Guerilla Days in Ireland

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry. Photo: Miki Barlok

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry. Photo: Miki Barlok

Brendan Conroy as Tom Barry. Photo: Miki Barlok

Brendan Conroy as Tom Barry. Photo: Miki Barlok

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry  with Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh in 'Guerilla Days In Ireland'. Photo: Miki Barlok

Aidan O'Hare as Tom Barry with Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh in 'Guerilla Days In Ireland'. Photo: Miki Barlok

Michael Grennell in 'Guerilla Days In Ireland'. Photo: Miki Barlok

Michael Grennell in 'Guerilla Days In Ireland'. Photo: Miki Barlok

In 1949, Tom Barry, a former field commander in the Irish War of Independence, published his memoir, Guerilla Days in Ireland. In it, Barry describes the exploits of the 3rd West Cork Brigade, which had become famous for its discipline, efficiency and bravery. Barry himself had garnered a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war and his autobiography subsequently became both a classic account of the war and an influential guide on guerilla warfare.

Theatre director Neil Pearson, who has adapted Barry’s memoir for the stage, recently described his decision to stage the work as having been prompted by the “great conflict between two unequal forces”, which is at the heart of the former IRA man’s story. “You have the essence of a drama there,” he told Myles Dungan during a recent RTÉ Radio One interview.

Jack Walsh and Aidan O'Hare. Photo: Miki BarlokTom Barry’s story is indeed a dramatic one: the Munster man, with his great shock of wild hair, was only 23 when he was given absolute command of the West Cork Brigade, the appointment partly a result of his warfare experience as a member of the British Army during the first World War. He earned the respect and, finally, the absolute trust of his recruits for his bravery, his ability to organise ambushes, and for his refusal to consider the possibility of retreat. He was close to his men, but also had contacts with the IRA top brass: Michael Collins sought his presence in Dublin in May 1921 and in London during the Treaty negotiations. Later, due to his disagreement with the Treaty terms, Barry became the first prisoner of the Civil War.

However, the success of this production does not depend on the inherent theatrical qualities of Barry’s life, but rather on whether that life has been effectively mined to create good theatre. And if Pearson’s adaptation illustrates anything about drama, theatre and storytelling, it is that it is never easy to take work created in or for a certain medium and transform it into a piece of art that stands on its own within a different arena. The danger, in particular, with trying to rework literature for the stage is that an audience may end up watching a version of - rather than something derived from - the original text: a piece of work that continually and primarily evokes comparisons rather than something that is wholly new.

Although Pearson, who also directs the show, has held fast to Barry’s base text (as evidenced by the name of the play), he has clearly put effort into considering how to extend the work for the stage. Thus the narrative voice is split in two, into the old and young Barry, who most often tell the story in separate monologues, with the younger soldier, played by Aidan O’Hare, also taking part in the action. Pearson then gallops through Barry’s Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh. Photo: Miki Barlokfighting life with a series of mini scenes – the 18-year-old Barry with the British Army at war in Mesopotamia; Barry enlisting with the Irish Volunteers; Barry engaged in different ambushes, including the one in which he was confronted with the enemy’s false surrender – each event teed up by the older Barry (Brendan Conroy) and his wistful narration.

It’s a structure, though, that doesn’t really lead us anywhere dramatically. While the small sequences tend to have individual theatrical merit – some, such as the scene where hats and scarves are placed on inanimate mannequins set about the stage, indicating the lives lost because, as Barry puts it, “we did what we had to do”, have particular resonance – they do not add up to a consequential whole. In other words, this is a play without a plot, or a narrative arc to engage an audience. It is, instead, something of a dramatised biopic – and by the end, one is left wondering why not just read the book instead? Even the decision to embody Barry’s narration offers little in the way of dramatic interest – until near the end, when the old and young Barry engage in direct conversation, indicating the more subtle, evocative routes that could have been explored in this search to put the soldier’s story on stage.

Ultimately, it is left to other aspects of the production – Michael McCabe’s movement direction; Michael Hurley’s lighting, and, most notably, Olan Wrynn’s beautifully surreal set design – to engage fully with the possibilities of theatre and go some way towards making what is, effectively, a staging of an autobiography into a more satisfying and complete dramatic experience.

Rachel Andrews is an arts journalist and critic based in Cork.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Guerilla Days in Ireland by Tom Barry, adapted for stage by Neil Pearson

23 Aug - 03 Sept, 2011

Produced by GDI Productions
In Everyman Palace Theatre

Directed by Neil Pearson

Set Design: Olan Wrynn

Lighting Design: Michael Hurley

Movement Direction: Michael McCabe

With: Brendan Conroy, Aidan O'Hare, Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh