Cripple of Innishmann reflects on a bygone Ireland

Cáit Caden

Playwright Martin McDonagh’s dark humour survived the decades which is evident from the success of his 22 year old play Cripple of Inishmann which just finished its run in the Gaeity Theatre.

Big names such as Phelim Drew the son of Dubliner singer Ronnie Drew, and star of Derry Girls Jamie-Lee O’Donnell brought in the crowds however people stayed for the paedophile jokes and self depreciation humour in the play, which Ireland built its culture on.

McDonagh sets the scene on the Aran Island of Inishmann in the early 1930’s when Robert J Flaherty shot his fictional documentary ‘Man of Aran’ and focuses on the protagonist, a young disabled man who longs for life outside of “staring at cows.”

What becomes clear as the play progresses is that this small window into fame, in the shape of a fictional documentary, shows the mental restrictions of each of the characters and portrays the mindset of people in rural Ireland in the early 1900’s.

The production on the Gaeity stage was almost faultless, as scenes were changed seamlessly by the actors who never broke character throughout. The absence of the fake seagull however, that made an appearance in the second half, would have done the production no harm.

Cripple Billy, the center of the play, played by Ruairi Heading, delivered an a captivating performance. However the character of Billy is used more as a prop for other characters to tell their stories throughout.

Phelim Drew lived up to his family’s name and delivered a stellar performance as Johnny Pateen Mike. The west of Ireland’s answer to journalism in the 30’s who would deliver three “pieces of news” in exchange for food. His self indulgent rants and gossiping nature would remind you of many local characters around Ireland today.

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, known for her role as the Michelle Mallon in Derry Girls, more or less reprosed the character of Michelle with a west of Ireland accent instead.

A hidden treasure in the play was Johnny Pateen Mike’s ‘Mammy,’ Rosaleen Linehan. Linehan played the role of a bed-bound alcoholic who could outwit her ‘carer’ son. Although her role was small, Linehan delivered it in such a subtle yet dramatic way it was almost like you were having a conversation rather than watching her on stage.

Martin McDonagh subtly exploits themes such as the traditional Irish view of women’s place in the home as well as some darker elements of our past such as Catholic church abuse and uses these topics to draw laughs out of this play which overall is quite depressing.

One of the key lines in the play is “Ireland musn’t be such a bad place so” if “yanks” and “sharks” and other variables are willing to come over. This demonstrates the unhappiness of rural Ireland in the early 1900’s due to poverty, abuse and illness. Yet we retained a dark sense of humour which we are known for even today.

The play was directed by Andrew Flynn and finished its series of performances on March 9th.

Cáit Caden

Image Credit: The Gaiety Theatre