01 May 2006

Drama and trauma of the hunger strikes relived on stage

Daily Ireland


Dialann Ocrais or Diary of a Hunger Strike is one of the best works of theatre to have emerged from the Northern Troubles. Written by Dubliner Peter Sheridan, who started it before the end of 1981, it is a powerfully evocative and emotional play that recreates the drama and tragedy of the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh in which ten republican prisoners lost their lives.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike, the Aisling Ghéar theatre company is producing Diary of a Hunger Strike in Belfast and at various centres around the country throughout the month of May.
Dialann Ocrais/Diary of a Hunger Strike is not a documentary account of the tragic and traumatic events of those months 25 years ago. Rather, the strength of Peter Sheridan’s play lies in its ability to capture the emotion, the trauma, the tragedy and the sheer drama of the hunger strike in an entirely fictional work.
Set in Long Kesh, the play tells the story of Pat O’Connor, the OC of the IRA prisoners. He negotiates a resolution to the hunger strike and no-wash protest in the jail, only to see the agreement reneged upon by the British government. O’Connor then embarks upon a second and ultimately fatal hunger strike himself.
Diary of a Hunger Strike was first produced in 1982 in Hull, England, under the direction of Pam Brighton, now the director of Dubbeljoint Theatre Company. Sheridan then submitted the work to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which duly binned it.
This was the era of section 31, state censorship, the Garda heavy gang and institutional paranoia all over the 26 Counties. Anti-republicanism was considered a parliamentary virtue, and Northern nationalists were ostracised by official diktat.
So the national theatre of Ireland was damned if it was going to produce a play that would leave it open to all sorts of allegations and insinuations about support for the men of violence and fellow travelling. Damned if it was…
I have often wondered how many pages of Diary of a Hunger Strike the powers that be at the Abbey actually read before despatching the manuscript to the corporate waste basket because, apart from being a powerfully evocative drama, the play is one of the fairest and most inclusive pieces of theatre ever written. They probably binned it after seeing that the list of characters included three IRA men. At any rate, it was “no, no, no” as far as the Abbey went.
About three years later, the Abbey contracted a young director called Ray Yeates to head up a short festival of plays in the Celtic languages. Yeates rang Peter Sheridan and told him that, if he got Diary of a Hunger Strike translated into Irish, they could bung it on in the Peacock as part of the Celtic theatre festival and the monoglot big wigs up stairs need never know the difference.
Peter Sheridan contacted me, I translated the play and the bilingual and definitive version of Dialann Ocrais/Diary of a Hunger Strike was born.
Despite being a major hit in that Celtic-language theatre festival, however, the play languished, forgotten and ignored by the mainstream arts in Ireland.
In the late ’80s, I was involved in an amateur production in the Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast and, five years ago, I directed the Aisling Ghéar production that was staged all over the country to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike. Now it’s back.
I am probably talking out of turn here because I have a close association with both the play and the Aisling Ghéar theatre company but, if you have a chance to see this piece, do not miss it.
Dialann Ocrais/Diary of a Hunger Strike is powerful, emotive, evocative and harrowing. It has humour in it that will make you wet yourself. You will get angry, frustrated and you will cry because it is terribly, terribly sad. Perhaps — hopefully — you will understand.
Dialann Ocrais will be on in the Rodaí Mac Corlaí club on west Belfast’s Glen Road this Thursday and in An Droichead in the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast this Saturday. The official opening night in the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich will be on Tuesday, May 9 and it will run nightly there for the rest of the week.
On tour, the play will visit Newry, Donaghmore, Gaoth Dobhair, Mullingar, Dún Laoghaire and Ráth Cairn. Tickets can be obtained by ringing the mobile number 07909 868 110.
If you are interested in finding out exactly how Dialann Ocrais came to be written, come to the Cultúrlann on Sunday, May 14 at 8pm when the author Peter Sheridan will be giving an audience to the public to talk about the play, the hunger strike and the state of Ireland ever since.

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