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Staging History to Make History: Theater and the Road to the Good Friday Agreement

An engraving of Aodh Mór Ó Néill (Hugh the Great O'Neill), the 16th century chieftain and subject of Brian Friel's "Making History".

In late April 1983, Brian Friel wrote to poet Seamus Heaney to update him on business related to the Field Day Theatre Company, which both men served as members of the company’s board of directors. Friel confided that he had not written anything in a year and a half and was actively searching for a theme. He also mentioned, in passing, that their mutual friend “Hume” had dropped in recently to talk about his plans for a New Ireland Forum.

When I first read this letter in Emory University’s Rose Library early in 2015, I saw the kernel of a story. As a playwright, Friel’s livelihood depended upon the reception of his work in metropolitan centers such as Dublin, London, and New York, but he was famously reclusive. In 1983, he had just moved from a small townland in Donegal to an even more remote part of that rural county. Yet John Hume—the leader of Northern Ireland’s constitutional nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, a Member of the European Parliament, and soon to be elected a member of the British parliament as well—was stopping by Friel’s house to discuss politics.

My book Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland explores connections between literature and contemporary politics during the fifteen or so years leading up to the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which marks its twenty-fifth anniversary this April. In it, I intertwine narrative history and literary analysis to describe shifts in thinking and talking about Northern Ireland’s divided society that brought thirty years of political violence to a close. Creative writers in this period, I argue, were both reacting to current events and attempting to influence them. Examining literary works within a detailed historical frame, constructed with the help of archival research and personal interviews and correspondence with authors, reveals aspects of these works previously unrecognized. But the book also suggests that literature as literature—in its formal properties as well as its subject-matter—can enrich readers’ historical understanding.

The play Friel began planning at the end of 1983, Making History, was designed to further two of Hume’s projects. One was to help Irish nationalists understand that, in the event of some future united Ireland, a million Northern Protestants would not disappear just because the border did. Thus, anyone sincerely interested in a “new” Ireland needed to acknowledge the island’s diversity as well as what nationalists regarded as its essential unity. The second was to persuade militant republicans that political engagement with unionists and the British government would be a more effective means of pursuing their objectives than violence.

Making History centers on Hugh O’Neill, a Gaelic chieftain who also held an English title and represented, for a time, the best hope of the European Counter-Reformation. Though celebrated by Irish nationalists as the mastermind of the Gaelic aristocracy’s last stand against English colonization, O’Neill’s 1601 defeat at the Battle of Kinsale and subsequent exile from Ireland cleared the way for the seventeenth-century Plantation of Ulster, to which may be traced the roots of Northern Ireland’s religious and political divisions.

In Getting to Good Friday, I describe the play’s development over five years with reference to both the New Ireland Forum of 1983–’84 and the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985. Such a topical approach to a play set at the turn of the seventeenth century might seem odd. However, as fellow Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker described his own play Northern Star (about a doomed eighteenth-century Irish revolutionary leader), "this is not an historical play” but “very much a play about today.”

Making History does not pass muster as a factual account of Hugh O’Neill. Scholars have accurately observed that, far from replacing heroic myth with less heroic truth (as a naïve reading of it might suggest), Friel deliberately replaced one historical myth with another. His portrayal of O’Neill’s life is frequently counter-factual, but his distortions had the aim of encouraging audiences in 1988, when Field Day performed the play around Ireland and in London, to reconsider what they thought they knew about this legendary Irish warrior. Friel cared what people thought about O’Neill because their beliefs about the Gaelic confederacy’s leaders had the power to influence their attitudes and actions in the late twentieth century.

Friel’s chief purpose in Making History was to emphasize O’Neill’s genuine cultural hybridity. O’Neill’s English education made him precociously aware of English Renaissance modes of social and political organization, allowing him to imagine a similar status for Ireland. Friel dramatized the way O’Neill straddled two cultures by making his marriage to an English “settler” in Ireland central to his drama. The historical O’Neill was married to this woman, Mabel Bagenal, for a few years in the early 1590s, but almost nothing is known about her. Friel departed from his historical sources in depicting the marriage as a genuine love match and using it as a metaphor for the productive partnership of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland. In Mabel, he gave unionist members of his original audiences a Protestant character with whom they could identify and nationalist members of those audiences one with whom they could sympathize.

Friel also sought to influence events in his own Ireland by demonstrating the futility of violence as a means of achieving the nationalist ideal of Irish independence and integrity. Read with this goal in mind, Making History brims with political relevance. Instead of telling audiences things, Friel shows them. In Act 1, we see O’Neill happy, rich, and powerful, in a position of authority in both Gaelic and English systems and engaged in a loving relationship with a Protestant woman of English stock. In Act 2, after resorting to war on behalf of Ireland and Catholicism, we see him hunted, reviled by his own people, and stripped of his power and wealth. Although we cannot know what would have happened had O’Neill continued his established policy of strategic surrender and cooperation with the English (i.e., peace and power-sharing), we can see clear parallels between the wasted, famine-ridden land he leaves behind when he goes into exile and Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Hume attended Making History’s premiere performance in Derry. So, too, did Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who would later serve as Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing Northern Ireland government. Their presence in Field Day’s audience demonstrates that the literary and political realms of Irish public life, like the natural and supernatural worlds of Irish folklore, lie close together and frequently intersect—and that those seeking to understand either must examine both.