THESE ARE the opening lines of Bryan McMahon’s wonderful play The Honey Spike which Mephisto Theatre Company is bringing to the Town Hall Theatre in a production featuring Galway’s finest actors and which marks the 50th anniversary of the play’s first staging at the Abbey.
The Honey Spike introduces us to Breda Claffey, a young, pregnant, Traveller woman who has set her heart on returning to Kerry. For in Kerry is the Honey Spike, the ‘lucky’ hospital in which her child must be born. No other spike will do. However she and her husband Martin are far from home, living beside at The Giant’s Causeway, and Kerry is a long, wearisome, distance by cart.
Nonetheless they set out on a journey of endurance lightened by laughter and mischief. Also present are Martin’s mother, Poll-Poll, and his stepfather, Mickle. These Travellers tangle with soldiers at the border, priests in the midlands, and feuding clans in Kerry.
Breda rushes towards the future but the past is waiting for her at Puck Fair in the shape of Winifred McQueen, the gypsy girl who once wanted Martin for herself. The Honey Spike evokes an Ireland of passion, wildness, and beauty. Its people live as they have always lived; putting their faith in God and in magic, in religion and superstition, but their greatest belief of all is in life itself.
Author Bryan McMahon comes from the great north Kerry tradition of Irish writers that includes his illustrious contemporary, John B Keane. The Honey Spike, which was first produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1961, is widely regarded as his best play. Oddly enough, it has had very few professional productions so this new Mephisto staging is to be greatly welcomed.
The production is directed by Caroline Lynch and, over a chat at the end of the day’s rehearsals, she explained how she first came across the play and decided to do it.
“I’d heard of Bryan McMahon because my father is from near Listowel but I’d never read any of his work,” she begins. “Then I joined the local library and got the novel version of The Honey Spike and as I was reading it I was thinking ‘This should be adapted into a play!’ Then I found out it was and started looking for the script.
“I got onto Bryan McMahon’s son who’s a solicitor in Listowel and he put me on to his brother in Dublin and he posted us on a copy of the script. We were just thinking of it as a pipe-dream ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to do this!’
“Then Mike Diskin at the Town Hall contacted us to say he had a slot on the main stage in August and did we have anything in mind? We told him about The Honey Spike and he liked the sound of it and gave us some money towards the production and so we were able to go ahead with it. It’s a great play!”
Lynch expands on the qualities of the play that excited her.
“The first thing that excited me is that the main protagonist is female, this young girl Breda who is pregnant,” she says. “It’s a very strong story, this young girl who is going to give birth and needs to get to the place where she wants to have her child.
“And I loved the drama of it and the tragedy of it. The inter-actions between Breda and her husband Martin are really beautiful as well, at times they really connect then they miss each other again; Breda is so jealous of the other woman she thinks was in Martin’s life before they married and she feels there’s a curse over her and her unborn child, it’s like luck is against her but she keeps fighting it.”
One of the reasons the play is seldom staged is that, as well featuring a large cast, the set requires a variety of locations. Lynch salutes the contribution of set designer Brendan Savage in meeting that challenge.
“Brendan is totally our hero!” she enthuses. “There are five scenes each of which is in a completely different location and he’s come up with this really simple ingenious way of designing a set that covers each of those scenes.”
Lynch reveals that the company undertook their own research into the world of Traveller life that the play portrays.
“We met Oein De Bhraduin who does a blog called The Barefoot Pavee which is full of the folklore and imaginative traditions of Travellers, or pavees as they prefer to call themselves,” she says. “He was a mine of information for us; there were things in the script that we didn’t realise the importance of and he was able to tell us all about them. They’re full of superstitions or particular religious beliefs.
“For instance Breda looks for a ‘safe confinement cord’ from a priest to ensure she has a safe birth and he knew all about that tradition. He knew about the customs surrounding curses, if you put a curse on someone you have to take responsibility for what then happens. It was fascinating talking with him. He hadn’t read the script before but he said it seemed as if Bryan McMahon had a real knowledge of, and respect for, Traveller traditions.”
McMahon was one of the few outsiders who could speak the Traveller language of Shelta and his familiarity with their way of life imbues the play with much of its power. The play’s climactic scene unfolds against the backdrop of Puck Fair and, fittingly, Mephisto’s new production takes place during the same week as the fair.
The cast features Emma O’Grady and Emmet Byrne as the central couple Breda and Martin.
“Emma is perfect in the role,” Lynch declares. “She’s got that grit and common sense and determination that the character has as well. We first met Emmet when we were doing Grenades in Glasgow; he’s currently at NUIG but he happened to be over there and introduced himself and straightaway I thought ‘that’s Martin Claffey!’ he just had the look of him. Helen Gregg is playing Martin’s mother Poll Poll and Daniel Guinnane is playing the stepfather Mickle.”
The Honey Spike runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday August 9 to Saturday 13 at 8pm nightly. For the Tuesday performance all tickets are €12. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie