Anthropologist Michael Taussig has observed that societies that are violently subjected to petroleum extraction often give rise to fantastic or supernatural myths of oil, such as a pact with the devil. Ailliliú Fionnuala is the first play to emerge in Ireland about the impact of the Shell Corrib Gas Project on the people of western Mayo and their concerted resistance for over a decade to the building of a dangerous high-pressure raw gas pipeline across local land. Written and performed by Donal O’Kelly, the one-act play turns around a supernatural geas placed on its protagonist, Ambrose Keogh, a PR executive who works for Shell, which compels him to perpetually recite the truth about the multinational oil corporation’s atrocities and human rights abuses, even as he is locked in the bowels of a Shell office, far from hearing ears.
If previous films about the Shell to Sea movement such as the acclaimed The Pipe have elected documentary realism, in his play, O’Kelly opts instead for the fantastic, reworking Irish folklore in order to narrate a reality so grotesque as to seem unreal. In particularly, he reclaims the legend of the Children of Lir, portraying Keogh as cursed by the swan Fionnuala to be truthful or die. This is a clever jab at Shell’s marketing campaign for the most recent phase of pipeline and refinery construction, which draped Mayo Gaelic Football colours across its machinery and named its giant tunnel boring machine Fionnuala, in a cheap bid to evoke regional sympathies.
One rain-lashed night, when Ambrose seeks to invade the Rossport Solidarity Camp and threaten activist Malachy Downs, he is confronted instead by the ghostly apparition of Fionnuala and the children of Lir, who protests the appropriation of her names and insists that he confess his role in the brutal beating of Willie Corduff, a local farmer and one of the Rossport 5 who were unjustly incarcerated by the Irish state for striving to protect their own community. It was his group of mercenaries, clad in balaclavas and armed with rubber batons and boots, who set upon Corduff, attempting to achieve “ICA” (induced cardiac arrest).
Ambrose is the head of a shadowy division that oversees public relations, privatized security forces, and brown envelope agreements with the Irish state; his sur-name, as Fionnuala hisses, is the Irish for fog, the element in which he operates. As such he is an emblem of the deliberate tactics of obfuscation employed by both state and corporations, but also an indictment of the silences in the Irish mainstream media’s coverage of the Corrib gas dispute. As his confession unspools, it becomes clear that Ambrose’s role in obfuscating the truth is not limited to Royal Dutch Shell, but linked to a greater culture of complicity with powerful institutions, as the traumas of his childhood in a Catholic boy’s school are revealed.
O’Kelly’s script is dynamic and witty, full of wordplay and intertextual allusions, while also evoking shivers of pathos and the uncanny. His performance is mesmerizing, changing effortlessly between the voice of slippery Ambrose, the eerie hiss of swan and ghost, the quiet dignity of Malachy. In centring on the supernatural figure of the damned corporate executive, the play somewhat limits its capacity to dramatize the experience of local people and activists, but nonetheless gestures powerfully to an ongoing tradition of resistance and protest. A one-man play that is thoroughly entertaining while still packing a punch, this production deserves a future revival and a longer run.