Butterworth’s play (directed by Sam Mendes)—about the Carney clan living on a farm in Northern Ireland in 1981—humanizes the dire effects of the politically-fueled conflict on a humble Irish family. Three generations live underneath one roof: Aunt Pat, Uncle Pat, and Aunt Maggie Faraway; the patriarch Quinn, as well as Mary and Caitlin; the eight children living under their roof and their three Corcoran cousins who come to visit to celebrate the annual Harvest. They’ve all been affected by years of bloodshed in different ways. Against this backdrop, The Ferryman illustrates what it means to be family, what it means to truly love, how we sacrifice, and how we grieve.
If you’ve seen the epic, you might have some questions. And if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to brush up your history and give the proceedings some context for yourself: [SPOILER ALERT SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH] What exactly is the IRA? How dangerous were they and why would they go after their own? Why do some of the characters loathe the British so vehemently? Why are teenagers so eager to join the IRA’s cause? How much of this play reflects the Irish reality?
Here, we break down the backstory of The Ferryman and mark the moments Butterworth weaved into his script:
By the time we enter the Carney household in the summer of 1981, we are at (what we now know to be) the climax of The Troubles. Generally speaking, The Troubles were a conflict lasting more than three decades, beginning with climbing tension between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists in the late 1960s. Many consider the “official” tipping point as 1969 with what became known as the Battle of the Bogside.
When talking of The Troubles, there are essentially three parties: 1. The British, 2. Loyalists (Irish Protestants who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K.), and 3. Nationalists (Irish Catholics who want Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and create a united Ireland).
(NOTE: The United Kingdom consists of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The whole island of Ireland was a nation within the U.K. until 1921, when Ireland split into Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland. Southern Ireland became independent and Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K.)
The Troubles in Ireland—which spilled over into England—marked decades of violence fueled by political affiliations and nationalism that led to the formation of paramilitary organizations, bombings, tit-for-tat killings, and a general state of fear and unrest.
The Carneys are Catholic and—as evidenced by Aunt Pat’s diatribes—are historically republican nationalists. As we learn, Quinn and his brother Seamus have a history as part of the IRA.
(Read more details below, or skip to “The IRA.”)
You can look all the way back to the 1600s to the origins of the Protestant vs. Catholic conflict, which was actually due to land issues—not a clash of religious beliefs. But if you fast forward to the Potato Famine of 1845, we see the first time the Irish want independence from the British. With 1 million dead due to the famine, the Irish blamed the British for the mismanagement and demanded their own Irish Parliament. This eventually led to “Home Rule,” a bill passed in 1912, where the British agreed to a self-governed Ireland within the U.K. But then The Great War (a.k.a. World War I) happened and put that on hold. By 1916, the Irish were fed up and radical Irishmen came out against British rule in the bloody Easter Rising in Dublin.
In 1918, 73 members of the Irish Republican Party were elected to British parliament—a good sign for representation. But instead of showing up in Britain, those 73 people formed their own Irish Parliament in 1919. That sparked the War of Independence and the fight for an independent Ireland. After fighting, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 led to that partition of Northern and Southern Ireland. The problem? The widely Protestant loyalist North still had large pockets of Catholic nationalists living as a minority.
Now that you’ve got that…
In the 1960s, a Civil Rights Movement began in Northern Ireland. Loyalists feared the Movement was just a façade for the IRA to get the united Ireland they wanted. (Remember a united Ireland means leaving the United Kingdom.) Protests led to violence and rumblings. But in 1969 The Troubles truly began when a Protestant parade was set to move through the Catholic area of Derry; jeers between the loyalists and nationalists led the police to enter the situation, violence erupted and we got the Battle of The Bogside.
Eventually, the Brits became a neutral police force in Ireland, but Catholic nationalists felt like the British weren’t protecting them enough. The IRA divided, and a paramilitary segment of the IRA emerged. In 1971, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)—both British state security forces—seek out these paramilitary members of the IRA to intern them. The internment (and reports of torturing those interned) led to reactionary violence, mostly in Northern Ireland.
In the years following, bouts of bloodshed between the IRA and the British as well as the IRA and loyalist paramilitary ensued. In 1972 there was an anti-internment march, supervised by British paratroopers; IRA-sympathizers threw rocks at them and paratroopers opened fire in what became known as Bloody Sunday. So the IRA bombed cars in Belfast; the Army made arrests and raided for bomb equipment, which led to casualties; no-go areas were erected. Then, in 1973, the IRA moved violence across the pond when there was a bombing in London, creating anti-Irish sentiment in England. Then there were loyalist bombings in Ireland. Killings, retaliatory killings, bombings, there seemed no end to the cycle of violence.
The Ferryman picks up in 1981, during the second Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands.
The Irish Republican Army. The IRA falls in the category of nationalists, believing that Northern and Southern Ireland should be united and withdraw from the United Kingdom.
But the IRA gets confusing: There is the “Old IRA” formed around 1917, after the Easter Rising. These are the folks who fought in the Irish War of Independence. The pre-Troubles IRA of 1922–1969 was mainly a political organization that refused to recognize Northern Ireland or the Irish Free State because they considered the lines constructs of British imperialism.
Then in 1969, the IRA split to the Official IRA (OIRA) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). The PIRA saw itself as the successor to the original IRA, which is how they referred to themselves (no “P”). It was a paramilitary organization that wanted to end British rule in Northern Ireland, unite the North and South, and make one, independent, united Ireland. This IRA was deemed a terrorist organization by the U.K. and an unlawful organization in Ireland.
The Hunger Strike
In 1980 there was a Hunger Strike—the first of two. Prisoners of internment, largely people imprisoned because of their links to the IRA (which, remember was deemed terrorist by Britain and illegal by Ireland), were considered prisoners of war. This changed in 1976 when their status changed to that of criminals. Their clothing was taken away and they were given prison uniforms. First, the prisoners refused to wear the uniforms and donned blankets in the “Blanket Protest.” Then they refused to leave their cells, claiming abuse by guards. Then they launched the “Dirty Protest,” smearing excrement in the prison. Finally they led a Hunger Strike, which was called off when the British government agreed to restore their POW status.
But, that stalled. And their POW status never came. So March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands, the IRA’s former officer commanding in the Maze prison, led a second Hunger Strike. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to grant POW status to the strikers, likening them to common criminals. While interned, Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament. He died on the 66th day of the strike: May 5, 1981. Ten strikers died in total.
Michael Devine was the last of the hunger strikers to die—an event that is referenced in The Ferryman. The British felt it was a victory—evidence Thatcher refused to be bullied—but IRA recruitment increased.
The Disappeared refers to people abducted, murdered, and secretly buried by the IRA between 1972–1985. The official list includes 16 people. In 1999, the IRA named nine people it had “disappeared” and elicited official apologies to the families as part of the peace process. The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains was co-founded by the Irish and British governments. As recently as June 2018, they were still searching for three of the Disappeared.
Eugene Simons, one of the Disappeared, was the uncle of Ferryman star Laura Donnelly. He vanished seven months before she was born, in 1981. His body was discovered in a bog three years later.