The image of Fr Edward Daly holding aloft a white handkerchief as he tries to get safe passage for the wounded has become a symbol of Bloody Sunday. A new play inspired by that moment begins its run at the Guildhall in Derry next weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest days of the Troubles.
When they left home that day, the people on the civil rights march were in high spirits and their voices were raised in song. For Kieran Griffiths, director of the Playhouse Theatre in Derry, setting the play to music was a way of honouring a promise to the victims’ loved ones that their lives would be celebrated.
Early in the process, Griffiths, who grew up on the Waterside area of the city, realised that having the characters turn to song might seem incongruous. “What helps me understand it is to think of grief as love that has nowhere to go,” he says. “My hope is that the play is somewhere for that love to go.”.
He was also keen for the play, The White Handkerchief, to be seen as a celebration of the lives of the people who died on Bloody Sunday. Thirteen people were killed that day; the 14th, John Johnston (59), died of his injuries five months later.
For 50 years, Griffiths says, they have been portrayed in a certain way, frozen in old photographs and TV footage. Now they will be embodied on stage full of the joys of life.
Griffiths realised that having the endorsement of the families was paramount. The production has been informed by close engagement with them. “We made a promise to celebrate their [the victims’] waking lives,” he says. “Did anyone wake up on Bloody Sunday thinking they were going to die at 4pm?”
The play was written by the recently deceased Liam Campbell with music by Brian O’Doherty. Its story unfolds through the eyes of William McKinney, a 27-year-old who was shot dead as he ran for cover. He was working as a printer at the Derry Journal and was engaged to be married. Friends and family remember him as a keen amateur photographer. He had set out to film the march on a camera he had received as a Christmas present.
The play imagines interaction between Peggy Deery, the only woman shot on Bloody Sunday and the paratrooper who hit her. The 38-year-old widow and mother of 14 survived but was left with debilitating injuries and died in 1988 aged 54. On stage, she gives the young man a dressing down, warning him if he kills her, he will carry it as a badge of shame for the rest of his life.
Other vignettes show Jackie Duddy, full of life and vigour, a promising boxer and athlete, cut down as he runs. The 17-year-old was the first to die on Bloody Sunday.
Griffiths tells the story, taken from Bishop Edward Daly’s autobiography, that Jackie was running and laughing when he was shot. Daly went to Jackie and put his handkerchief on the inside of his shirt to staunch his bleeding.
Jackie’s sister, Kay Duddy, later became the custodian of the white handkerchief. When Griffith approached her to talk about the play, she brought it along for him to hold.
The gesture was reciprocated in an invitation to the families. Griffiths contacted the Bloody Sunday Trust and asked if the families could come to the Playhouse and meet the team behind the production. After showing them some sections, invitations to the production were handed out. Each contained a folded white handkerchief bearing the name of the recipient’s loved one.
“There was utter silence from the families as I handed them out,” Griffiths says. “There wasn’t a single sound in the room. It was total reverence. In that moment I became confident that what we were doing was the right thing.”.
Another promise was to give the families a private viewing this week before the show opens at the Guildhall.
For Griffiths, it was important that the cast was local. He formed a music theatre company at the Derry Playhouse to train 12 local people in their teens and twenties. All will be part of The White Handkerchief’s ensemble, with four taking principal roles.
The play finishes with a song of hope and a reminder that the march for justice continues.
“I was handed the blanket of freedom by people who fought for equality,” Griffith says. “I had an education because of what happened. These people should be elevated. I stand in their shadows.”
The White Handkerchief runs from January 30 to February 5. derryplayhouse.co.uk