Lifestyle

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Why a drill and a play are at the very core of modern Irish democracy

When a giant tunnel-boring machine belonging to Shell got stuck in the bog in Mayo last July, Donal O'Kelly saw his chance.

O'Kelly is a veteran actor and writer, and something of a specialist in one-man shows. His most famous, Catalpa, now 15 years old, won awards and rave reviews internationally, and is still regularly restaged. His new show, the improbably-titled Ailliliú Fionnuala (details below), tells the story of that boring machine.

That may not sound like an obvious subject for a drama. But O'Kelly had been searching for a way to tell the story of the Shell saga at Rossport for some time.

Shell's pipeline and refinery project has been provoking protests since at least 2005 and O'Kelly became a regular visitor, getting to know the locals involved.

The boring machine weighed 500 tonnes and was 149 metres long, and its transport from Dublin port to Mayo was a huge logistical and security operation, as Shell clearly feared it would be obstructed by protests. In a bid to placate people (presumably), Shell named the machine after one of the children of Lir, Fionnuala, and painted it in the Mayo colours.

When the truck carrying it jack-knifed on a Mayo crossroads and started sinking into the bog, O'Kelly saw an opportunity to fuse current affairs and ancient mythology in a story for the stage. What if, he thought, the PR executive in Shell who named the machine Fionnuala came face to face with the actual Fionnuala of legend?

For O'Kelly, the naming of the machine was "an insidious attempt to claim ownership of local mythology". But his objective in the play is broader than a simple denunciation of Shell: what really irks him is the failure of Irish democracy.

"The culture in Ireland is to keep all of the policy process behind closed doors. There's a complete lack of transparent, participatory democracy."

The Rossport saga, he says, is a symptom of this, as was the abuse revealed in the Ryan report. (O'Kelly acted in the late Mary Raftery's adaptation of the report for the Abbey, No Escape.)

The Rossport issue has been "marginalised", he says, because it's happening in North Mayo, "but it's very central to the life of a thriving democracy".

If that all sounds very political, O'Kelly is unapologetic. "I have to have a clear reason why I'm writing something," he says. The challenge is to balance politics, entertainment and being "provocatively artistic. I try not to be too po-faced."

I've seen him get it right more than he gets it wrong -- and sometimes wonderfully so, such as in his 1916 play, Operation Easter, staged in Kilmainham Gaol, and The Cambria, his play about how escaped American slave Frederick Douglass came to Ireland and met Daniel O'Connell.

But why the tricky title? It's a little bit of wry nostalgia. O'Kelly grew up watching the 1960s RTÉ Irish-language cartoon strip Dáithí Lacha (it was literally a cartoon strip -- they filmed static pictures, as you can see in some archive clips on the RTÉ Player), about a duck whose catchphrase was "Ailliliú!" Watching "Fionnuala" sink into the bog reminded O'Kelly of Dáithí's cry.

O'Kelly started writing because, as an actor, he was "never very good at waiting for the phone to ring". His first success was a one-man show in the late 1980s, Bat the Father Rabbit the Son.

Robert Ballagh designed that show, and returns to design this one, for which he has recycled some of the original set.

This is "for more than economic reasons", notes O'Kelly. "Keogh (the character in Ailliliú) is the next generation of power players after Rabbit's generation. Same tricks, though."

Ailliliú Fionnuala is at the Theatre Upstairs (above Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin) from Monday for two weeks.

Meanwhile, the energetic Cavan-based company Livin Dred is back with a new play on tour. Ride On! by Seamus O'Rourke is in Mullingar tonight and Tallaght next week. See www.nomadtheatrenetwork.ie.

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