What Will Irish-America Make Of ‘The Ferryman’?

The Ferryman‘, written by British playwright Jez Butterworth is set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the Republican hunger strikes of that year, and deals with a Co. Armagh family’s trauma when the body of a relative, shot dead by the IRA and hidden in a local bog – he is one of the ‘disappeared’ – is discovered.

I have my own views on this play but they are based on what I have read about a production I have not seen and so I will remain silent, and let others who have seen it do the talking, or rather writing.

The Ferryman‘ was greeted with rave reviews when it premiered in the West End last May, and is due to open on Broadway next month – directed by Sam Mendes – when, doubtless, given the social, class and general anglophiliac background (not to mention ignorance of the conflict in Northern Ireland) of New Yorkers who can spend $150 a head or more on an evening in the Great White Way, we can expect much the same.

‘The Ferryman’ playwright, Jez Butterworth, Laura Donnelly (who appears in the play) and director Sam Mendes

I have posted two conflicting reviews below, one which appeared in The New York Times when ‘The Ferryman‘ was first staged in London, and beneath it a scathing critique by Guardian/Observer writer Sean O’Hagan whose views on the play can be summed up in one sentence:

What I had witnessed, and in part enjoyed, was a play that revealed more about English attitudes to Ireland than it did about Northern Ireland.

O’Hagan is also offended by the Irish stereotypes conjured up by Butterworth – obsession with the past and, of course, over-consumption of alcohol being only two – and one wonders what sort of reception the production would receive if similar caricatures or stereotypes featured in a play about African-Americans or Jews.

I’d bet the mortgage it wouldn’t come within sniffing distance of a Broadway theatre.


Review: ‘The Ferryman’ in Jez Butterworth’s Northern Ireland

Paddy Considine, center, gives Sophia Ally a lift during the play “The Ferryman.”CreditCreditJohan Persson

LONDON — It’s a mighty full house that’s presided over by Quinn Carney, the divided Irish hero of Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” which burst open at the Royal Court Theater here on Wednesday night, where its run is already sold out. (It moves to the West End in June.) The fiercely gripping play in which Quinn, a father of seven, appears is every bit as crowded.

And I mean teeming — with characters, plot, secrets, confessions, clashes political and sexual, betrayals, murders, ballads, poems, dancing, drinking, wrestling and the wails of banshees, whose reality is not to be doubted. The terrific cast — led by Paddy Considine and directed with a racing pulse by Sam Mendes — numbers 21, and that’s not counting the baby, the rabbit and the goose. Like everything else in “The Ferryman,” those nonspeaking performers are indisputably alive.

Set in rural Northern Ireland in 1981, this latest offering from the author of “Jerusalem” also overflows with storytelling vitality, the kind that so holds the attention that three and a quarter hours seem to pass in the blink of an eye, albeit a bloodied and black one. Consider yourself well warned when a little girl, gleefully awaiting an oft-told tale by an ancient relative, chirps excitedly: “I love this one! It’s so violent!”

That scene exudes the hearthside warmth of a classic, bustling domestic comedy in which an extended family lives in contented close quarters and everybody chips in to help. Of course, in this clan, even the little ones swear like sailors on a bender.

And the yarns spun by old Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan), who spends much of her time in a wordless trance that might be mistaken for senility, feature the dismemberment of faerie warriors and are steeped in an erotic longing for the golden lad she once loved from a distance, now long disappeared. “I swear to Christ,” she says sweetly to the little ones gathered at her feet, “I could have ridden that boy from here to Connemara.”

Like much of “The Ferryman,” Ms. Brennan’s character (right down to her name) would seem to be drawn with an exaggeration that borders on parody. But as he demonstrated in his astonishing “Jerusalem,” seen on Broadway in 2011, Mr. Butterworth specializes in making what might be too much from anybody else feel somehow exactly right.

Life as he portrays it is so expansive, only myth and melodrama can accommodate its dimensions. And under the expert guidance of Mr. Mendes, an acclaimed film director (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”) returning to the stage with avid conviction, “The Ferryman” embraces and absorbs explosive contradictions of story and sensibility.

The play begins with a stark, sinister scene that scarcely prepares us for the richness of what follows. We’re on a grimy back street of Derry, where Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan), a country priest, has been dragged for a meeting with the notorious Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), a lean man of elegant menace.

It seems the bound corpse of one of Horrigan’s parishioners, missing for a decade, has been found in a bog, and Muldoon wants the good father to carry the news to the dead man’s brother. That’s Quinn, whom we meet at home in the next scene, dancing wildly in the wee hours to the Rolling Stones with a woman we assume is his wife or a lover.

She’s not. Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) is Quinn’s sister-in-law and the wife of the dead man. Don’t trust your first assumptions as you watch this play; don’t entirely discount them either.

Quinn’s household includes his bedridden wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly); a married aunt and uncle, both called Pat (Dearbhla Malloy and Des McAleer); Caitlin’s teenage son, Oslin (Rob Malone); and a slow-witted handyman, Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), who was taken in as a child after being abandoned by his parents, who were (and this is crucial) British.

It is harvest day. There’s to be toiling in the fields and the kitchen, and drinking and feasting after. It would all be perfectly jolly, except for our niggling awareness of the shadows cast, by that opening scene with Mr. Malloy and by news of the fatal hunger strikes of Irish Republican Army prisoners in the Maze prison. That darkness thrums like a bass line.

“The Ferryman,” as you may have inferred, is Mr. Butterworth’s contribution to the literature of the conflict known as the Troubles, and on one level, it recalls Sean O’Casey’s epochal dramas of civil war from the 1920s. But Mr. Butterworth is digging beyond the tensions of political factionalism to uncover more atavistic impulses.

Like “Jerusalem,” which probed the British yearning for a lost mythic grandeur, “The Ferryman” portrays a people in thrall to millenniums of history, in ways they’re not always aware of. On the one hand, there’s the embittered Aunt Pat, who as a girl witnessed the death of her brother during the Easter Rebellion and can’t stop talking about it; on the other, there’s the fey Aunt Maggie, with her gossamer-spun stories of elfin wars and lost loves.

Uncle Pat is the most long-winded of the family raconteurs, with daily events inspiring detailed accounts of tediously similar happenings of years gone by. He is also a devoted reader of Virgil, whose “Aeneid,” and its account of its hero’s visit to the shores of the underworld, gives “The Ferryman” its title.

The specter of death never leaves the stage in this production, which has been designed with radiant verisimilitude by a crack team that includes Rob Howell (sets and costumes), Peter Mumford (lighting) and Nick Powell (sound). Yet it feels as if the show’s every molecule vibrates with bounteous life.

After “The Ferryman” ends — probably well after — you may start to disassemble it in your mind, and realize how many of the conventions of old-fashioned melodrama it honors. But you won’t be capable of such dispassion while you’re watching it.

In the play’s second act, a harvest dinner is interrupted by a collective, bacchanalian urge to dance. Suddenly, this extended family is on its feet and stepping high, moving from country jigs to free-form frenzy.

Everyone onstage is as caught up in the sensory sweep of the music as the audience has been in Mr. Butterworth’s galloping narrative. That there’s a mortal chill in the festivities, and a premonition of dark endings to come, makes the fire of the moment burn all the brighter.

The Ferryman
Royal Court Theater



Critics loved The Ferryman. But I’m from Northern Ireland, and it doesn’t ring true | Opinion

Sean O’Hagan

Early in the summer of 1981, when the IRA hunger strike had already claimed the deaths of four republican prisoners, I travelled home from London to Armagh. My parents had not long moved from the estate where I grew up to my late grandparents’ house three miles south of the town. Even though we no longer lived in the hub of the nationalist community, I was utterly unprepared for the atmosphere that hung over the place, a sense of disbelief, communal grief and simmering tension unlike anything I had ever experienced there.

Back in London, listening to the nightly news reports on the hunger strikes, I felt a sense of dislocation, of not belonging, that was profound. It was exacerbated not just by the intransigence of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, but by the bewilderment of many of my English friends, whose knowledge of Anglo-Irish history was, to say the least, cursory. Though the notion of blood sacrifice for a cause seemed almost beyond my own comprehension, I was torn by conflicting emotions, by complex bonds of community and place, by the gulf between who I was and where I was.

If that is an extreme example of cultural dislocation, it is nevertheless apparent, from my experience, that 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 – or the sense that the play ties itself in knots tackling ideas of place, loyalty and community. Butterworth and Mendes fill the stage with noise, movement, songs and stories, but once that bravura energy had subsided, I was left with that familiar sense of unease, of dislocation. What I had witnessed, and in part enjoyed, was a play that revealed more about English attitudes to Ireland than it did about Northern Ireland.

The Ferryman, for all its ebullience, is essentially about a mysterious absence and the infecting nature of the silence that ensues. It is set on a farm in rural Armagh in 1981. At its heart, two mysteries intertwine: the fate of Seamus Carney, a young man “disappeared” by the IRA on New Year’s Day, 1972, and the unspoken love that has grown in his absence between his brother, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), and Seamus’s wife, Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly). Caitlin and her troubled 14-year-old son, Oisin, live under the same roof as Quinn, his ailing wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and their six children. So too do Quinn’s uncle Pat and his aunts, Patricia and Maggie, the one a staunch and bitter Irish republican, the other a more gentle soul whose long silences are broken by voluble gusts of remembering and prophecy.

This is fertile territory for Butterworth, whose previous play, Jerusalem, evoked ancient English myth and archetype through the modern outlaw figure of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, an outsider whose amorality was cloaked in rich, self-mythologising storytelling. More pertinently, given the setting, it is fertile territory in which to explore the remarkably underwritten collective psychology of the Troubles: the silences, secrets and complicity, tacit and otherwise, that attended 30 years of violence and more than 3,500 deaths. It is also a chance to shed light on the long shadows cast by the so-called “disappeared” of the Troubles, who, as Butterworth makes clear, often existed as suspended presences among their families and friends, even as knowledge of their murders was commonplace in their communities.

In this instance, Butterworth is drawing on the first-hand experience of Laura Donnelly, who plays Caitlin, and whose uncle was killed by the IRA in January 1981. Despite rumours that circulated about sightings of him, his body was accidentally uncovered in a bog across the border in May 1984. The vanishing at the heart of The Ferryman is, for Donnelly at least, a tangible one. In the play, the body of Caitlin’s long-missing husband, Seamus Carney, is found, perfectly preserved, in a bog across the border in Co Louth, with a bullet hole in his skull.

The complex nature of community loyalties during a time of violent political struggle is a central aspect of The Ferryman, played out on stage through the bonds and tensions of an extended family with ties to Irish republicanism, past and present. The play’s success would rest, I thought, on how deftly Butterworth captured the nuances of a place and its people, on the authenticity of accents and rhythms of speech, in the verbal jousting that can come across as caustic – to the point of combative – to an outsider. One of the most powerful scenes is when the teenage boys – Quinn’s sons and their more savvy cousins from Derry, who have come to help with the harvest – swap Troubles war stories. Fuelled by whiskey, Shane Corcoran breaks the Provisionals’ omerta by bragging about how he has acted as a lookout for the local Derry brigade of the IRA. The scene moves from the boastful to regretful to the recriminatory, each beat meticulously orchestrated.

There are several visceral interludes like this, but for me, the sense of uneasiness prevailed. 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.

My paddywhackery detector went leaping into the red at the first mention of banshees (for the uninitiated, an Irish female fairy spirit whose wail augurs death). Aunt Maggie Faraway hears them and we, in turn, hear their symbolism. Now, banshees have their place in Irish drama, but they belong to the often hokey world of Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Irish literary revival of the 19th/early 20th century. They do not belong in a play set in Northern Ireland in 1981, where the mention of banshees would more likely have referred to a post-punk group of the same name led by a young woman called Siouxsie. Indeed, the eldest Carney girl is in thrall to Adam Ant, while the young and cocky Shane Corcoran from Derry disrupts the general Oirishry by blasting out Teenage Kicks by the Undertones to the bewilderment of his country cousins – although by 1981, three years after its release, the song was already an anthem of escape throughout Northern Ireland. These details matter in a play that depends on the accurate evoking of a place and time.

Part of Butterworth’s stock in trade is the evoking of magic and myth, but the heightened tone that worked for Jerusalem does not quite convince here. The whole idea of a farming family in county Armagh in the 1980s celebrating the annual harvest as a semi-pagan ritual of feasting and drinking seems implausible to the point of unreal. The exhausted tropes of Irish mysticism seemed to have seeped into The Ferryman from other older dramas about a different pre-modern Ireland across the border.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IRA men are the most problematic characters, but not for the reasons you might expect. “There are no good guys or bad guys,” Sam Mendes said recently of The Ferryman, “it is only shades of grey.” This is patently not the case. 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. I never quite understood, then, why Muldoon and his minders had been dispatched from Derry – nearly 70 miles away – to warn the Carney family that they should remain silent about the murder of Seamus Carney. Surely the issue would have been addressed by the local IRA, who would have sent someone to have a quiet word in Quinn’s ear? No need for the arrival of a godfather from Derry straight out of a Scorsese film. No need either for his minders to tell the local priest that his sister will be “disappeared” if he does not help them silence the Carneys. Please!

In Butterworth’s defence, Muldoon and Quinn have previous. They served time together in Long Kesh prison when Quinn was a committed republican foot soldier. Just how committed is revealed when Muldoon reminds Quinn of something he said just after the birth of his first son. “You looked me in the eye and said you’d watch that baby burn in a fire if it meant a free Ireland. And I thought: ‘That is what it takes. That is the cost of freedom.’” Now, I know the IRA are the baddies here, but would it not have served a drama that deals in silence, threat, complicity and its consequences to have them appear just a tad more psychologically complex? And does Quinn really believe his brother’s murder was revenge for his leaving the IRA?

Dramatically, too, I had difficulty with The Ferryman. Without revealing too much about the play’s inevitably violent denouement, it seemed overwrought and overplayed. When the heart-stopping drama of that visceral moment subsides, I was left wondering, not for the first time, why?

The single English character, Tom Kettle, a kind of holy fool, is also unbelievable. While it is interesting on one level to see the tired stereotype of the thick Paddy upended, Kettle seems more of a plot device than a rounded character. How do these too-broad brush strokes make their way into a play that, if it is to succeed at all, must rely on subtlety and attention to detail? One clue may be the Irish writers that Butterworth selfconsciously nods to: the metaphor of the ferryman is used in Brian Friel’s play, Wonderful Tennessee, while the Carney family name is taken from Tom Murphy’s early play, Whistle in the Dark, which is also set at harvest time. Seamus Heaney’s bog poems are in there, too: Tollund Man, The Grauballe Man and Punishment, which deals in a different way with the tensions of community and collusion.

Friel and Murphy belong to a generation of Irish playwrights for whom myth and magic still retained a sliver of their mythic power to unsettle. Butterworth is an English writer grappling not just with the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and culture at a pivotal time in its history, but also with the full weight of the Irish dramatic tradition. You can see why he feels the need to nod respectfully to his most obvious influences, even if they don’t quite fit.

What makes me most uneasy about The Ferryman, though, is the differences the play unconsciously highlights between Irish and English cultural sensibilities, between the Irish people’s idea of themselves and the English idea of them. I was uncomfortable at the gales of laughter that greeted every swear word uttered by the child characters, at the hilarity that ensued every time the uncle opened his bottle of Bushmills or a girl used the word “ride” as shorthand for sex. (Aunt Maggie Faraway, an elderly Catholic spinster, brought the house down with her use of the same word, which made me wonder if we had finally crossed into Father Ted territory.)

The attentiveness that ensued when Aunt Maggie sang a lovely Irish air – Yeats’s fairy ode, The Stolen Child – was equally mystifying. The notions of Ireland these stereotypes evoke – a wild, unfettered place of terminal boozing and unfettered romanticism – seemed to have somehow endured despite the Troubles, the Celtic Tiger, and even the sudden dramatic appearance in the English psyche of the DUP, who, believe me, are more alarming than those banshees. (If you want to measure the cultural chasm between Northern Ireland and the Britain to which it supposedly belongs, the pre-deal ignorance of the DUP’s existence might be a good place to start.)

Given that both Butterworth’s parents were part Irish Catholics, one wonders if he has that second-generation nostalgia for an Ireland that has been passed down to him rather than experienced first-hand. One wonders, too, how the play would be received by an audience in Dublin or Galway, or, more to the point, Armagh, Belfast or Derry.

Whatever, no one around me in the Gielgud theatre seemed bothered by the banshees or the boozing or the mad Irish dancing, nor by the dramatically heart-stopping, but utterly implausible, Tarantino-esque – or should that be McDongah-esque – denouement. Everyone rose to their feet as one to applaud. The critics too, have been amazingly reluctant to acknowledge these stereotypes. This may be to do with Butterworth’s – and Mendes’s – current cachet, but, to me, it betokens something else. This is what the (Northern) Irish are like, that ovation seemed to say, this is how they carry on, bless ’em.

I am not, by the way, disputing Butterworth’s right to write a play about Ireland and the Troubles. I would not go so far as the academic Terry Eagleton, who once noted that “English attitudes to the Irish are a bizarre mixture of affection, uneasiness, condescension and hostility”, but I could not help thinking that this was the sound of a mainly middle-class English audience having their cultural stereotypes confirmed rather than questioned.

6 responses to “What Will Irish-America Make Of ‘The Ferryman’?

  1. Very perceptive review of the Ferryman by Sean O’Hagan. Why is it that the English feel entitled to analyze, critique, ridicule and laugh at all things Irish ? Perhaps it is simply that they feel entitled.

  2. …aye very perceptive description of the British middle class, we hae these audience types in Scotland too, they all come thegither in a horrible mix about Edinburgh Festival time! They are brainless philistines!

  3. Having read it (it’s coming to the city near me but beyond my price range), I found it derivative (Friel’s ‘Translations’ already used the classical analogy) + unconvincing (as Sean O’Hagan notes re: the ‘ra.) Can’t understand the plaudits.

  4. Andy Lichtenberg

    I’m American, wife has Irish ancestry, I do not. Saw last night on Broadway. Agree with verything this review says. In fact, this morning I went looking for Irish reviews or responses to this play. It carries you along with its energy but by the end I was disappointed and angry at its faulty dramaturgy and use of stereotypes. More Broadway fodder for the unthinking.

  5. Pingback: ‘The Ferryman’ Reviewed: A Hunger Strike Parable | The Broken Elbow

Leave a Reply to The Broken Elbow Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.