The Lyric Theatre has unearthed a forgotten gem to begin its Tales of the City series.
The St John Ervine play Mixed Marriage, running at the Lyric Theatre until 23 February, deals with Belfast’s sectarian history (and therefore, sadly, its present) and is set at the time of the 1907 Dock Strike but the play itself merited a footnote in history too.
Most interestingly, Lloyd George referred to Mixed Marriage during the Treaty negotiations in 1921.
Thomas Jones, who taught Economics in Queen’s University for a year in 1909, was the British government’s Cabinet Secretary during the Conference on Ireland as it was called, and recorded this:
“At the conference on Ireland in 10 Downing St on 14 October 1921 the Sinn Fein delegates objected to partition as ‘unnatural”
‘Mr [Arthur] Griffith: ‘All the rioting is worked up, organised, paid for political reasons. 100 years ago the Protestants in the North of Ireland were the revolutionaries. There are a number of men in the North of Ireland who think that by keeping up the bogey of the Pope and the Boyne they can keep the industrial population quiet.’
The Prime Minister [Lloyd George]: ‘The play Mixed Marriage expressed that very well.’
Mr Griffith: ‘Catholics and Protestants would live harmoniously if this jockeying stopped.’
The Sinn Fein delegates, led by Griffith and Collins went on to press for a plebiscite which would give Nationalist Ireland Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry and other border areas.’
So the play must have had some traction at that time.
The playwright himself. St John Ervine (sometimes St John Greer Ervine) was a man who had mocked Carson and Craig
in 1914/15 when he was briefly manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin but after partition he went in the complete other directions and metamorphosed into a rabid unionist.
Ervine was the biographer of Edward Carson and he also wrote a hagiography of Craigavon in such a racist and sectarian tone, that it worried Craigavon’s wife who warned him that he was stirring up “ancient and ancestral bitterness.”
Another fascinating fact about Mixed Marriage was that the play was written in 1907, the year before the Ne Temere decree took effect on 19 April 1908..
Ne Temere stated that any Catholic could only be married by a parish priest if the marriage was to be valid. In other words, Protestants (or those of any other religion) would have to be married in a Catholic ceremony if the marriage was to be valid for the Catholic partner.
Obviously the knotty problem of marriage between catholics and Protestants was a major talking point when Ervine was working on the play although Ne Temere as such isn’t implicitly mentioned in the play.
Neither is the 1907 Dock Strike mentioned by name although that is the background to Mixed Marriage.
The play is set in a Unionist household in East Belfast, where the pater familias. John Rainey is dedicated to his religion and to the Orange Order and although he hates Catholics, he is happy to work with them as long as they know their place.
John is also loyal to his own working class and when the strike is ongoing, he is happy to speak out against a character called Harte, whom we never see but who is believed to be based on Sir Edward Carson.
Harte is trying to split Catholic workers from Protestant workers on behalf of “the masters” Ireland’s ruling industrial elite, but John Rainey is happy to take him on on behalf of the working class.
But when he hears that his own son, Hugh, wants to marry his Catholic girlfriend, Nor Murray, John changes his tune.
Now he sees the strike as a Popish Plot, hatched by Catholics and socialists and the personal aspect of the play melds with the political and, as you can imagine, it can only end in tears – or blood.
Though written in 1911, there is of course, a lot in Mixed Marriage which chimes with 2013. Sectarianism is alive and kicking, Catholics and Protestants are fighting each other over symbols rather than for a better future.
In one scene, Michael O’Hara, a Catholic workmate of John Rainey is telling a crowd of people “singin’ a party tune and cursing the Pope” that they should stop when he is hit over the head by a drunk man.
“There’s many does worse nor him whin they’re not drunk, an’ they’re put in Parliament,” says the Juno-esque Mrs Rainey.
One particular woman kept applauding this line long after the other members of the audience had stopped!
Jimmy Fay’s production is spot on and there is an excellent dream sequence where John Rainey sees the Papish threat of Home Rule come through his door.
The cast of Marty Maguire (John Rainey), Katie Tumelty (Mrs Rainey) Darren Franklin (Tom Rainey). Brian Markey (Hugh Rainey), former Hollyoaks star Karen Hassan (Nora Murray) and Gerard Jordan (Michael O’Hara) were excellent throughout in a play that shows us that the stench of sectarianism hasn’t gone away, ye know.
Mixed Marriage, is running at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until 23 February, Tuesday to Saturday 7.45pm; Saturday & Sunday 2.30pm; 21 February 1.30pm. You can book tickets Online; by telephone on 028 9038 1081 or by calling in person to the Lyric Theatre Box Office, 55 Ridgeway Street, Belfast, BT9 5FB.