Tuesday 27 September 2016

'I wanted to shine a light on the ancient spirit of the Irish'

Our reporter talks to Frank Fitzpatrick, founder of a unique new Dublin visitor attraction

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 10/12/2015 | 07:00

The Story of the Irish: actors Kealan Ryan, Charlotte Keating, Claire Keating, Keith Murphy and Eoghan Burke at the tourist attraction at Haymarket in Dublin's Smithfield.
The Story of the Irish: actors Kealan Ryan, Charlotte Keating, Claire Keating, Keith Murphy and Eoghan Burke at the tourist attraction at Haymarket in Dublin's Smithfield.
Cinematic theatre: Frank Fitzpatrick's venture tells The Story of the Irish.

'Why was 1916 important?" This was the question posed by a nine-year-old Frank Fitzpatrick to his 70-year-old grandfather, Michael Smyth, over breakfast one morning many years ago.

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As a member of the Irish Volunteers and a veteran of the Easter Rising, his grandfather was suitably shocked, but he proceeded to explain patiently to Frank the events of Easter Week 1916, using the milk jug, jam pot, and other accoutrements strewn across the kitchen table as props in his story.

"I was mesmerised," Frank recalls. "The part that resonated with me the most was when he pushed his chair back from the table, put his hand on my head, and said: 'The men and women of 1916, we didn't know there was an independent Ireland coming. We got our courage from the ancient spirit of the Irish. Never forget about the ancient spirit of the Irish, that's what cracked the British Empire.'

"He died the following year, and that concept of an identifiable spirit of the Irish was something I carried with me for the rest of my life."

Those words instilled an early passion for history in the young Frank. For years, he dreamed of exploring and celebrating this spirit of the Irish. It was the driving force behind The Story of the Irish, the tourist attraction he opened in Smithfield, Co Dublin, four months ago.

Visitors to the exhibition are guided by an actor on a tour of Ireland's history, spanning 10,000 years.

The Story of the Irish is described as "cinematic theatre" - throughout the exhibition, the guide engages with other actors and pre-recorded content on large video screens around the room.

Apart from the screens, the audience's seating and a dolmen structure at the entrance, the rooms are bare, a layout Frank purposefully chose for a more immersive visitor experience.

"What we've done from a theatrical point of view is to blur the demarcation between the audience and the stage. It creates cohesion between the actor and the audience.

"The idea was to have a minimum amount on the stage, so it's all about the actor telling the story," says Frank.

Costumed in tight leather outfits and flowing capes, the actors leading the tour portray various members of the Tuatha De Danann, an ancient tribe in Irish mythology.

"I wanted to tell the story in third person - of 'the Irish', not of 'us'. That way, I can be far more honest. So I had to try and find an arbiter or narrator that would have credibility," Frank explains.

"I also wanted to tie in the mythological aspect, which is a huge part of Irish history. I used these characters to add a bit of sex and glamour to it."

He describes the exhibition as a form of 'edutainment', combining aspects of education with entertainment to improve the visitor's experience and understanding of Irish history.

"If you tell this kind of story straight, with that amount of historical information, it becomes very boring. I wanted to do it in an entertaining way, that's why I brought in the Tuatha De Danann."

Frank grew up in Cabra, Co Dublin and studied history in Trinity College Dublin, before going on to run a number of businesses.

After selling one of those businesses in 2008, he took a year off to write a novel. It was never published, but the process sparked an interest in writing, specifically non-fiction writing.

His next job was with the Book of Kells exhibition in Trinity College, where he worked as a merchandising consultant. As he researched visitor attractions in Ireland, he gradually developed plans for an exhibition of his own.

Frank speaks positively of Ireland's most popular tourist sites, but says he felt they had too narrow a focus. Although monuments like Newgrange are undeniably stunning, he believes they should be treated as "more than just a building - they are a part of the people who built it".

With the new exhibition, he wanted to create something that would do justice to the story of those people, and that would have an appeal for both Irish and international visitors.

Frank wrote the script in six months, and spent a further four months verifying the historical details, using material from academic works published by professors at Trinity College, Queen's University and Oxford University.

While he says feedback has been largely positive, audiences may be surprised at the relative lack of detail provided in the segment dedicated to 1916 and the Troubles.

Following a brief summary of the Easter Rising, the tour jumps forward to Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland in 2014.

One Irish visitor complained that Eamon de Valera's name doesn't receive so much as a mention, due to his reported rivalry with Michael Collins.

Frank defends this decision by saying: "History and living history are different things. With historical stories, people pretty much agree on what happened."

He makes the point: "When you get into more current history, certainly the latter half of the 20th century, there's stuff there we still don't know yet.

"In relation to Northern Ireland and the past 30 years, I said what happened: atrocities were committed on both sides.

"I don't explain how or why they were committed, because if I were to go into any more detail than that, I thought I'd be walking a tightrope that I didn't want to do. That would taint the rest of the 10,000-year story."

Instead, Frank wanted to stress that Ireland and the Irish people are "moving forward", a point which he hopes to demonstrate with the final image of Queen Elizabeth meeting President Michael D Higgins.

"I always hated the idea that we defined ourselves by what was going on in England. The English part of Irish history is only 500 years of a 10,000-year story. It's a little longer than the Vikings, and we don't define ourselves by the Vikings. I wanted to put that into context.

"We see it as more important because we happen to be living through the tail end of it, so it resonates with us, but in 100 or 200 years, I think that it will be just another period in Irish history.

"I wanted to see 1916 as a watershed moment - 60 years before was the famine, and what came 50 years later was the 1960s and the Beatles.

"You have modern Ireland on one side and destitute, desperate Ireland on the other. The events of 1916 were the catalyst for that shift," he says.

For Frank, the exhibition is an opportunity to put to bed the stereotypes of Irish people as heavy drinkers and rollicking leprechauns, and to "shine a light" on the ancient spirit of the Irish people.

"I always hated when we became to the greater world a parody of ourselves, with drink culture and drunkenness.

"You go abroad anywhere and the first thing they assume is you're a big drinker. But I wanted to show that we have this richness that goes beyond that.

When I was doing this, I said, 'there'll be no references to drinking or Guinness or shamrocks or leprechauns'."

Although St Patrick's Day is celebrated around the world as a time to over-indulge in green beers and pints of Guinness, Frank is eager to emphasise that he still enjoys our national holiday.

"I love it! Irish people have a great sense of fun and of partying, and we're famous for it. But that shouldn't become all that we are, we shouldn't be solely defined by it. I don't see Irishness as an insular or narrow thing. I always held that Irishness was a very broad concept - it spans millennia, it spans continents, and it has influenced the world, especially in Australia, Canada and America.

"For me, Irishness is bigger than Ireland, and if you feel the story of the Irish, you come to understand the true spirit of the Irish."

The Story of the Irish is open seven days a week at Haymarket, Smithfield, Co Dublin. Tickets from €14. For more information, visit storyoftheirish.ie

Irish Independent

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