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The Ferryman, A British Troubles Play Where The Irish Are The Troublemakers

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…


38 comments on “The Ferryman, A British Troubles Play Where The Irish Are The Troublemakers

  1. yes, indeed. We combat prejudice on so many levels. It’s proof of a a “british question” not an “irish one”

  2. Bernard Maegraith

    This sounds like a deeply offensive and telling display of English bigotry. In the end, it only serves to showcase the English as they really are – a silly lot of smug pseuds with a bloated sense of cultural superiority. At the heart of the superiority is denial. Unsurprisingly, the most obvious expression of English denial is its version of history, one that hides from the anglo conscience the atrocities and genocide, developed and honed in Ireland, then taken around the world in the name of empire and nationalistic glory. In fact, their glorious empire was little more that a genocide machine lubricated with blood and gore – a purpose-designed machine to misappropriate wealth and dispossess indigenous peoples of land and culture. The English crave a grounded sense of themselves hence their need to dispute the legitimacy of vanquished peoples – most especially Ireland and her unique sense of cultural identity. The word envy comes to mind. After all, the English have their own nation building myth in Bede’s fictitious account of Saxon conquest, a bland and pallid canvas when up against the rich and diverse tapestry of Celtic warriors, magic folk and literary masterpieces.

    • bonaparteocoonessa

      You miss out some further qualities of the English. Their empire was, and the remnants, Scotland and NI, still are, built on a brutish and vicious English nationalism, with a very large admixture of greed, snobbishness and upper class privilege, plus another large helping of self-regard and dislike of ‘otherness’. The sooner England has to face up to all this the better off we will all be, and one of the two redeeming features of Brexit is that this is coming soon. (The other redeeming feature is the imminent break up of the UK and the empire.

  3. From Gilbert’s review: “the mission for Northern Ireland independence”. Put my head in my hands at that moment.

  4. ar an sliabh

    The deep-seated hatred of those who have so effectively thwarted assimilation despite overwhelming odds. No matter how hard they tried, the Irish have maintained their identity and refused to become absorbed into their occupier of almost a thousand years. No matter how short the supply lines, how overwhelming their terror, and how few resisted at different points in history, we prevailed to, albeit partial, independence in modern days. Too bad so many forget the sacrifices made in distant past, not-so-distant past and even the very present. Too bad so many in times of peace forget what brought them there in war. This should be a wake-up call to all of those who believe the britz are our friends and wish us well. This is a plain and direct “fuck you” to us for insisting on being who we really are. M’anam ón diabhal, feisigh libh. Back at cha!

    • Refused to become absorbed?

      The Irish have thrown away their language and culture and have become just another part of the Anglosphere. No different to Australia, Canada, New Zealand or any US’ state.

      • We had the language beaten out of us you if bothered to study history.

        • You had 100 years of independence to get it back. That’s not an excuse.

      • TurboFurbo


        Your cowardly forebears surrendered your country to the Soviets – without even firing a shot – and allowed the Soviets to simply walk in and take over your country.
        Then the cowardly Latvians fully absorbed the murderous Nazi ideology as they fully collaborated in the murder of thousands of innocent fellow-Latvian civilians in WW2.

        Utterly and eternally shameful.

        • Patrick O'Malley

          Lenin’s personal bodyguard were Latvians, the NAZI’s formed a Latvian Waffen-SS regiment. What does that tell you, maybe that the Latts are good soldiers but more especially thaddeus they like to know which side their bread is buttered on.

  5. What is the context of the cartoon at the top? I’m hoping it was drawn by someone who was being ironic…

  6. seamus mallon

    well janice the author of that play seems to think we are totally different,so which is it.

  7. As a Scot, I would concur 100%.

  8. Is it something like
    “a story of murder, mystery, fairy tale and tragic love. The play is set on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland where family feuds are passed down through generations. The story is told using the pagan ritual of the mummers’ play as a metaphor for Ireland at a time where people laughed at a wake and cried when a child was born.”
    Playography Ireland, At the Black Pig’s Dike, Vincent Woods.

    • Yes, similar, but The Ferryman claims to be of the real world, for all its pretensions. At the Black Pig’s Dyke is more mythical in nature, moving between the 1940s and ’90s, with archetypal and historical figures stalking the stage. That said, it is aggressively anti-nationalist in tone. Hence its relative popularity amongst our homegrown apologists and overseas theatrical companies, who find confirmation of their biases in its storyline (biases stemming from the British “story” of Ireland).

      So the lead character of Frank Beirne is a murderous seducer, a literal “butcher”, the masked mummers lurking in the background are masked IRA volunteers, while the “Ulster Protestant” Jack Boles is the hero-victim. No wonder some condemned the play, as happened in Derry when three protesters took over the stage to perform their own riposte to the tale.

      • Hah, true that for the most part. I was more aiming at the point that twas an Irishman, probably more in touch with the true culture of this nation than most, what wrote it. Where would that leave your theories about otherness etc Sionnach?

        • That some people find it easier to identify with the coloniser than the colonised, at a certain level at least. Why do the heavy lifting when you can simply but into tropes and stereotypes already well established? Its like Irish people using the Fightin’ Irish character around Paddy’s Day, complete with red beard and top hat.

  9. Larry Morgan

    It doesn’t matter how much an Irishman or woman achieves, both personally or nationally, in ireland or abroad or particularly in England; they will always be considered to be something quite less to a percentage of English people or perhaps a large percentage of English people judging by the reception that second rate play got. English people are always fond of stating how much they love ireland and Irish people working in England make friends easily, which makes you wonder when a piece of work like this play emerges who’s genuine and who isn’t? and when it gets down to brass tacks, what do they really think of us deep down?. Do they feel more comfortable holding on to their inbred image of the drunken bogwog.

  10. Old Republican

    Could not give a toss about what the Brits think, but in a way related to their one sided thinking is something I came across, in the ultra Fascist Daily Express,26th June, they howled “Vile masked Islamists use sledgehammers to destroy graves of British war heroes” and go on…” A dozen masked militia ripped apart a cemetery in the former British colony of Aden, Yemen. Nearly two thousand graves were vandalized in the spree of destruction and St Joseph Church, which overlooks the graveyard, was razed to the ground. “…. Now, have a look at what happened there in 1967 in Aden and Lt Col Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchel of the Britsh Army and the slaughter he carried out there in this documentary, “Mad Mitch and his Tribal Law”:

    These people were fighting for their freedom as well, and the Brits called then Terrorists .

    • Very good point. I heard they used their usual underhand tactics there, just as they did in Cyprus and Kenya and other places. And the slimeball creeps will always depict their past colonial conflicts in the same manner, that is what the rebels did , mostly to civilians and not their valiant army.

    • There are a lot of Soviet and German WW2 graveyards in my country, but I don’t feel the need to grab a sledgehammer and vandalise them.

      • Why not? Nothing they did entitles them to respect. Knock them down, let their grandkids know they were a stain on humanity best forgotten.

        • Most of them were conscripts. And I have better things to do than vandalise graveyards.

      • That’s understandable considering the amount of Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS during ww2. They were pretty good at rounding up the new as well. It must have been a big help for the NAZI’S.

        • Beg your pardon, that should have read Jews as well.

        • Most of them were drafted against their will. WW2 history is much more complicated than Allies – good, Axis – bad.

          • 15-20%, were actually volunteers. Good point history can be complicated and often isn’t straightforward. Has a matter of fact it’s a real laugh when somebody comes on and makes makes uninformed comments about someone else’s history, prejudicial in a lot of cases and not based on substantiated facts. Allies good NAZI’S bad??, nobody’s totally good , but after Auschwitz, Belsen and treblinka, millions of dead Jews slavs, gypsies and people who were put to death for being mentally defective or handicapped I’ll still give the vote to the Allies.

            • Actually Janis it isn’t much more complicated. Axis were bad, Allies were – broadly speaking significantly less bad. I’ve no doubt on the individual level there were many in the Axis militaries who were conscripted or forced into fighting for their respective nations and they have my genuine sympathy but the overall cause they were forced to fight for was dismal. And it has to be said given the track record of some on the Allies side it’s a sign of just how dismal that the latter look less dismal.

              • The USSR was worse than Nazi Germany. There’s a pretty big difference between 4 years and 46 years of occupation and colonisation.

            • There were many reasons to volunteer. Many people wanted revenge after the USSR occupied and looted the country. And the Soviet concentration camps were no better than the Nazi concentration camps. Also the Soviets operated them for much longer than the Nazis. My grandparents were deported in 1949 and only allowed to return 8 years later – after Stalin died. So much for “liberation”.

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