The Lir, Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
My review of The Blue Boy coming up just as soon as I make sparks ...
Two days ago I was driving in the car with my mother. I was leaving Galway and moving back home for school. I told her I was going to The Blue Boy and I asked her if she had known people who were incarcerated in industrial schools.
She told me a story about some children who had come home after school and found their mother dead on the floor from a brain haemorrhage. My mother doesn’t know if it was the two nuns who arrived in a black car the next morning or society in general that deemed their father, a kind man, unsuitable to raise his children by himself. They were taken away to a school, except for the youngest; a small baby who was hidden and raised by neighbours fully aware of the atrocities occurring in industrial schools. I was shocked to hear that the Church could tear apart a family like that, and I was relieved to hear that individuals back then felt the same way.
My mother found the actions of the Church in those times unnecessarily cruel and life-destroying but also emphasised that it wasn’t just the priests and nuns that failed children in Ireland. After talking to Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan I researched the industrial school in Artane, a suburb Keegan himself hails from. In an institution originally established to take in orphaned, abandoned and criminal boys, it has been stated that only five percent of those incarcerated where indeed orphans, a statistic said to be common to all industrial schools in the country. This suggests that a lot of children did not lose their guardians but rather were disposed of by them. “It didn’t have much to do with God”, said my mother. “But it wasn’t just the church; it was all of us. We were all mad”.
To be a young person in those environments must have been terrifying. I felt sad for our history, how as a community we failed to protect our youth. At the same time I felt thankful for the time I have lived in, for the opportunities I have been allowed here, that I can go to school. As one of the contributors to The Blue Boy optimistically says at one point: young people can see the whole world by the time they’re twenty one now.
Things are better than what they were but cases of child abuse still exist. We all know that. And legally, the necessary steps to fully prevent that past from returning have yet to be taken. In the time we have been waiting for a date to be set for a referendum on child protection laws, one of the Brokentalkers has become a father. When I think of their past work I think of that bravery that makes the lonely strangers of In Real Time or the celebration of manhood in Silver Stars incredibly precious. The Blue Boy is no intent to find beauty in something delicate or precious.
The Blue Boy is the Brokentalkers angry.
In introducing the show Keegan shows us a fold-up yard stick which he played with in his grandparents’ house when he was young. Putting it to use either as a guitar or a saxophone or a dinosaur, he didn’t imagine that his grandfather actually used it in his profession as an undertaker to measure bodies for coffins. He often had calls to Artane Industrial School. Keegan talks about scaring his little brothers with the local ghost story of The Blue Boy, a child who had died in the school under suspicious circumstances.
In a conversation which has been disturbed and exhausted by controversy after controversy what else is there we can say? Brokentalkers wisely take a movement-based approach with Eddie Kay’s startling choreography mangling, crushing and shaking bodies onstage. The performers, small and slight, wear distorted masks with faces frozen with fear, their dark eyes twinkling through the narrow sockets. Lights flash through the darkness like search lamps, catching the petrified beings and sending them crashing into Lucy Andrews and David Fagan’s hard white tiled set. Chalk and steel scratch wooden benches. One performer holds a sacred heart above proceedings, its glow empty of warmth or salvation. Amongst it all, a child-sized mannequin sits small and defenceless, witnessing the horrors, and in one of the few beautiful moments of the piece is picked up and protected. Séan Miller’s musical arrangements build to frightening heights with haunting harmonies from musicians in balconies high above. A trumpet howls like a hound against the angelic vocals of Lucy Andrews and Kim V Porcelli which resonate with sad beauty.
As with their previous work, Brokentalkers gives us the stories of those silenced, played here in voiceover. A man recounts how he ran away from a school to the police for help but they beat him and sent him back, where he was beaten again upon arrival. “No one listened to you” he says. A woman remembers having to make rosary beads for hours on hours and how pearls were the worst supplied material for doing so because they cut your hands if they break. Sometimes she was so hungry she ate the beads.
Among the documentary material is a video clip of a Seventies talk show where Brother Joe O’Connor talks about the Artane Boys Band. When asked about the treatment of children there he casually dismisses the insinuation, saying his time there has been the happiest of his life. The presenter then asks the boys themselves, all of whom smile awkwardly. He quizzes O’Connor about his hobby of breeding hens, to which he replies that he can tell if a hen is interested in another or not, the same way of telling if someone is lying, by the look in their eyes. Looking into his eyes at this moment I felt angry. I felt hatred, which is an emotion I do not give into easily. It’s a malicious manoeuvre by Brokentalkers but a completely necessary one to remember the deceit, the cruelty.
The Artane Boys Band becomes realised in The Blue Boy in an explosive sequence of blistering movement and roaring sound, dragged along by the loud banging of a marching drum. Performers scatter desperately for safety but there is nowhere to hide. They crash, kick, crush. It’s completely horrific. But as the show goes on we take what is harrowing and turn it into rage. A rage over a very obvious and fatal flaw in our society that is being ignored. Sometimes art is made by silenced voices, sometimes it’s made by someone suffering injustice, and sometimes it’s made by a father who simply wants to ensure the safe future of their child.
By the end, Keegan, much like how he scared his little brothers, has given us all Blue Boys to go home with. Right now the show will stay with you as a ghost, but what furies it instils will hopefully shape a better future. We can pray that someday we can look on that ghost as something else.
Someday, hopefully, we can look on that ghost as a blessing.
What did everybody else think?