Jim Larkin and James Connolly are monumental figures in the Irish Trade Union Movement and were central figures in the great struggle between Labour and Capital in Ireland, the 1913 ‘Lockout’. ‘Strumpet City’ immortalised Larkin and the centenary of these epochal events has seen many moving and informative commemorative talks and readings take place. ‘Lockout’, by Ann Matthews, is a welcome addition to this narrative.
The play concerns the real-life story of Ellen Byrne, grandmother of playwright Ann Matthews. Matthews, an NUI History Lecturer and Dramatist, tells how Ellen endured tragedy and poverty during the titanic struggle between the ITGWU and the Employers, under the leadership of William Martin Murphy. But Ellen was no victim; her battle was heroic. Staged, appropriately, in the New Theatre, part of the radical bookstore Connolly Books in Temple Bar, ‘Lockout’ reminds us that while a century is in one way a long time ago, in another way, it’s just the space of two lifetimes. History is more recent than we think sometimes.
Matthews manages to impart an awful lot of information over a limited amount of time without relying on ham-fisted exposition or ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue. Instead, she lets the (imagined) words of her Grandmother speak for the role of women, mothers and wives during the Lockout. She has a remarkable story to convey.
The cast rise to the occasion. Ian Meehan and Patrick O’Donnell as Larkin and Connolly respectively, ably capture the Liverpool and Edinburgh accents and give strong performances as these quasi-mythical figures from Irish History. Fionn McShane’s set design works well within the small confines of the venue and allows Meehan and O’Donnell the necessary platforms to speak the words of Larkin and Connolly. Anthony Fox’s assured direction keeps the whole show on the road.
But it is Katie O’Kelly, an actor we’ll surely be seeing a lot more of, who brings it Home. She plays Ellen with great pathos and empathy; this is the story of an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary times who struggles to stay afloat. O’Kelly gives Ellen Byrne a nobility and voice she may not have had in 1913.
‘Lockout’ packs a punch but not in a tub-thumping, man-the-barricades way. Instead, the contrast between the declamatory Larkin and Connolly and the domestic yet defiant Ellen make for a fascinating and tragic portrait of life of those fateful months a century ago. This short play (just over an hour long) has a short run – try and see it while you can.
Lockout at the New Theatre continues until Oct 19th.