Gerry Conneely in The Great Push

Galway actor to recreate WWI experiences of an Irishman at the Battle of Loos

British machine gunners at the Battle of Loos.

British machine gunners at the Battle of Loos.

ON THE morning of September 25 1915, 75,000 British soldiers emerged from their trenches on the Western Front to begin what was then the biggest battle in British history, the Battle of Loos. It would also be the British army’s bloodiest day of the war so far.

On that day alone 8,500 British troops were killed in what proved an ultimately futile attack against the German defences. Among those who took part in the battle was Donegal writer Patrick MacGill, who was a stretcher-bearer with the London Irish Rifles, and was wounded on the opening day. MacGill described his experiences in the gripping memoir, The Great Push, much of which was written while he was waiting to go into action.

In the Town Hall studio, from Tuesday February 16 to Saturday 20 at 8.30pm, actor Gerry Conneely brings his sensitive and layered adaptation of The Great Push to the stage in a compelling evening of theatre.

“I first read The Great Push as a young fella and there was something about it that really struck me,” Conneely tells me. “I read it again about five or six years ago and focused on three chapters, two of which were written the night before they went ‘over the top’, and the third was written the following night. He wrote these as he was in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and they had a resonance and authenticity for me. I felt if I extracted those three chapters out of the book it would make a wonderful anti-war piece.”

Conneely outlines the content of the show; “In the book MacGill talks about the guys in his billet, there were seven of them and he paints lovely pictures of them. He knew them all very well, he’d been with them for seven months. He catches the tension of the afternoon and evening as they wait to march up to the front knowing that they are going over the top the next morning. They are all letting on to be full of joie de vivre but inwardly they are all terrified. There is singing and story-telling and everything starts off in joy and laughter but ends up in thoughtful silence.

“MacGill describes their march up the front line through countryside that is all slagheaps and chimney stacks. At 10pm an officer comes up and casually outlines the next day’s plan of attack and tells them lots of planning has gone into it and that casualties are expected to be light. Around 5am the word is passed down to start the attack. He describes what it’s like to go through a hail of bullets across No Man’s Land, parts of it are almost hallucinogenic. At the end of it all only three guys from MacGill’s billet have survived the morning.

“I did the show in the museum last September then around the libraries in the county. I got good audiences and great reactions. It’s chilling but it’s not all horror, he really gets into the character of the men, there is a bit of humour, a bit of sadness, songs, poems and storytelling.”

Tickets are €12/10 and available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie

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