Director Neil Pearson has come up with a compelling enough adaptation of Tom Barry’s biography for the stage. The story of Barry, a British soldier turned flying column leader during the Irish War of Independence, the men he led and the fights that he led them through, Guerilla Days in Ireland is a fascinating snippet of Irish history, told through one of the periods most famous – or infamous – personalities.
It is a straight enough adaptation of the source material, starting with Barry’s service in Mesopotamia during World War One all the way up to the end of the War of Independence, just as Barry’s account ended. This is a singularly driven story – it is all about Barry and his exploits, with only two scenes in the whole two hours of production lacking his inclusion.
The plot is in three acts. Act One focuses on Barry’s origins in the IRA and his leadership during the Kilmichael ambush. Act Two focuses on the Crossbarry fight and Barry’s growing fame in the region. Act Three focuses on Barry’s interaction with the IRA leadership, both military and political, as the War draws to a close. Told in a semi-flashback form, with an older Barry narrating the actions of his younger self, everything is very linear and straightforward.
That approach has its faults. Guerilla Days isn’t really a story, it’s a biopic: everything is through Barry, with all his prejudices and opinions, and the conclusion is rather flat for a stage play. You do not gain much from this play that you would not gain from simply reading Barry’s book, though I suppose the same might be said in reverse. Things move in a linear fashion and you are unlikely to be greatly astonished by the events that are depicted. The emphasis is on crispy believable dialogue interspersed by actions scenes of a basic nature, competently done if occasionally bordering on the farcical looking. Those of a nationalist persuasion will find the tale on offer enthralling, a stirring epic of a group of underdogs smashing back the British Empire through their ingenuity and sheer grit. Others might simply see a fanatic justifying his war crimes with a tawdry “they started it”, a character intensely hypocritical about his own aims and motivations.
I suppose in that sense, Guerilla Days succeeds in creating a character worth exploring in Barry. Brendan Conroy is the older man, looking back on the events in question from far in the future, commenting on his actions, sometimes engaging with his younger self directly. Aidan O’Hare, the young Barry, is a man often in turmoil, questioning his ability and right to lead, the steps he has to take to force a victory, the superiors who he fears may sell him out. Both men deliver a pleasant Corkonian twang in their words, soaked with the weight of experience in the older man, with the weight of expectation and peril in the younger.
As the play reaches its conclusion Conroy steps more and more into the action directly, as the younger Barry’s train of logic and conscience all at once, questioning, prodding, seeking justification from the young rebel. One gets the very real sense that the older Barry is seeking catharsis for some of his more inhumane acts during the war, and see’s his book, lying written on a table just to side of the main action, as his method, his way of reaching into the past while the ghosts of all his dead comrades swarm around him.
Only two others, Michael Grennell and Jack Walsh, make up the rest of the cast, playing numerous supporting roles, from flying column members to Black and Tans. While their impact in acting terms is limited, they do a fine job of alternating between what is required onstage at any given time. They serve simply to pay off O’Hare, who plays off his older self. Though it should be said that Grennell does a very good General Percival, the sneering villain of the piece, who comes face to face with Barry on a memorable occasion near the conclusion.
The stage and tone of the play is dark, very dark. The few moments of light are violent in nature, the explosions and bangs of warfare onstage, the most spectacular being a bright amber light near the rear that serves the blind the audience and highlight the heroic poses of the individuals fighting for Irish freedom in front. A few snippets of black humour serve to keep the spirits up as we follow Barry and the flying column slowly losing their humanity to the fight they are engaged in, but the whole thing turns very quickly. In a memorable example, Barry disguises himself as a British officer in order to interrogate an ignorantly portrayed loyalist land-owner, a scene played for satirical purposes, until Barry pulls out a gun and executes the man despite his pleas for mercy. Such a dark tone is not inaccurate or un-entertaining, but it is a grim two hours, right down to the maudlin conclusion.
As stated, the Kilmichael ambush is the centrepoint for the first act. While Guerilla Days, as an adaptation of Barry’s written account of that moment, does not deviate from its authors re-telling, it still came as somewhat of a surprise that the controversy over the ambush was not approached in any concrete way. Kilmichael has probably generated more debate than any other incident in the War of Independence, thanks largely to the respective works of the likes of Meda Ryan and Peter Hart, but I suppose it falls outside the remit of a stage play to talk about it, or the serious inconsistencies in Tom Barry’s account of what happened that day. The central issue, the shooting of British soldiers after a surrender – false or otherwise – is brushed aside in favour of sentimental remembrance of the youngest member of the attacking group – 16 year old Pat Deasy, played by Conroy in a strangely effective turn, the older man playing his own tortured memories – who was one of those killed on the Irish side.
Since it is a biography, the bias is clear. The British are the enemy, cartoonish in their antagonism at times. The Irish and column are epic heroes of the highest degree, brave underdogs, gallant fighters, striking back and winning against all odds, never complaining. Barry is the reluctant leader, who only takes on command at the insistence of others. Barry refused, for the most part, to mention the Civil War in his account, deeming it too damaging in terms of potential bias creeping in, but it is impossible to really hide Barry’s eventual anti-Treaty opinions. His opinions of Michael Collins and De Valera, both of whom he meets in person towards the conclusion, are also interesting. Collins is the dashing rouge of romantic remembrance, ironically holding firm to his convictions when refusing British offers of peace (since they would require handing over Barry’s column). “Dev” is the overbearing politician, whom Barry admires for his interest in his activities but suspects deeply for his quest for peace.
The ending, as stated, is sudden and flat, as Barry reacts with shock to the news of the Truce, before vaguely mentioning in a last monologue that this was not the end of his “Guerilla Days”, portrayed as a lament rather than a cliffhanger. As a narrative, the play just isn’t that great, but that is the cost of limiting itself to just the source material. Barry’s experience in the Civil War, as a prisoner, a flying column leader, and later one of those pressing for an end to the war is interesting enough and while Barry may not have gone into great detail on those days himself, it would not be unsuitable ground to cover.
A more proper conclusion comes towards the end in one of the excellent confrontation scenes between the old and the young Barry, as the older man taunts his past self over his initial reason for joining the IRA: wanting petty revenge on a group of fellow British army soldiers who beat him in a fight once. Barry seems ashamed of this declaration, hardly a fitting justification for all the things he has done. But suddenly Barry rejects this selfish assertion with his own declaration: that the beating was more than just a military scrap, it was a demeaning act that made the target realise his place in the British order, an order he suddenly became committed to upsetting. That is an effective and brutally honest message to carry away from Guerilla Days – that sometimes you join a fighting cause for the thrill of adventure as Barry did in World War One, sometimes for revenge as he did in 1919, but also, sometimes, because you are a true believer in what is being fought for, no matter how you got to that point.
The rest of the play is about what such a fight, regardless of how you got into it, is capable of taking from you, but Barry retains his humanity. Grief and remembrance are not the hallmarks of a monster, nor mercy to those who Barry deems honourable enemies. But his dark side, the side that orders his men to shoot until every man at Kilmichael was dead, or that executed and burned out loyalist land-owners, or lied to De Valera about how long his force could hold out in case the “Chief” contemplated peace cannot be so easily dismissed. You might consider Barry a patriot, a terrorist, a military genius or war criminal, but Guerilla Days, in a stage production, leaves room for all of these things to be considered correct.
In summation, Guerilla Days is an enthralling piece of stagecraft that brings life to an extraordinary chapter of the revolutionary period, but suffers from its biopic narrative structure and the prejudiced attitude of its author. Well-acted and scripted, with evocative imagery and heart-rending moments, it is still a wonderful piece of entertainment, and comes fully recommended.
Guerilla Days In Ireland will play at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin until Saturday 8th September.