EIGHTEEN YEARS after it was first performed, Eamonn Kelly’s uproarious comedy Religious Knowledge is returning to The King’s Head for two reunion performances featuring the original cast of Gerry Conneely, Tommy Tiernan, Gary McSweeney, and Phillip Sweeny, directed, as before, by Fiona Kelly.
Religious Knowledge premiered at The King’s Head in June 1994, and was the quintessential runaway success - playing to packed houses for a series of extended runs over the next two years.
Set in a school classroom in 1970, in the aftermath of Dana’s Eurovision victory, the play gleefully sent up the Christian Brothers’ educational methods and had a sensationally cathartic effect on Galway audiences of the time.
There had been plays and short films about the Christian Brothers before, but they were always dark and brooding, whereas Kelly and co were out for laughs. Reviewing the play at the time for the Galway Advertiser, Jeff O’Connell found it to be “a side-splittingly funny excursion into a Christian Brothers’ classroom back when leather was as important as the textbook in pounding knowledge into reluctant heads”.
As Religious Knowledge prepares to make its eagerly-awaited return, author Eamonn Kelly met up for an afternoon coffee to reflect on the remarkable impact the play had on its audiences.
“It soon became clear to all involved that the show’s effect seemed far greater than the sum of its parts,” he observes. “A cult audience developed. Religious Knowledge had hit a raw nerve in its audience’s psyche. Or more accurately, a raw funny bone.
“The response was phenomenal. People came to see the show time and again. One man, a regular, came in one day and said, almost apologetically, ‘This is my 15th time.’ Another group of regulars were Grow, the group for depression sufferers who regarded the show as the best therapy in town.”
During the show’s run, the cast would often drum up business by doing pre-show walkabouts in character on Shop Street - an activity which soon developed into something of a show in itself.
Kelly recalls: “I saw them in Easons one day, the ‘schoolboys’ reading the comics and Gerry Conneely as the Brother hunting them out. Another day a group of American tourists saw them on the street and one of them yelled ‘There they are!’ They had a tourist magazine from America with a photograph of the cast taken by someone the summer before.”
Even though Religious Knowledge was a comedy first and foremost, it still connected powerfully with many people’s painful memories of their own schooldays and experiences of abuse, and the play was also being performed around the same time the clerical sex abuse scandals were beginning to break.
“Looking back it seems to me now that Religious Knowledge had somehow ‘bumbled blindly’ into the zeitgeist, delivering laughs rather than outrage,” Kelly suggests. “It’s almost a cliché in theatre circles to say that the audience cried with laughter. But in this case it was true, the audiences really did cry with laughter.
“Every day someone underwent some form of gasping laughter-induced release of painful memories in the unlikely setting of The King’s Head. After each show stories of the Christian Brothers’ experience were told and retold. Occasionally an audience member would sit stony-faced, empathising with the ‘pupils’ and reliving their own anger.
“It was not uncommon for an audience member to come backstage after the show to meet and thank the actors. One man, from Australia, broke down crying in the dressing room as he recounted his experiences.”
Kelly admits there was a measure of personal indignation behind the writing of the play.
“I remember we had a Brother who did teach us ‘All Kinds Of Everything’ at school and he was crazy so I drew on that to an extent,” says Kelly. “But I also think the culture tends to concentrate on the extreme abuse cases and ignore the more casual putdowns that everyone endured.
“Being withered by sarcasm on a daily basis in your formative years can’t be great for anyone's confidence. So I see a line from this to a general national lack of confidence to the role of alcohol in Irish society. Put simply, I believe the entire culture was left a little bit twisted, in both senses, by the church’s power.
“In that sense Religious Knowledge is a response, through ridicule, to the type of nonsensical madness I experienced as a child. I guess it’s this mild form of abuse, if you like, which so many people could relate to.”
The show’s audiences occasionally even included a Christian Brother or two, as Kelly recalls;
“A Christian Brother who had kindly loaned us his soutane for the show came along one day and said ‘It was a bit close to the bone.’ But a few days later he was back with another two Brothers and they all enjoyed it thoroughly. I remember when he came the second time, he sat side-on to the stage not really watching the actors, he just wanted to see the reactions of the other two Brothers.”
One of the show’s most ardent fans was The King’s Head’s own Paul Grealish - he and three of the pub’s barmen once did their own rendition of the play at a house party, having memorised the lines from seeing it so often. It was Grealish who set the ball rolling about putting the play on again.
“It happened out of the blue really,” Kelly explains. “Paul rang me a few weeks ago to suggest it, he’d already talked to Tommy and Tommy was very keen to do it. So we all got together and at the first rehearsal it became apparent that everyone still remembered all their moves and deliveries due to the show having been performed so frequently all those years ago.
“It feels like a school reunion! Hopefully we’ll be joined for the reunion production by many of the ‘regulars’ who contributed to making the show such a joy and success back then, along with people who may not have seen it and who will, no doubt, get some idea of the pure craic we knocked out of one of Ireland’s darker episodes.”
Religious Knowledge is on at The King’s Head on Monday January 9 and Tuesday January 10. Tickets are €10 and available from the venue.