When McIlwaine and Anderson arrive at the Field on their private reenactment of the 'Twelfth', they find it quite empty--Ulster is always lonely, empty in Pyper's view and they are risking death for nothing. The disaster of the Titanic in 1912 seems emblematic of the ways in which the certainties of a complacent pre-war world have been sunk, but it was a world erected on hatred with every rivet hammered into the ship as into the coffin of a Fenian.
The Arcadian moments of remembrance by McIlwaine and Anderson in Finaghy field represent the myth of a golden age which may contain within it the blueprint for a utopian Ulster. However, it is a wish that is unrealizable, because based on an emptiness, on a golden moment which never really existed and therefore cannot be revived. So it must convert its search for perfection into a crude assault on manufactured enemies who can then be blamed for preventing its implementation. The only golden moments in Arcadia are those available to such as Pyper and Craig, who are willing to make a separate, personal peace.
The emptiness of Ulster may not be peculiar to that place, however. It may simply reflect the hollowness of the imperial enterprise in its original form. All of the misogynistic lines in the play arise out of a terrible urge to seek male self-sufficiency in conditions which free men from dependence on women, yet such is the smothering effect of a mother's love that most of the men (apart, to some extent, from Pyper and Craig) cannot overcome the trauma of maternal loss and establish a fully adult homosexuality. (32) Hence the narcissism of such figures as T. E. Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, or, in the play itself, Pyper: all seem to be in flight from emptiness at home, which may (as much as the search for raw materials or markets) be an explanation for much military adventurism. Boarding schools in which boys learned to drop rank, bear discomfort and do without their mothers were clearly a rehearsal for the army barracks: (33) yet the culture of imperialism asked men to offer their lives for the motherland, Britannia:
Fashioned in the narcissist's dependency on his mother and struggle to be free of her, imperialism offered an outlet for an infantile unbounded desire. The son's sacrifice of his own life for his mother would not be wasted if history afforded him the omnipotence he longed for. (34)
Then, by the usual reflection, the woman can be 'blamed' for the warrior's death.
The closeness of such a process to the emotional world of Patrick Pearse would be astounding were it not so predictable. His attraction to boys remained croyant and 'wholly innocent of lasciviousness'. (35) His was an example of that chaste, sublimated trench homoeroticism described by Fussell. He remained always 'ill at ease in the company of women', yet utterly enraptured by the physical beauty of male youth:
Ta cumhracht id phoig Nochar frith fos liom I bpogaibh na mban Na i mbalsam a gcorp. There is a fragrance in your kiss That I have not found yet In the kisses of women Or in the honey of their bodies. (36)
Pearse also wrote a famous final poem to his mother, although in that text his voice swamps her own, taking over the poem in which she asserts pride in the sacrifice made by her two sons. It is as if, even at the defining moment of his life, Pearse could not speak for himself, but had to borrow what authenticity he could from the intensity of a mother's love, which drains her sons of identity even as it celebrates their tragic achievement. It may be assumed that a similar ambivalence attended many of the soldier-heroes in the British Army of the time. (37) In that context, the play's jocular account of how Pearse's mother 'really' shot her own son (effectively doing the firing squad's work) carries a bitter autobiographical undertow, which cannot fully be dissolved in the humour of the telling. The projection of the soldier's own mother-hatred onto the 'boy' Pearse is all too embarrassingly obvious.
The frequency with which the question of Ireland and the question of homosexuality seemed to interlock has often been discussed. The same Edward Carson who founded the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 was the man who had baited his former Trinity College classmate, Oscar Wilde, in a London courtroom during the playwright's trial: and Roger Casement would in the very year 1916 find his name blackened by diaries which were probably forged by the British authorities. Observe the Sons is based on the accurate perception that 'the formative years of unionism coincided with the judico-legal formulation of homosexuality', (38) in both of which enterprises Carson played a prominent part. If the idea of Ulster proves less stable and singular in this play than he might have wished, so also do the ideas of masculinity and femininity and also the still-potent code of muscular Christianity. Christopher Roulston chooses to fill the time of waiting with a hymn which begins 'From the depths'. The words recall the prayer for forgiveness and reconciliation 'De Profundis', but that in turn evokes memories of Wilde's long letter of accusation and appeal to Lord Alfred Douglas, an upper-class youth who had beguiled him. The projection of homosexual activity onto Catholic or Irish persons by a nervous British establishment was an old imperial tactic.
So also was the pretence that the business of empire was all a Great Game. Physical-contact sports at schools had been seen as a suitable preparation for the conditions of war, so it is hardly surprising when Crawford urges his pals to find time for a football match. One of the more unusual aspects of World War I was the number of regiments which went over the top with a football. The tactic was even employed at the Somme, when Captain W. P. Nevill gave a football to each of his four platoons, urged his amazed men to dribble the ball and offered a prize to the platoon which first got a football over the German lines. Although Nevill was dubbed by some 'the battalion buffoon', (39) such nonchalance helped to feed the hope that the attack would be a walkover. One survivor recalled:
As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man's Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football. A good kick. The ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance. (40)
Nevill died almost immediately, but two of his footballs were preserved in the Imperial War Museum. The entire episode is rather reminiscent of Thomas MacDonagh's attempt to persuade a captured British soldier who shared his love of cricket to bowl googlies at him with a tennis-ball during a lull in the Easter Rising. (41)
The major device adopted by McGuinness's combatants as they await the order to advance is the mock-repetition of a joust between King Billy and King James at the Battle of the Boyne. Here two men act the part of horse and rider (the gay implication by now unavoidable) for each side, although the craziness of the situation is highlighted by the fact that the half-Catholic Crawford is to enact the Protestant leader astride his white horse (the blonde Pyper). 'And remember', insists Anderson with a warning note, 'King James, we know the result, you know the result, keep to the result' (p. 70). The same men who played fast and loose with the facts of the Easter Rising want no inaccuracies on this occasion. Yet this is precisely what happens: Pyper falls and unseats King Billy, leaving the other side victors. For those who found the coincidence of July dates promising in its symbolism, it is 'not the best of signs' (p. 71). History won't submit to the shape given it by folklorists, whose motto is 'to hell with the truth as long as it rhymes' (p. 71).
That feeling of unease is soon dispelled by a debate about the respective merits of the various Ulster rivers. The soldiers may not have known it, but as each asserted the claims of his own locality, he was reenacting one of the most famous of all Gaelic poetic sequences, Iomarbha na bhFile, on an identical theme. Just as the Iomarbha indicated that regional piety overtook loyalty to any larger form of identity, so also here the feeling that a commitment to any entity beyond one's immediate neighbourhood is hard to achieve. Yet that is the nature of the bonding required of these men. It is brought about when Pyper, against his previous form, suddenly delivers a speech which brings the men's differing loyalties into common focus.
By that stage the thoughtful Craig has realized that there is no future worth knowing, even for the survivors of that moment: 'Whoever comes back alive, if any of us do, will have died as well. He'll never be the same' (p. 74). Even as the men merge into a shared identity, they also recognize that each is on his own: and even Roulston learns that his religious life makes no great difference to one who is no better or worse than the others. Only Craig sees the shape of the future with any accuracy. Pyper had always longed for his body and had claimed to see right through it to the plain sky, that red sky at morning which portends catastrophe but which was also the 'only visible theatre of variety' available to trench-bound soldiers, with the 'power to persuade a man that he was not entirely lost in a common grave'. (42) Now it is Craig who, sensing a shift in his friend from integral individual to purveyor of a communal fantasy, claims to see right through him into a future for him as leader of Ulster's march into nothingness. 'Damn you', he says to his comrade, 'after listening to that little bit of rabble-rousing, I saw through you. You're wasted with us, man. You're not of us, man. You're a leader. You got what you wanted. You always have, you always will' (p. 76). But the leaders of Ulster, he darkly suggests, will be those who have learned how to lie most fluently about this betrayal of the men, even before it has fully happened. For the Somme proved an ambiguous symbol: it fed the unionists' sense of belonging to and betrayal by the British and taught the sharper-minded among them that the one experience might easily be confused with the other. Pyper, by the close, is hopelessly mixed up. His youthful experience has taught him that only personal bonds last, yet he continues through old age mumbling the public platitudes in which he had so early lost faith.
McGuinness's play has been read as 'both homosexual and homophobic, both pro-unionist and anti-unionist'. (43) Desmond O'Rawe has argued that the homoerotic in it often has a negative association, and so does the violence and intolerance in forms of Ulster unionism. Yet it is not enough to leave the analysis at that. For one thing, those negatives are all qualities which unionism may hold in common with the nationalist tradition. For another, the play offers a sincere elegy for doomed youth and an attempt to discover some positive values which might be salvaged from Ulster's ruin. By suggesting that all borders are fuzzier than people think, and by emphasizing points of contact for southern audiences, the play might seem to endorse some sort of 'United Ireland' philosophy. Yet it hardly goes so far. Rather, it makes a more qualified set of suggestions. It proposes that all fixed identities are dangerous and deathly, but that to live without some form of identity is impossible. That is the dilemma of Pyper whose 'bonding' with his companions leads him to defend precisely the sort of society which had once rejected him. (44) Yet some progress is made: for the older man who refuses to meet the expectations of his hearers declines to repeat the rabble-rousing speech made at the Somme. He refuses in short to give it all a shape.
McGuinness suggests that unionism has been able to declare Irish rebels, German soldiers, French women, and even English homosexuals its Other, because it never dared to articulate or interrogate its own code. Equally, those liberal Protestants who disavowed loyalism by seeking attachment to one of these other codes did little or nothing to advance the analysis, because they simply dismissed a unionist belief as a thing of no account. Neither response allowed for the sort of honest debate initiated in this play, which tries to make some sense of the 'deserted temple of the Lord' which is Northern Ireland. In suggesting that unionist identity is constructed around a lack, it did no more than repeat the widespread critique of identity in 1980s critical theory: but in doing that much it implicitly demanded nationalists to consider the same possibility as well. It also insisted that a loyalty to Ulster might be replacing that given to the British connection: and that, in this very process, another nationalism might be being born.
In all that it also revealed the common ground on which Irish people of seemingly antagonistic traditions might meet. Only ten years after the play's success, a leading representative of Sinn Fein took part in the annual Goldenbridge commemoration of the 150,000 Irishmen who died in World War I: and three years after that the leaders of both nationalist and unionist communities signed their names to an agreement which recognized that people on the island might feel themselves to be 'Irish or British or both'. (45)
(1) Kevin Jackson, 'Speaking for the Dead: Playwright Frank McGuinness', Independent, 27 September 1989.
(2) Myles Dungan, Irish Voices from the Great War (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995), p. 105.
(3) Frank McGuinness, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme (London: Faber, 1986), p. 12. All subsequent references in parentheses are to this edition.
(4) Desmond Fitzgerald, Memoirs 1913-1916 (London: Routledge, 1968), pp. 142-43.
(5) Desmond O'Rawe, 'Encountering Eros: Discourses of Desire in Contemporary Irish Literature' (unpublished doctoral thesis, Queen's University Belfast, 1999), p. 50.
(6) Dungan, p. 108.
(7) Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1994), p. 267.
(8) On this see Hugh Kenner, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), p. 134.
(9) Patrick Pearse, Plays, Stories, Poems (Dublin: Phoenix, 1924), p. 24.
(10) Dungan, p. 126.
(11) Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 115.
(12) Wohl, p. 105.
(13) Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 191.
(14) Fussell, p. 196.
(15) Helen Lojek, 'Myth and Bonding in Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons', Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 14.1 (1988), 47-48.
(16) Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Routledge, 1938), p. 65.
(17) Fussell, p. 64.
(18) Fussell, p. 86.
(19) Fussell, p. 174.
(20) David Nowlan, Irish Times, 19 February 1985; on this see Christopher Murray, Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror Up to Nation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), p. 204.
(21) Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Harry T. Moore (London: Heinemann, 1962), p. 456.
(22) Fussell, p. 272
(23) Cited Fussell, p. 271.
(24) Fussell, p. 299.
(25) Jonathan Rutherford, Forever England: Reflections on Masculinity and Empire (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1997), p. 49, citing Granta, 5 February 1910.
(26) Fussell, p. 271.
(27) Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism (London: Deutsch, 1986), p. 217.
(28) Dungan, p. 113.
(29) Sir Frank Fox, The Royal Iniskilling Rifles in the World War (London: Constable, 1928), p. 69.
(30) Letters of Henry James, ed. by Percy Lubbock, 10 vols (New York: Scribner, 1920), ii, 384.
(31) Barry Sloan, 'Sectarianism and the Protestant Mind: Some Approaches to a Current Theme in Anglo-Irish Drama', Etudes Irlandaises, 18.2 (1993), 33-43 (p. 40).
(32) For a brilliant analysis of the syndrome in terms of English culture see Rutherford, Forever England, p. 23.
(33) See Rutherford, p. 14.
(34) Rutherford, p. 34.
(35) Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure (London: Gollancz, 1977), p. 53.
(36) Pearse, Plays, Stories, Poems, p. 49.
(37) See Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994).
(38) O'Rawe, p. 47.
(39) Fussell, p. 27.
(40) Cited by Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme (London: Allen Lane, 1971), p. 124.
(41) Personal communication from Mrs Lemass, niece of MacDonagh.
(42) Fussell, p. 51.
(43) O'Rawe, p. 47.
(44) Helen Lojek, 'Difference without Indifference: The Drama of Frank McGuinness and Anne Devlin', Eire-Ireland, 25.2 (1990), 56-68 (p. 59).
(45) Belfast Agreement 1998, published in Dublin, Belfast, and London by Stationery Offices, pp. 2-3.
University College Dublin
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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