Sons of War

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A tragic battle is recalled in Frank McGuinness's powerful Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Promotional art for Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Promotional art for Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

What passing bells for those who die like cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns . . .

- Anthem for Doomed Youth
I am the enemy you killed, my friend
- Strange Meeting

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was killed in action on the Western Front at the age of 25, seven days before the November 11 armistice that silenced the monstrous anger of the guns, was one of the great English poets of World War I.

Frank McGuinness, the son of a "bread man," Packie McGuinness, and a mother, Celine, who worked in a shirt factory, was at college when he first experienced Wilfred Owen, and in particular the two poems cited above. It was, says curly-haired McGuinness, a pink and very Irish cherub if ever there was one, the opening to new awareness.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the fierce, poetic and altogether remarkable play by Frank McGuinness that stunned reviewers in London, Montreal, Toronto and has now, 19 years after it was written, found its way to America and to Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, puts us amid the conflicts and friendships (in one instance, more than that) of eight young Northern-Irish Protestants, seven of whom are doomed to be slaughtered like cattle on the front where 16,000 British infantrymen will die between dawn and noon of July 1, 1916, almost precisely on the 226th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

So what's this? An Irish Catholic writing a play, understandingly, wrenchingly, about a collection of Orangemen who despise and mock all Irish Catholics as "Fenians" and "Papists" and worse? Well, not a practicing Catholic, our playwright. "Too many wrongs done," he dryly comments. By the Church, is what is meant. McGuinness, born 1953 in Buncrana, Donegal, "next door to Ulster," had written two earlier dramas, only one of which, Factory Girls, had seen daylight, at Dublin's famed Abbey. "What I wanted [in 1984] was to write a play with a big theme, and this was a subject waiting to be explored. You must remember that in Ireland when I grew up, almost nothing was taught about World Wars I or II. To serve in those wars was regarded as unpatriotic, almost."

But why explore WWI in terms of Ulstermen? "When I was teaching at the University of Ulster" — he teaches now at his alma mater, University College, Dublin — "I discovered that every town in the North of Ireland has a war memorial. Every town. I suddenly realized how deeply WWI had affected every family in Ulster."

The central character of Observe the Sons is a misanthropic type named Pyper, who hales from an aristocratic background — "as I do not. God!" says the McGuinness who was unemployed when, thanks to an Irish Arts Council grant, he wrote this play.

"Pyper can be funny, can be violent, can be dangerous. You'd be amazed how many people believe I based Pyper on them. None correct. He just came along and had his say." Now Frank Guinness has his say — his powerful say — to us.

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