IN THE history of aeroplane hijackings – a common occurrence during the 1970s and early 1980s – few are as bizarre and as eccentric as the hijacking of Aer Lingus Flight 164.
On May 2 1981, the plane was on a flight from Dublin to London with more than 100 passengers on board. As it approached Heathrow, just five minutes before it was to land, a 55-year-old Australian named Laurence James Downey went into the toilet and doused himself in petrol. He then went to the cockpit and demanded the captain divert to Le Touquet – Côte d'Opale Airport in northern France, refuel there, and then fly to Tehran.
Upon landing at Le Touquet, Downey demanded that the Irish media publish a nine-page statement he had written - which he had the captain throw from the cockpit window - in which he called on the Vatican make the Third Secret of Fatima public (Downey had developed an obsession with the secret since working as a tour guide in the area of Portugal where the visions took place ). At the time, the Third Secret was known only to the Pope and a few other high ranking figures in the Roman Catholic Church. A stand-off between Downey and the French authorities had begun. It would be 10 hours later before it was resolved.
This famous incident is the subject of the hit comedy play A Holy Show, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday January 29 at 8pm. Written and directed by Janet Moran, it stars Roseanna Purcell (Copper Face Jacks: The Musical, Red Rock, Fair City ) and Mark Fitzgerald (Copper Face Jacks: The Musical, Alone It Stands ).
The Arts Review called it “Airplane meets Hall’s Pictorial Weekly...will have you cracking a rib with laughter”; The List praised it as “gloriously comic and unexpectedly thoughtful”; while Britishtheatre.com called it “delightful and entertaining...remarkable in being Moran’s solo writing and directing debut”.
'The rescuers were calling for anyone who spoke French. I asked him, ‘Did you talk to them?’ and he said, ‘No! They caught me at a bad time'
The idea for the play was planted in Janet’s mind when she saw footage of event on RTÉ’s Reeling In The Years. “I saw it about 10 years ago,” she tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “I was very taken with it. It was the antithesis of what you expect a hijacking to be. The passengers seemed to be laughing, there was footage of them eating their dinner. It was surreal and comic, and yet it couldn't really have been for those involved. It stuck with me, the idea of Ireland then and Ireland now, particularly in relation to religion, and how much it has changed in those 40 years.”
Perhaps “surreal and comic” is the only way to describe the entire hijacking and its immediate aftermath. “The new reports show Albert Reynolds [the then Minister for Transport], getting caught in the glare of the spotlight, and being asked by a British journalist with a very posh accent, ‘What is the Third Secret of Fatima?’ and Reynolds saying ‘Well, I don’t know! Nobody knows. That’s the point!’. There is footage of one of the women being rescued and kissing a member of the French rescue team, shouting ‘Merci!’ at him. Yet, in those moments of extremity, people reach for love and contact with others. There is something really georgeous about that.”
As part of her research for A Holy Show, Janet interviewed one of the passengers from Flight 164. “He was very wry about it all,” she says. “He spoke fluent French, and the rescuers were calling for anyone who spoke French. I asked him, ‘Did you talk to them?’ and he said, ‘No! They caught me at a bad time.’”
'Religion can be damaging, but it can also be a great moral guide to life. Whatever you believe, just be kind, that the idea at the heart of this play'
After an eight-hour standoff, during which Downey released 11 of his 112 hostages, French special forces stormed the plane and apprehended the hijacker. No shots were fired and no-one was injured. Afterwards it emerged that Downey was being sought by police in Australia in connection with a $70,000 fraud incident. He was also wanted in Ireland for alleged assault. He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison for air piracy. The Vatican would not release the text of the Third Secret until 2000.
Downey was the subject of a documentary, The Holy Hijacker, directed by Column Stapleton, who Janet spoke to in the course of her research. “He was very interesting,” says Janet. “He said Downey was 95 per cent great company, good fun, women loved him, but five per cent of him was so locked on the Third Secret. He had a complicated and troubled background. He was facing fraud charges for trying to raise a mercenary army, yet he took over the plane without being armed. The chances of him hurting anyone were small, but it was still a hijacking.”
However, it is the passengers who are at the heart of A Holy Show, and it is through them that, not only the humour, but also the humanity of the play, shines forth. It also allowed the author to look at the power of religion can wield, for both good and ill.
“I look at a cross section of people on the plane so audiences have someone they can recognise themselves in,” says Janet. “The passengers allow us to look at how people fare in extreme situations and under pressure. I don’t have religious faith myself, but I respect people who do. Religion can be damaging, but it can also be a great moral guide to life. Whatever you believe, just be kind, that the idea at the heart of this play.”
A Holy Show has already enjoyed successful runs at the Edinburgh and Dublin fringe festivals, and its Galway show will be part of its first nationwide tour, after which it goes to Paris for two nights. Understandably, Janet is excited by the success so far and the tour to come.
“I’m only starting to really enjoy it now, because after the first performances, you never quite feel the work is done, there is still more to do. For this tour, I’m starting to relax a little now. We have a new cast who are fantastic, and we’re really looking forward to bringing it around the country. I feel very lucky,” she says, before adding, slightly mischievously, “I feel very blessed.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall (091 – 569777, www.tht.ie ).