From Cavan to Connemara

Irish language theatre company, Fíbín, launches an exciting new chapter in its story next week with the promenade show Cath na Ceathrún Rua / Battle of Carraroe, written by incoming artistic director Philip Doherty and staged at the company’s new home space in An Tulach, Baile na hAbhann.

The play is inspired by the extraordinary true story of when, in 1880, Irish tenants at Carraroe banded together and stopped an eviction for the first time in the history of the country. During the battle, which lasted three days, people from around the county rallied to join the Carraroe people, including 12 boat-loads of sailing hookers from the coastal villages and Aran Islands. With just sticks and stones, the tenants and their allies defeated a large force of RIC men armed with rifles and bayonets.

Battle of Carraroe is playwright Philip Doherty’s first show for Fíbín as artistic director and ahead of its premiere he talked with me about the production, the kind of theatre he loves to make, and his future Fíbín plans.

I began by asking Doherty about his upbringing in Cavan and how theatre became his passion; “I grew up in Cavan town and my father was a performer and comedian who did sketches in rural halls so theatre was always there,” he replies. “I was always going to plays in the drama festivals in town and I fell in love with theatre from a young age. My parents would also bring us up to Dublin to see shows. I also got involved in youth drama; Aaron Monaghan was in the group. Writing was something I got into when I was in school, I enjoyed writing short stories and I had a great English teacher who allowed us to read our stories out in class so that was my first audience from a writer’s perspective.”

A prolific writer and theatre-maker, Doherty has won two PJ O’Connor Awards for his radio plays and, in 2009, founded the Cavan company, Gonzo Theatre, which produced more than 20 shows in places as diverse as prisons, parks, and barbershops, as well as theatres and festivals nationwide. The company adapted classic fairytales, revived local legends into a modern context, and produced Doherty’s own experimental, energetic, new plays.

“I always try to make theatre that will grab you and be exciting,” Doherty declares. “I was travelling for most of my twenties then came back and we were in the recession. Everyone my age was unemployed so it was a good time to set up a punk theatre group in Cavan. We took over a space called the Night Club which was this sweaty black box space where we could rehearse during the day and we were putting on show after show. There were a lot of brilliant musicians and visual artists involved so the shows took on very visual and musical elements. We were attracting a young audience and putting on the type of theatre that excited us and that we wanted to see, and experimenting. We had no money but we had free rein and lots of enthusiasm so the work ended up being non-traditional and very visual.”

While Doherty’s plays have often delved into history and myth they equally engage with issues of our own time and place. “For theatre to work it has to connect with the audience and be the story of now,” he observes. “Cath na Ceathrún Rua is about an eviction that was stopped in 1880 but it could also be a parable of today. I am always interested in mythic and the supernatural elements underneath every story and you have that running beneath Irish events, it is in the subconscious. In the play the rent had to be paid twice a year, on May 1, Bealtaine, and November 1 which is Samhain, which is wonderful for our storytelling as Samhain is the night when the other world encroaches into our world. We have a wonderful scene where Kathleen, the protagonist, goes to the graveyard and is visited by her ancestors. I love marrying those scenes from the past because I think they still haunt our identity as a people, they are a huge part of our culture and are wonderful to use for theatre.”

Doherty first worked with Fíbín when he scripted its 2018 touring production of Tóraíocht and he is thrilled at becoming the company’s artistic director and relocating to the west. “I’ve always loved Fíbín’s work, how boldly visual and striking it has been, and I have always had a grá for the Irish language as well,” he enthuses. “I have always wanted to live in the Gaeltacht and work through the Irish language. I am pinching myself that I got the opportunity to come here as AD and be living along the coast and finding new stories and meeting new people. It’s an exciting time for me. I am living in Spiddal in a thatched cottage with a half door, it’s like I am living in a postcard.”

Returning to Cath na Ceathrún Rua, Doherty shares his thoughts on the show and the story; “The tenants resisted armed police with sticks and stones and besieged them for three days in their own barracks. They needed to keep them besieged for three days because then the deadline for the eviction would pass. Thousands of people came from all over Connemara and from the islands to give support. I imagine them all together and feeling this was their time to stand up and to defy the authorities, and the fact that they won is a significant event in Irish history which very few people know about. It was a spark that lit the fire into the Land War which in turn fed into Home Rule and the Rising and Irish Independence. It was the first time that Michael Davitt’s ideas went from theory into reality without him overseeing it, he came after the event. Davitt inspired Gandhi, who inspired Martin Luther King, and his civil rights campaign inspires the Extinction Rebellion movement today. So you could argue all of that started in Carraroe and that’s important because the play does move forward in time to show how much it is a parable of today.”

Doherty is already mapping out an exciting range of productions for Fíbín for the months ahead. For next month’s Culture Night, the company will stage a theatrical spectacle called House Party and, also in the pipeline, are an Irish language version of Macbeth, and a show staged on a boat that will travel to different harbours around the west coast. Next year will also see the release of Doherty’s debut feature film, Redemption of a Rogue, a comedy-drama set in Cavan and starring Aaron Monaghan.

First up though is Cath na Ceathrún Rua / Battle of Carraroe which promises to get Doherty’s Fíbín tenure off to a flying start. The show stars Róisín Seoighe as the drama’s main protagonist, Kathleen, and also features Eoghan O’Riada, Eoin Geoghegan and Micheál Ó Dubhghaill in a professional cast joined by local amateur performers. Alain Halimi (of Mayfly to the Moon ) has written a hauntingly beautiful original score that is performed live, and choreography is by James Reardon.

Fíbín will begin performances of this free community involved project on Wednesday August 21 and the public will also have the opportunity to see the show with performances on Thursday 22 and Friday 23 at 9pm. All shows are free but tickets must be booked in advance on Eventbrite.

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