Research Diaries #2: My Thesis on Stage: Authentic Representation of Northern Ireland in Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’

One of the more enjoyable aspects of my PhD research, which focuses on Irish poetry, is the time I spend catching up on contemporary literature and culture which takes Ireland as its subject matter. A particularly striking recent example has been Jez Butterworth’s critically acclaimed new play The Ferryman, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre before transferring to the West End. The play, which revolves around a Catholic farming family in rural Armagh, takes the Northern Irish Troubles as its theme. Loosely based on the experience of one of its original lead actresses, Laura Donnelly, whose uncle was disappeared by the IRA, it explores the recovery of the body of a long missing man and its effect on his brother’s large family, with whom his wife and son have gone to live after his disappearance. The upheaval of Seamus Carney’s body, discovered in a bog over the border, brings with it a series of further upheavals and revelations: that of his widow Caitlin’s love for Quinn, her married brother-in-law; of Quinn’s past in the IRA, a cause given up for the sake of his family; and of the suspicious circumstances of Seamus’s death, from which Quinn’s former IRA companions are determined to distance themselves. The result is a compelling exploration and indictment of the culture of secrecy and silence which pervaded Northern Ireland during the Troubles, physically represented in the form of Quinn’s wife, Mary, whose refusal to discuss the slow deterioration of their marriage has manifested itself as a sickness which leaves her bed bound.

However, critics have pointed out the extent to which Butterworth, who, despite his Irish heritage, was born and brought up in England, deploys a series of Irish stereotypes in service of the broader themes of the play, as well as for reasons of comic value. Sean O’Hagan’s recent piece in The Guardian was at the forefront of this criticism, emphasising the paddywhackery inherent in scenes of heavy drinking, invocations of fairy lore, and spontaneous eruptions of traditional Irish song and dance. Despite the acclaim of the play’s London audiences, Butterworth’s attempts to evoke the atmosphere and culture of Northern Ireland in 1981 do not necessarily speak faithfully to the true experiences of those who witnessed it first hand, and the play’s Northern Irish setting runs the risk of becoming a vehicle for a set of themes rather than a subject of scrutiny in and of itself.

These issues rang particularly true for me with regards to the issues that frequently appear in my research work. My thesis covers an unwieldy array of poetry written across Ireland, ranging from the late nineteenth century to the present day, and the justification for my grouping of this material along national lines easily lends itself to the kinds of generalisations which are better avoided. There is ample potential for the same pitfalls to which contemporary depictions of Irish culture frequently fall prey – the risk of falling into generalised, monolithic conceptions of ‘Irishness’, of being diverted by cliché and expectation away from a truthful reckoning of the intricacies and multifariousness of Irish literary voices. The Ferryman, and its reception, served me with a crucial reminder to emphasise nuance instead of the allure of neater, overarching conclusions, and to avoid the temptation to tie up a vast range of experiences into a single grand narrative.

Erin Cunningham is a second year PhD student in the English department at King’s College London, and her research examines the sonnet in Irish poetry from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

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