RIOTS during Abbey Theatre productions of JM Synge and Seán O’Casey plays staged around a century ago have been widely documented. It was a time of a resurgent national self-consciousness, and theatre audiences – in Westport also – were no longer prepared to accept perceived caricature.
On February 4, 1914, a play purportedly lampooning a local Catholic priest was staged in Westport’s town hall, and all hell broke loose. The author of ‘General John Regan’ was local rector, Canon Owen Hannay, who used the literary pseudonym, George A Birmingham. An acclaimed playwright, Hannay was born to a Protestant family in Belfast in 1865, and he served as the rector in Westport from 1892 to 1913.
Ironically, the play had received rave reviews in London but led to riots in Westport, a baton charge by the local constabulary and a subsequent court case. This riot received national and international attention and was viewed as one of the most violent in Irish theatre history.
In 2012 edition of Westport Historical Journal, ‘Cathair na Mart’, Masahiko Yahata, an expert on the playwright, assesses the play and the universality of its theme of reconciliation.
He writes: “The play shows Birmingham’s deep faith in Christianity linked with his sense of humour, and emphasises that humour is indispensable in solving human conflicts and bringing them to reconciliation.”
He asks if ‘General John Regan’ was no more than a farce, as English and American audiences viewed it, or whether it was an insult to the Irish race as was the conclusion of Westport, and other Irish audiences.
Another Westport man who gained an international reputation for his brief marriage to Maud Gonne and his execution after the 1916 Rebellion was major John McBride, who hailed from The Quay. His older brother, Joseph McBride, also became involved in the struggle for Irish freedom. Historian, Anthony Jordan, contributes an article about this older brother, entitled ‘Joseph MacBride 1860-1938’.
There was widespread shock in Westport after the execution of their native son, John MacBride. In the aftermath, when the local Irish Volunteer Company undertook a march ‘to show the flag’, the RIC, backed by 120 soldiers, arrested 33 men who were later interned in Britain. Joseph MacBride, who later became President of the local branch of Sinn Féin, was among the internees.
Of course the focus of papers and essays in this journal always goes well beyond Westport and its environs. This edition includes an article on the subject of prehistoric activity on the Inishkea islands, by Sharon A Greene, as well as a paper on ‘1886. The Lamentable Truth: Poverty and Distress in Swinford Union’.
As the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches, both the last edition of Cathair na Mart and this one include fascinating papers on aspects of this great tragedy.
In this journal, Alex Dylan Nolan, puts the tragedy in a commercial historical perspective in his two-sectioned paper which examines ‘The Business of Emigration’ and ‘The Business of Shipping Agents in County Mayo, 1912’.
In the opening paragraphs he notes that ‘[despite] the RMS Titanic’s splendour the liner was officially classified as an emigrant ship’. This was because the British Board of Trade defined emigrant ships as those that carried more than 50 steerage passengers.
Poignantly, Mr Dylan Nolan also states: “The struggle for the supremacy in the trans-Atlantic passenger business between American, British and German companies ensured that regulations governing the trans-Atlantic shipping industry floundered behind the technical advances.”
Perfect Christmas present
Cathair na Mart 2012: Journal of the Westport Historical Society’, is now on sale in local bookshops and at the Clew Bay Heritage Centre.
Previous editions can be viewed and bought at the website www.westportheritage.com.