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The true story of what Tina's great uncle got up to in the Great War

John James Noonan finally came home to Lismore eight years after he lost his leg on the fields of the Somme. It was 1924, and Ireland had changed unimaginably. Some 200,000 Irish men had fought in the Great War; 30,000 never came home and the same number again, like Noonan, were maimed for life. Yet Ireland wasn't interested in their stories.

It was only in the late-1990s that this country started to acknowledge those men, after Kevin Myers had campaigned on the issue for years and the "parity of esteem" that followed the Good Friday Agreement had finally made the Great War suddenly an object worthy of commemoration by official Ireland.

Sebastian Barry's novel A Long, Long Way told the story of an Irishman who died in the war, and helped ground that esteem in empathy. Now, a new play, The Prodger, by Tina Noonan, tells the story of an Irishman who survived. (It's at the New Theatre in Dublin from February 25 to March 2, and plays in Lismore March 9-10; see www.tinanoonan.blogspot.com.)

"The Prodger" was the nickname of Tina's great uncle, John Noonan; he died shortly after she was born, in 1968, but she grew up listening to her father's stories about him. "He's lived in my head all my life," she says. Finally, she decided her great uncle's story merited a wider audience.

John Noonan was in his early 20s, studying engineering in Cork. With one year to go, he quit and joined the Leinster Regiment. He arrived in France in late 1915.

He was promoted to lance corporal but lost the rank when, sent to a local village to buy supplies, he spent the money getting drunk.

In November that year, he got a shrapnel wound in his leg, and it got infected. The leg had to be amputated, just below the knee. The medical staff believed he had died on the operating table, and he came to in the morgue.

He was shipped out to London and was fitted with a prosthetic leg. Back in Ireland, he spent a number of years in various veterans' homes before finally going back to his home place in Co Waterford.

He suffered from flashbacks all his life: he was particularly haunted by the sound of horses dying on the battlefield. Yet he remained fit and was capable of hillwalking on his prosthetic leg.

He carved out a more-or-less stable life for himself in Lismore: he was best avoided when drinking (he was a "nasty, bad-tempered drunk" and was known by the stick he carried, which he called his "prodger", and which he had a habit of striking off tables whenever he was angry), but was otherwise fondly thought of. He never married, but sought solace, occasionally, where he could.

If John Noonan was an unlikely subject for a drama – an ordinary man rendered extraordinary by what he witnessed, and by his country's indifference to that – Tina Noonan herself seems, at first, an unlikely playwright.

Forty-five years old, she juggles her writing with being a single mother and part-time legal secretary. After years intending to write, when she finally started, five years ago, she was immediately shortlisted for RTÉ's PJ O'Connor radio drama award.

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Prior to settling in Bray, she spent 10 years in London, worked on charter boats in Turkey and dive boats in Australia, and did a lucrative stint as a hostess in a yakuza (mafia-run) bar in Japan (this was after having run out of money in Indonesia). "We got huge tips for lighting cigarettes and looking pretty. It was kind of innocent."

No doubt, if The Prodger goes well, she might find that there are some more stories worth telling on stage lying somewhere amid those innocent adventures.

A quick note from the Dublin International Film Festival, where a new documentary, Sculpting Space, about former Riverdance lead dancer Colin Dunne (whose work since I have written about here), is screening on February 19. It's by Catherine Owens, director of U2 3D and, likewise, it's in 3D. Sounds intriguing. See www.jdiff.com.


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