One hundred years after the Easter Rising historians, the media and artists are exploring the Easter event not only from the perspectives of the executed leaders, but try to represent the experiences of the wider Irish society, including women and children. This one-act play follows two sisters who in their own way fought in the rising.
Although, this two-woman-and-a-harp play did not tell me anything new about the failed rebellion with regards to historical facts; it is an entertaining and engaging performance mixing fact and fiction. So far it is the only commemoration adaptation that captured my attention from start to finish.
The two little girls playing Joan of Arc and Queen Méabh made me smile; their teenage sibling rivalries turned them from fictional characters from the past into real people; and even when they finally get into the GPO, where they are initially only allowed to make sandwiches, their gossipy banter and flirtations sometimes lets the audience and the characters themselves for a moment forget that they are in the middle of a war and not at a pyjama party. Comic dialogues and poetry-like monologues together with extracts of a traditional Irish song, accompanied by an on-stage harp, lighten the play up and emphasise the tragedy befalling the family at the same time.
The plain stage setting and costume suits the play, since the hauntingly beautiful girlish voices and the harp which is also used for various sound effects carry the storyline. Other character’s speeches are indicated by both actresses saying their lines together and although it sometimes took them a second to get synchronised, it worked for me.
The O’Farrell sisters Josephine and Gillian are fictional, but their surname pays tribute to Elizabeth O’Farrell, the woman who delivered the surrender note and was subsequently cut out of all pictures depicting this historic defeat. Until recently apart from Constance Markievicz, the contributions of women who fed and hid the rebels and worked as couriers had not been acknowledged. In an interview playwright and actress Christiane Mahony said she based her fictional account on witnesses statements of real women. Thus giving them a voice and remembering them.
The play starts in 1936 when Josie (played by O’Mahony herself) attends the state commemorations and discovers that her younger sister Gill’s name is omitted from the list of those who fought and died during the Rising. Angry and disillusioned Josie begins to tell her and her sister’s story, starting with their dreams and aspirations and their deceased father, who appeared to have lived more for the future republic than for his family and wanted his daughters to be “warrior queens”.
Josie: “I’m not a girl I’m a soldier!”
Gill: “Well you are a girl.”
Josie: “I’m a girl soldier, I have to get in”
Inspired by Constance Markvievitch and Maud Gonne, Josie is enthusiastic about the Irish language and wants to be a soldier. The completely apolitical Gill (played by Roseanne Lynch) on the other hand, has more modest and practical ambitions: She dreams of a beautiful wedding dress and having kids. However, the two sister’s personalities are more complex than it appears at first and as the audience follows them throughout Dublin delivering important messages to the various occupied buildings it becomes obvious that they need each other and that pure “male” strength is not all that is needed in a war.
“Sisters of the Rising” highlights once more the contributions and courage of the women who participated in the Easter Rising of 1916: All the kitchen-helpers, nurses and couriers, who defied conventional gender roles and often their parents’ orders and risked their reputation and their lives to fight for a cause they believed in.
“Women were perfect allies: Armed with charm and unsuspecting; with hiding places like petticoats to carry notes. The words of the leaders hidden in hairdos, puffed out up-dos, and pins. And tucked away in all that splendour a million military messages and that last one to surrender.”
One hundred years on, the contributions of the Irish women who participated in the Easter Rising are finally acknowledged and remembered and their descendents have – at least officially – the same duties and rights as Irishmen.
“Sisters of the Rising” runs for two more performances at the Nun’s Island Theatre as part of the Galway Theatre Festival:
- May 1. 2pm
- May 2. 2pm & 8.30 pm
- Tickets €12 /€10
- Duration 80 min. No interval
- Cast: Christiane O’Mahony and Roseanne Lynch
- Composer: John O’Brien
- Director: Anushka Senanayake
- Lighting and Set Designer: Brian Mitchell
- Producer: Naomi Daly.
Photo copyright Enrique Carnicero