In May of this year, the veteran Socialist activist Eamonn McCann was elected to the Stormont Assembly as MLA for the Foyle constituency. It was a remarkable achievement, all the more impressive given the election of his People Before Profit colleague Gerry Carroll in West Belfast. At 29, Carroll’s political education came from campaigns like that against the Iraq War. For McCann, it was the Civil Rights movement that erupted in the North of Ireland in the late 1960s that would influence the course of his life to come.
On September 17 1970, there was widespread condemnation in the press for the actions of McCann at the Peacock Theatre (affiliated with and hosted by the Abbey), when he interrupted a performance he believed made a mockery of the worsening political situation in Ulster. ‘A State of Chassis’, described in the press as a “satirical revue”, was the work of the Abbey’s artistic director, Tomás Mac Anna, and the Belfast journalist John D. Stewart. It was not the first production in the history of the Abbey to be interrupted, but it was a reminder to many in the south of the tensions at play in northern society.
Before the performance, McCann distributed leaflets outside the theatre appealing for funds for the defence of Frank Roche, who had caused quite a stir by throwing C.S gas canisters into the House of Commons. As D.R O’Connor Lysaght noted in an article at the time of Frank’s passing in 1993, this act “caught people’s imagination, angered the Establishment and, without killing anyone, made its point, as Frank put it, that ‘that’s what it’s like, you bastards.'”
What irked McCann and others about the performance in the Peacock was the caricature of Bernadette Devlin. At only 21 years of age, Devlin had been elected to the House of Commons in 1969. In that same year, she published The Price of My Soul, a book that remains essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in Ulster. Devlin argued for a class-based approach, maintaining that “we refused to accept the politicians’ logic that the problem could be seen in terms of Catholic versus Protestant.” McCann, Devlin and those around them were young, yet their political ideas had developed well beyond the traditional camps in Ulster. They were internationalist in outlook, and saw events in Ulster in the context of an international movement for Civil Rights.
As the actors re-emerged following the interval, McCann seized the moment and took to the stage. It wasn’t long before one of the ushers had dragged him from it, though he told the crowed “I object to this production.” Among other calls from the audience, “go to hell” and “throw him out!” were reported, but McCann succeeded in freeing himself and taking to the stage again. When a woman shouted that “the only solution is non-violence”, McCann retorted “non-violence my arse – tell that to the imperialists!” One of those with McCann on the night was Máirín Keegan, photographed above. Keegan had been in Paris during the student revolt of 1968. and had participated in the Civil Rights demonstration march from Belfast to Derry in 1969. Organised by People’s Democracy, the march was viciously assaulted by loyalists at Burntollet. To her, as to McCann, the northern issue was a very real one.
In the lobby before he had taken to the stage, McCann told a journalist that:
This is on-going politics. This is not history. It is going on now and it is not possible to say that these are showy figures without relevance. There is no humour in it. They have made humorous statements, but what they are talking about should not be for laughter and delectation of the first-night people in Dublin.
McCann was not the only northern political figure in attendance. Paddy Devlin and John Hume, both elected MP’s, thought little of the work. Lelia Doolan, a former RTE employee who had recently resigned from the station, supported McCann and maintained that “the day we lampoon the North should be the day after we can adequately lampoon the South.”
Desmond Rushe, drama critic at the Independent, attacked McCann for the “worst performance of the night”, writing that McCann “apparently holds that we should not laugh at Miss Devlin.” MacAnna, one of those behind the work, defended it on the basis that “when we laugh, we laugh that we may not weep.”
The protest of McCann and those with him in the Peacock made many uncomfortable, but that was the aim. They believed that the worsening situation in Ulster was not one to be ridiculed, and it opened up questions about how the arts in the South would and should respond to the events in the North. Many would actively ignore developments mere hours away in the years ahead, while some galleries and theatres sought to shake people from what the artist Bobby Ballagh would call “self-protective apathy.” His response to the Bloody Sunday massacre of innocent protestors, presented on the first night of The Exhibition of Living Art on 1972, demonstrated just how much had changed in Ireland in the short period of time between ‘A State of Chassis’ and then: