AN TAIBHDHEARC has made some excellent contributions to the arts festival over recent years and this year’s production from the company is Sighle Ní Chonaill’s Maum, which recreates the events around the notorious Maumtrasna murders of 1882 where five members of one family were brutally slaughtered in their home.
The crime occurred against a background of agrarian violence and bitter family feuds. On the basis of evidence from informers (subsequently shown to be highly dubious ) a number of men were arrested and subsequently taken to Dublin for trial. Though the defendants spoke only Gaeilge, the proceedings were conducted in English; the authorities were determined to secure convictions and all evidence in support of the defence was disregarded; three of the accused were hanged and the other eight were sentenced to penal servitude for life.
With its cast of 21, Maum is ambitious in scale and director Diarmuid de Faoite marshals his actors effectively. Dara McGee’s set comprises large, irregular, slabs of gray, evoking the rocks of Connemara. The play opens with a gang of masked men committing the murder and follows through all the stages of the story thereafter; the arrests, accusations, trial, and convictions. It vividly evokes the atmosphere of poisonous inter-family feuds which led to informers accepting lavish payments from the police to concoct incriminating stories against people who were their own neighbours and cousins.
Principal characters include Paidin Joyce (Colm Joe McDonnacha ), Myles Joyce (Sean O’Tarpaigh ), Tom Joyce (Colm O’Fatharta ), the defence barrister Henry Munroe (Eoin Geoghegan ), the prosecuting counsel Percy Hawthorne (David Heap ), and the judge (Rod Goodall ).
While I am not familiar with all the details of the historical case, some aspects of the story have been simplified or edited for the purposes of the play, yet it remains a largely faithful retelling of one of the most shocking murder cases in the annals of Irish criminology. Perhaps it does not rise above the level of documentary in the way that a play like The Crucible does, but the audible gasps from the audience at a key moment of defendants’ pleas in court indicates that it absorbed people’s attention.