FOLLOWING ITS world premiere production last year, the smash hit sell-out show Guerilla Days in Ireland is now coming to the Town Hall Theatre. It tells the gripping story of Tom Barry, legendary commander of the IRA’s West Cork Flying Column in the War of Independence. The play is adapted by Neil Pearson from Barry’s classic memoir, Guerilla Days in Ireland, published in 1949 and one of the finest first-hand accounts of this momentous period in Irish history.
Tom Barry was born in 1897, in Killorglin, Co Kerry, where his father was an RIC policeman. A few years later his father left the police and the family moved to Roscarbery, in Cork, and it was here and in Bandon that Barry grew up. In 1915, aged just 17, Barry’s thirst for adventure saw him enlist in the British army and head off to the Great War where, serving in the artillery, he saw action in Egypt, Palestine, Russia, Italy and France. It was while he was fighting in Iraq that Barry first heard of the Easter Rising, which was to become the pivotal moment of his life.
In 1920, soon after his return to Cork, Barry joined the IRA. His leadership skills and military acumen were quickly apparent and he soon rose to the rank of Commander of the Flying Column. Barry’s West Cork Brigade became famous for its discipline and efficiency while he himself gained a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war. The British army stationed more than 12,000 troops in Cork during the war while Barry’s forces numbered little more than 300 yet eventually Barry’s tactics made West Cork ungovernable for the British authorities.
A tale of derring-do
So how did writer and director Neil Pearson go about bringing, this ‘tale of derring-do’ as he himself calls it, to the stage? Ahead of the play’s Galway visit he described the process of adapting the story. “When I first read the book I was struck by how vivid and gritty the writing was and I wanted very much to stay true to its spirit,” he begins. “I originally started writing it as a monologue but that wasn’t really working. Then I came up with the idea of having two Barrys, an older Barry and a younger Barry with the older man reflecting on what happened and the younger one in the midst of it, and both could narrate the story and relate their experiences and feelings in the moment. When I did that the script just took off.”
“The play begins with what you might call a mime or dumbshow,” Pearson continues. “ It opens on a set that sort of represents a graveyard and ghosts - ghosts are very important as a theme in this. Two actors come on in this eery light and they place costume items on these crosses, and the crosses have cloth over them which makes them look almost like ghosts. Then the two Barrys come on and the elder goes to a desk down front and he opens with what is basically the start of the book where he talks about Babylon, Baghdad and the Garden of Eden. Little scenes are played out behind him as he gives the full sweep of the period from 1916 to the end of World War I and arriving back in Cork. It only takes a few minutes but we have clips from the British Film Institute of the 1916 Rising, and of the burning of Cork. It’s quite epic and we try to bring people into the history of this era. The way the set is designed Barry’s desk is connected to this raked stage so it’s as if from his position by his desk, where he is remembering these things, everything else flows and is created by his memory.”
The story may have an epic sweep but, remarkably, Pearson’s stage version uses only four actors. How did he manage to portray key events such as the famous ambush at Kilmichael, or the major engagement at Crossbarry, where Barry’s column of some 100 men defeated an attempt to encircle them by more than 1,300 British troops? “Each battle had to be done differently, you can’t have them done exactly the same way.” Pearson replies. “With Kilmichael we have three actors in the battle and one commentator, that’s a highly physicalised piece with strobe lights and other effects so it’s part narrated and part being ‘lived through’. With Crossbarry, there is an awful lot to describe because you have men coming from different directions and different British forces are varying distances away, and so on. I thought maybe it was better not to get into all of that and what that ended up being was a speech. We set it up that they are waiting at Crossbarry, the battle kicks off and then Barry, as we see the others firing, and they are in this light which gives them a kind of iconic look, he gives a rousing speech about what is happening and that fills in the details for us.”
‘Into the mire’
Barry himself wrote how he had to lead his men ‘down into the mire’ as the conflict became increasingly vicious and nor does the play shrink from the war’s brutality, as Pearson reveals. “Early on, we see two Volunteers who start off being somewhat innocent but by the time we reach the third act, they are hard-bitten killers. We can also see this story arc for Tom Barry where he starts off saying he would never play the dirty tricks the British would but by the end of Act 1 he’s saying ‘we have to shoot the British on sight’. He’s going down into the mire himself and they start doing exactly what the British are doing, right down to burning people’s homes. In Act 3 there is a dark night of the soul moment where older Barry and younger Barry have a face to face and the older man advises the younger that ‘if you continue along this path, you’ll be consumed by it; you need to fight the enemy blow for blow but you also need to hold on to the idea of mercy’.”
Guerilla Days in Ireland has proved a huge hit with audiences, gaining standing ovations nearly every night. Clearly the story resonates with a modern audience and Pearson contends that people are moved by the selfless dedication of Barry’s men, which stands in stark contrast to the materialism and greed of more recent times. “While I’m standing there watching it you feel like you’re sharing something with the audience that something in them wanted and needed to hear,” he declares. “It doesn’t feel like they’re just being told a story, it feels like there is some sort of catharsis going on. It’s a play that speaks to the heart as well as the intellect. One of the speeches Barry gives is about the men of Kilmichael and what they had just been through, the fact that they had walked 36 miles, they hadn’t eaten in nearly a day but there was never a complaint from any one of them, and he calls them the true patriots of Ireland. That, to me, is like a response to the bankers of today and to the Celtic Tiger. This wasn’t just about presenting the history, it’s about saying ‘look what these people did, what they sacrificed.’”
Guerilla Days in Ireland features Brendan Conroy as the older Tom Barry and Aidan O’Hare as the younger, and completing the cast are Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh. The play runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday, September 11 to Saturday, September 15 at 8pm nightly.