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  • Chris O'Rourke

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Fast friends craft a terrible beauty in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme


The inclusion of Frank McGuinness’s “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” as part of The Abbey Theatre’s “Waking The Nation” programme commemorating 1916 and the intervening years, is something of a no brainer. As well as referencing the events of 1916, it also pays tribute to the many Irishmen who died at the Battle of the Somme that same year. Less noticeable perhaps it also, without shouting it from the mountain top, honours the Abbey’s role in addressing questions about Irishness and Irish identity. First produced in 1985 and staged at The Abbey, this play about eight Catholic hating, Protestant Unionists as they prepare to fight for King, country and a British Ulster, was posing big questions a mere thirteen years after the events of Bloody Sunday, four years after the H Block Hunger Strikes and eight years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. But perhaps the most important reason for its inclusion is it’s a damn fine play, which is well served in this truly outstanding production.

From the outset McGuinness puts paid to any notion of “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” being any kind of exercise in voyeuristic war porn. “To remember for your sake” is not the point, rather it is to make peace with ghosts, resisting memory till it can no longer be denied. The elder Pyper, in a searing monologue, sets the context for what follows as his younger self and seven other men enlist, fight and prepare to die in the trenches of the Somme Throughout, their humanity is writ large, a humanity that transcends the political and religious fervour which drove them to war. Their sense of camaraderie dominates, of men seeking a purpose larger than themselves, as boys play at being men playing at being boys, fighting with imaginary lances on imaginary white horses in the death filled trenches beneath a blood red sky.

Director Jeremy Herrin ensures this sense of camaraderie permeates all aspects of “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” with key technicians seeming to function as an ensemble. The ménage a trois of Ciaran Bagnall’s impressive set design, Paul Keogan’s wonderful lighting design, with the bombing and candlelight scene being particularly stunning, and Niamh Lunny’s terrific costume designs is mesmerising, evoking an atmosphere beyond the facts of time and place. Again, camaraderie seems to spill over into one of the finest ensemble performances of recent memory in the shape of Donal Gallery as Kenneth Piper, Ryan Donaldson as David Craig, Iarla McGowan as John Millen, Chris McCurry as William Moore, Marcus Lamb as Christopher Roulston, Johnyy Holden as Martin Crawford, Andy Kellegher as George Anderson and Paul Kennedy as Nat Mcllwaine and Sean McGinley as Old Kenneth Piper. Individually, in pairs or competing duos, or collectively, Herrin elicits some excellent performances from his eight strong cast. As all sing stirringly before entering the fray, it is hairs on the back of your neck good.

McGuinness’s magnificent masterpiece still poses big questions today about Irish identity, and Irish theatre, particularly when viewed in light of #wakingthefeminists much needed shaking of the male dominated theatrical foundations. Yes, it’s an all-male play, but the point of the much needed redress of the lack of woman’s voices in the Abbey’s programme, and Irish theatre generally, is not to silence the male voice, but to make an equal space for women’s voices. Granted, males voices need to make way, and its imperative programmers be more selective in choosing works that give voice to the stories of women and others whose voices often remain unheard. But whatever works must inevitably, and rightly, give way, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” should never be one of them. Indeed, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” asks big questions about what it means to be men as much as what it means to be Irish. And as director Jeremy Herrin makes plain in this excellent production, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” is a dynamite piece of theatre.​

“Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” by Frank McGuinness runs at The Abbey Theatre until September 24th.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre

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