‘We’re not real Protestants and Catholics are we?’ jokes a Belfast man in Owen McCafferty’s excellent new play. Joined by his friends in his garden, high on the hill, they’re waiting for the Eleventh Night bonfire to spark.
For Gerry (an acerbic Frankie McCafferty) and wife Rosemary (Cara Kelly), both Catholic, old labels are for old troubles. The bonfire, a spectacle of Ulster loyalism, is now to be enjoyed with e-cigarette in one hand and wineglass in the other. You could be fooled for thinking things have moved on.
Resolution, of course, isn’t that simple. Such is the detail of director Jimmy Fay’s absorbing production for the Lyric Theatre and the Abbey that its scene, a garden deck, suggests more than luxury. As the inhabitants debate the bonfire and renovating the garden shed, middle-class wealth, long after the chaotic days of the Troubles, is profoundly seen wrapped up in desire for self-invention. But at what cost?
When Kelly’s Rosemary fills with hope at recalling the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, she drifts into disappointment: ‘I never thought there’d be as many houses’. Her vision for post-conflict Belfast didn’t include social housing. Tom (Ruairi Conaghan), arriving with his wife Maggie (a sharp Ali White), both Protestant, later says there is no longer difference between Ireland and England; they’re both ‘western capitalist countries’ where people from further afield should know their place. Prejudice has clearly taken on new forms.
This private refuge, however, may go up in flames before the bonfire does. McCafferty’s party, recalling the delirium of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, becomes absurd with drink, song and dance. Two guests speak in a private language that agitates the other two. One unguarded comment and old divisions could resurface.
There is no greater tragedy in McCafferty’s drama than lives robbed by the Troubles. You’ll feel for Conaghan’s nicely judged Tom when he describes the majority being ‘hijacked’ by an extremist minority. His insistence that it’s happening again – this time it’s the working class ruining the state – is incredibly stark.
It’s striking to think that memories of the Troubles could be the source of non-sectarian prejudices in the present. As flawed as these figures are, there’s something immensely sad watching them. Despite having lived through the conflict from a distance, they’ve rehearsed conflict and resolution for decades. From separation to reunion, their painfully fragmented lives carry on.
Fire Below (A War of Words) is on until 18 November 2017 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.