As Marilyn Richtarik states in the opening lines of her remarkable book, the town of Belfast during the 1970s and ‘80s was one of the most inauspicious places in the world for an intellectually and socially committed, boldly adventurous dramatist like Stewart Parker to make his mark.
I experienced the city during two extended visits as guest director at the Lyric Theatre, the leading professional theatre in Northern Ireland. Virtually every facet of life felt tainted by the suspicion and strife between the loyalist Protestant community that had exercised iron-fisted control over politics, government, finance, education, social services and employment since the founding of the state in 1921, and the nationalist Catholic community that had never accepted a partition dividing it from an imagined spiritual home in the Republic of Ireland.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association, inspired by a similar movement in the American South, began to demonstrate peacefully but firmly against the wrongs done to the Catholic minority. Instead of reasonably responding to their grievance, the right wing of the Unionist Party dug in its heels and encouraged supporters, many of them lawless thugs, to exert violent means to silence the demonstrators and their cause.
By August 1969, at the height of the “marching season” during which loyalists traditionally celebrate historic Protestant victories (along with their continued ascendency over Catholics), sectarian disturbances between the two communities became so intense that the government asked Westminster to send troops to restore order. At first, Catholics welcomed the British Army as defenders against the brutal tactics of Northern Ireland’s corrupt and unruly police force. In a short time, however, the equally brutal behavior of British soldiers towards Catholics made them symbols of the very authoritarianism the civil rights movement resisted.
The conflict escalated to another level of discord with the emergence of the Irish Republican Army as the legitimate protector of Catholic interests. Soon, the IRA turned a once non-violent protest movement into a revolutionary campaign designed to remove the British presence in Northern Ireland by any means possible, including physical force.
Violence quickly became the modus operandi on both sides of the sectarian divide, one bloody act of terrorism succeeded by another in reprisal. The center of Belfast during my time there in the late 1970s was a No Man’s Land surrounded by barbed wire. One entered through checkpoints guarded by soldiers. Ordinary people proceeded with their lives as best they could.
One lunch time during a break from rehearsals, I took a walk. Suddenly I became aware of a young soldier hidden in the bushes across the street, his rifle pointed at my head. As I stopped in alarm, he suddenly grinned. Like a teen-aged bully, he continued to exert his power, brandishing his rifle as I went on my way.
Another morning, I came to rehearsal to find a huddle of nervous actors discussing the murder of two soldiers the night before only blocks from the theatre. Foolishly, the soldiers had accepted an invitation from a couple of girls to visit their room. Within moments of their arrival, the door crashed open. Masked gunmen opened fire. The IRA added another couple of enemy casualties to its bloody list.
As I also soon learned, politics heavily determined the repertoire of the Lyric Theatre, like everything else in Northern Ireland.
I had been invited to direct a group of plays by William Butler Yeats, a dramatist with a long association at the Lyric. I suggested we produce Cathleen ni Houlihan, an early play of the Irish Revival usually interpreted as an inspiration of the 1916 Easter Rising, though I read it as a much more ambiguous message about violence as an agent of political change. The board of directors issued fierce objections, but eventually the theatre approved my choice. The production did what I hoped it would, provoking criticism from both nationalists and loyalists. It challenged assumptions about the way things happened in Ireland.
Stewart Parker would have approved, I think.