27 June 2006

Observe the sons

Last week I had the privilege of joining a packed audience at a remarkable performance of the award-winning play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

It would be fair to say that its author, Frank McGuinness, is not exactly of the Ulster Loyalist Protestant tradition, but equally fairly, his play demonstrates his profound understanding of its psyche, its pride, its fears, its dilemmas.

The play is about eight men of the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War. It reaches a climax at the dawn of the horrific Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916 – the actual anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The young cast might well represent those who today patrol the streets of Basra or Falluja. The same questions arise about loyalty to a cause perceived to be noble. Like the young men at the Somme, are today’s soldiers mere pawns in the deadly game of international politics?

Or was the Somme the ultimate test in loyalty – a blood sacrifice to match any other?

The cast, and the supporting stage crew, had never been involved in a play before, let alone in learning lines and interpreting a serious and complicated piece of theatre.

They were a mixed-religion group and there was not the slightest problem in their getting to grips with an intensely one-sided theme.

While they were rehearsing, running into problems – which at times seemed insurmountable – and periodically losing and regaining confidence, they were being filmed close-up for a BBC documentary. The film crew was also there to record their final triumph – three flawless performances and three well-deserved standing ovations.

Why is all this so remarkable?

The cast were inmates of the Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre where the gymnasium had been turned into a temporary theatre.

Perhaps for the first time in their lives these young men had worked as a team and, through sheer hard cooperative slog, had achieved something, which by any standards, touched a kind of greatness.

Dan Gordon, Mike Moloney and Brendan Byrne had worked tirelessly with the team, pushing hard when it was necessary, praising when it was deserved.

I meet inmates in jails on a regular basis. They don’t have horns. Many have grown up in tough hostile environments, with few opportunities, little guidance, even less encouragement, often put down, and seldom, if ever, praised. Literacy, self-esteem and emotional problems are rife.

I make no excuses for the offences they have committed, but I remind myself of an old saying, ironically attributed to a sixteenth century Protestant martyr.

There but for the Grace of God go I.

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