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Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme


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A: Frank McGuinness Pf: 1985, Dublin Pb: 1986 G: Hist. drama in 4 acts S: Ulster, c.1980 and c.1915; the Somme battlefield, 1916 C: 9mKenneth Pyper, an Ulster veteran of the First World War, reminisces about the War and compares it to contemporary violence in Ulster: ‘Why we let ourselves be led to extermination? In the end, we were not led, we led ourselves.’ Eight Ulster volunteers assemble in a barracks on a training camp: they are all determined to fight for Ulster and turn on Crawford, when he is suspected of being Catholic. Pyper, a mad, rebellious character, deliberately cuts his hand and holds it up as the Red Hand of Ulster. On leave from the War, the eight men pair off: two row out to an island together; two pray in a Protestant church; one challenges his partner to cross a rope-bridge; two Belfast men, who missed the Orange parade, now march to ‘The Field’. The groups then intermingle as though in a dream, and Pyper, a former sculptor, especially becomes aware of the burden of tradition weighing on them all: ‘my hands…were not mine but the hands of my ancestors, interfering’. Waiting in a trench for the Battle of the Somme to begin, the men re-enact the Battle of the Boyne, and, disturbingly, King James ‘wins’. Donning orange sashes, the men go into battle. Only Pyper survives.

A: Frank McGuinness Pf: 1985, Dublin Pb: 1986 G: Hist. drama in 4 acts S: Ulster, c.1980 and c.1915; the Somme battlefield, 1916 C: 9m

It is remarkable that a Southern Irish Catholic should write arguably the finest play to celebrate the bravery of Northern Irish Protestants. McGuinness's play tellingly relates the devastation of the First World War to contemporary events in Ireland, and the piece was revived by the Abbey Theatre in 1994 as a contribution to the Peace Process. Even outside its immediate political context, the play's potent language and effective time-shifts deservedly made it the winner of many awards.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Authors

Frank McGuinness (b. 1953)


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