The Past As Prologue
1978, and The Boomtown Rats become the first Irish band to top the British charts with their number one hit, Rat Trap, a searing indictment of the intolerable conditions facing young people in Dublin. Wild, irreverent, refusing to be confined within the old ways, The Rats embodied the restless energy of a new, confident, defiant youth that would go on to shape a different Ireland into the 21st century. 1979, and The Dublin City Ramblers release what became, and remains, a much loved anthem to a fading Dublin with The Rare Auld Times, lamenting the loss of a city, a culture, and the traditional Dublin community. Embracing both these outlooks, “Haughey|Gregory” the latest documentary play by Colin Murphy, sees the opposing forces of the past and future, young and old, the political left and conservative right, going head to head in a battle for the heart and soul of a derelict Dublin in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A time when an unemployed family of four or more, pressed into a one-room tenement without a bathroom, was not so much the exception as the rule in what became known as the North Inner City. A place where the once proud, close knit communities in Sean McDermott Street, Summerhill, Jane Place and Seville Place, to name but a few, found their lives, homes, and cultures being neglected, then eradicated, all in the name of their own best interests.
Covering the years 1978 to 1982, a period which saw three changes in Irish Government, “Haughey|Gregory” chronicles the events surrounding long odds outsider, Tony Gregory, who, upon becoming the newest kid on the political block, negotiated an unprecedented deal with seasoned statesman Charlie Haughey. The deal, which became known as the Gregory Deal, guaranteed significant support, development, and investment for his inner city constituents, many of who were living in conditions of abject poverty, unemployment, and neglect. As an independent TD, with the deciding vote on which party he would support to form the next Government, Gregory found himself in the enviable position of holding all the bargaining chips, or of holding a Government to ransom, depending on which view you take. Selling his vote, or his soul, for his constituents, Gregory initiated a period of hope that aspired to a viable, long-term future for his community. An aspiration that collapsed when Haughey’s government collapsed, and the deal dissolved before all its promises had been fully implemented.
In “Haughey|Gregory”, Colin Murphy manages to pull off a neat trick by making an historical outcome feel like it could still go either way. A feat made more impressive as, dramatically, there’s no real battle to speak off. Rather, it all feels like the final hand in a poker game, one where Gregory knows he’s holding all the chips and Haughey is astute enough to know when he’s been dealt a bad hand. The deal is never in question, nor is the ultimate outcome. Yet attuning then to now, by way of tongue in cheek references to condoms, mobile phones, and leaded petrol, cleverly establishes a direct connection to today’s current socio-political climate. A climate frighteningly similar in several respects. When Haughey announces that ‘a state that fails to provide homes for its people is a state unworthy of the name,’ the present is brought vividly front and centre, and onstage concerns suddenly become uncomfortably immediate and pertinent.
Despite its seriousness, “Haughey|Gregory” delivers it deeply informative history lesson couched in so much humour it becomes irresistible. Even so, its ninety minutes duration could benefit from being tightened a little, as energy lags at times. Shrewdly observant, “Haughey|Gregory” is often most effective when it aims for the heart rather than the head. Reminiscent of Halls Pictorial Weekly in places, “Haughey|Gregory” delivers some incredibly smart laughs, never more so than during the election at the inaugural meeting of the Sinn Féin Stickies.
A clutter of three tables, through which its five strong cast swirl in and out, changing character and scenes quicker than a promise can be broken, captures the wild, whirligig energy and humdrum tedium that makes for a long day in the political life. Murphy’s language cleverly relays it all, from the sleep inducing union speak of comrades and their revolutions that never take place, to everyday Dublin straight talk. Director Conall Morrison conducts as much as directs an impressive cast, who perform with scripts in hand. Moving chaotic energy about with a near symphonic flow, weaving the action around a series of laughably cheap acetates, Morrison’s pace and timing are spot on throughout, even if a slightly shorter script might yield a much sharper impact. Ruairí Heading as Tony Gregory, and Morgan C Jones as Charlie Haughey, both turn in strong performances, with Jones’s hugely impressive Haughey cutting incredibly close to the bone. Peter Coonan, Jonathan White, and Janet Moran, along with Jones and Heading, take on a host of recognized and recognisable characters, supported by clever shifts in costumes by Joan O’Clery. Delivering layered and textured performances, Coonan as Bertie Ahern, White as Garrett Fitzgerald, and Moran as the exasperated Eileen are an absolute joy, with Moran’s long suffering secretary sharply foregrounding women as second class citizens. All wrapped up in a cracking soundtrack presented by sound designers Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty, with the legendary Larry Gogan lending his dulcet DJ vocals to enhance a sense of authenticity.
From acts of political pettiness to big booming personalities, Irish politics is an untidy, chaotic business, and “Haughey|Gregory” doesn’t dress it up any finery. Like Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walsh’s extraordinary Dublin The Heart Of The City, “Haughey|Gregory” is a deeply enjoyable and informative history lesson concerning a crucial time in the city’s history, as well as being extremely relevant to today. In 21st century Dublin where so many are homeless, where Moore Street risks disappearing and a large chunk of Chatham Street is already gone, what the future holds for the city and its citizens looks unclear. Whether its light declines, evolves, or whether its people choose to say this far and no further, it’s impossible to say. Yet “Haughey|Gregory” reminds us that the future can be changed by one passionate individual.
A different Ireland or one all too familiar? In “Haughey|Gregory” Colin Murphy might be trying to reach the future through the past, but it’s a past that serves as a prologue to a history that might well be repeating itself. While Tony Gregory, during his all too short life, won many significant battles, the war still goes on in Inner City Dublin as it has since come to be branded. The home of a once proud community, it’s now a place many see as infested with drugs, criminal gangs, slum landlords and gentrification. Yet even now, a large part of the heart of Dublin still beats there. "Haughey|Gregory” might focus more on politics than the people affected, but it is still a fitting tribute to an underdog and rank outsider, a much loved hero of renown, who took on the establishment for the sake of his community. Thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable, “Haughey|Gregory” is a tale worth telling, and one most certainly worth hearing.
“Haughey|Gregory” by Colin Murphy, directed by Conall Morrison, and produced by Fishamble: The New Play Company, ran at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre from February 8th to 10th. A special performance will take place at Croke Park on February 13th
For more information, visit Fishamble: The New Play Company