It is a remarkable trick for a violator to present the violated as the aggressor. To turn the victim into the victimiser. But that is the sleight of hand the British have been playing against the Irish for the last eight hundred years. It is a victor’s narrative, where the never-quite-defeated are perpetually represented as crude caricatures: amusing bumpkins, sullen ingrates or fanatical killers. This old deceit finds its newest iteration in The Ferryman, the latest play by the well-known English writer Jez Butterworth, turning near modern Ireland into a troublesome menagerie filled with the atavistic and the clannish. It is a restless Celtic fringe on the margins of Anglo-Saxon civilisation, a country of muck and mire, of religion and superstition, of violence and vendetta. The aboriginals lurk in their parochial rural fiefdom while the invader and coloniser is absent from the scene – except for grudge-filled memory or exaggerated ill repute. The linguistic and cultural extirpation of the native remains the unseen ghost at the theatrical feast. The original sin of Greater England keeps its whitewashed hue. The Irish, it seems, are the hermetically-sealed authors of their own misfortune.
From a review by the British journalist Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic on the debut of the UK-lauded play:
…what sets The Ferryman apart …is how deeply it probes the heritage of hate, using the framework of the Troubles to explore traditions and impulses that are buried even in the earth itself. In the same bog where Seamus was found, Magennis notes, prehistoric men have resurfaced, sometimes with their hands and feet bound, victims of crimes that predate the history books. The Ferryman, an intimate family drama with the breadth of Greek tragedy, explores the impact of deeply entrenched discord on a community that has conflict in its DNA, whose children are raised on folk tales about fierce, warmongering fairies, and who bear the cost of choices made decades ago, the toll passed down from generation to generation.
More than countless other re-litigations of the Troubles, The Ferryman captures how the mission for Northern Irish independence has become a religion itself, captivating and bloodthirsty, and requiring seemingly endless sacrifices to keep it alive. There are totems and symbols that recur throughout the play: watches and a particular pistol, which becomes a physical manifestation of enmity being passed from one person to another.
There is much more of this pseudo-tribalism in the review, confirming every racially-charged stereotype of Irish primitiveness as conceived by the British over the last two centuries (and which appeals to the anglophile American media and literati, too). From ineffectual priests issuing homilies on the evils of violence to cock-starved harridans urging the young to their revolutionary deaths, the full contingent of Gaelic cliché is given free reign. All the better to satisfy the prejudices of audiences in the United Kingdom and perhaps the United States. As Sean O’Hagan notes in the Guardian, in an examination of the work by an actual Hibernian:
…no matter how long an Irish person has lived in England there are moments when their Irishness – their otherness – is made apparent in often uneasy ways. I felt that uneasiness several times last month, as I sat in a packed and expectant Gielgud theatre in London on the opening night of The Ferryman, director Sam Mendes’s ambitious production of Jez Butterworth’s new play. The glittery audience, primed by almost universally ecstatic reviews, rose in rapturous applause at the end, carried along by the play’s extraordinary energy and the gritty cut-and-thrust of Northern Irish banter from the cast of almost 20 actors.
No one else seemed to mind the cliches and the stereotypes of Irishness abounding here: the relentless drinking, the references to fairies, the Irish dancing, the dodgy priest, the spinster aunts…
Everything was overstated, turned up to the max; out came the inevitable roll call of characters-cum-caricatures: the compromised priest, the bitter republican aunt (shades of James Joyce’s Catholic aunt, Dante Riordan, from Portrait of the Artist…), the alcoholic with the heart of gold and the menacing IRA men, who, in this instance, moved from silently threatening to the point of caricature. Then there’s the drinking: not just the alcoholic uncle, but the whiskey-slugging dad, the sozzled teenage sons and – wait for it – the children allowed thimblefuls of Bushmills for breakfast. Comedic, for sure, but so close to a cultural stereotype as to be offensive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IRA men are the most problematic characters… The IRA characters are straight from central casting, with the commander, Muldoon, and his pair of henchmen played for maximum drama at the expense of nuance.
A great part of the IRA’s enduring power, as well as the tacit support they depended on, came from the fact that they were embedded in local communities. They weren’t strangers, but people you knew and had grown up with.
A simple truth very few authors or reporters in Britain wish to understand or appreciate. Instead it is easier to reach for the well-thumbed lexicon of racial stereotype, to dip into the tropes of otherness begun with the torrid imaginings of Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century CE. As an English Homer Simpson might say, I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my Irish quaint, bemusing, foolish, stupid, incoherent, impotent, drunken, criminal, surly, ungrateful, untrustworthy, antiquated, religious, fanatical, bloodthirsty, psychotic or murderous.
Tick as applicable…