Diarmuid Breatnach


Martin McDonagh’s play, A Skull in Connemara, one of his Leenane Trilogy, directed by Andrew Flynn, is currently playing at the Olympia in Dublin’s Dame Street. With a cast of four the play takes us on a hilarious tour of hidden secrets and gossip in a rural community but with a dark side hinted at and growing towards the end. Despite the buildup, there is more than one surprise – and shock even – in store.


What one might call the central character is Mick Dowd (Pat Shortt) a gravedigger with a difference: his job is to dig up old graves and to collect the remains to transfer to another location. The population is outgrowing or outbreeding the available graveyard space. He is visited by a Mary Johnny, a local elderly woman (played by Maria McDermottroe) whose grandsons appear later, the youngest being Máirtín (Jarlath Tivnan), with an unhealthy interest in the macabre and wishing to be the gravedigger’s apprentice. His brother is local Garda Tom Hanlon (Patrick Ryan), who aspires to promotion as a detective.

The dialogue is fast at times while at others, silence or sparse words are used effectively. It is hilarious but the shadow of secret is never very far from the sunshine. In terms of acting, one must complement them all but Jarlath Tivnan as Máirtín really stands out. He was, it is true, given some marvelous dialogue (though perhaps a little irritating at the beginning) and acting lines, but he makes the best of it and his physical acting is extraordinary.

I didn’t see the previous production four years ago at the Gaiety, when it got a bad review from John McKeown in the Irish Independent but I’d have to disagree with his opinion of the script.

The sets, or really one set that converts into another, combined with the lighting, are really excellent. It takes some imagination to convert a house into a graveyard and some skill to convince the audience that they have moved from one to the other but this is achieved; one can see why the designers Owen McCarthaigh and Sinead McKenna are winners of the Irish Times Theatre Award.I

McDonagh gained fame (and some controversy) with his West of Ireland trilogies, some plays more than others but he is the author of another four plays and the film script for Six Shooter, for which he won an Academy Award in 2004.

Adverse criticism of A Skull? A little. As indeed the title informs us A Skull in Connemara is set in the West of Ireland, as with the rest of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy and also his Aran Trilogy but, in reality, it could be anywhere in rural Ireland. Some would say this is its strength but I regret that the only concession I noted to the Irish language was that the woman carries the name of a parent attached to her own, as is the custom in the shrinking Irish-speaking districts … and that one of the characters is named Máirtín.

And, though most of the time not noticed, one does wonder what the reason for the huge cracks and the cross etched into the house walls are about, making it appear perhaps as a set for the Mexican Mission in a play about the Alamo.

Whether you agree with those criticisms or do not, you will I feel sure enjoy it. The audience last night did and many, perhaps most, gave it a standing ovation. A Skull in Connemara is set to run to September 1st.



Diarmuid Breatnach

Introduction (for those who might need it):

In the last days of the 1916 Easter Rising, with the GPO in flames, the garrison had to evacuate and did so through Henry Place.  When they came to Moore Street, it was being raked by machine-gun fire from a British Army barricade at the junction with Parnell Street.  Consequently, the garrison entered the first house in the terrace to the their right, No.10 and tunneled from house to house until they reached the end of the terrace, No.25.

A struggle is taking place currently to have the whole terrace saved and declared a national monument, a battlefield site in the context of the Historic Quarter.  In 2007, the State made only four houses a national monument, No.s 14 to 17 and at the very end of 2015, bought the four run-down houses from their speculator owner at a million Euro each.  The Government plans to make them into a commemorative centre, in the course of which they wish to demolish buildings 13, 18 and 19.  Speculators have planning permission for a giant shopping mall from O’Connell Street to Moore Street and from Parnell Street to Henry street, which envisages the demolition of the entire terrace except for No.s 14-17.

In reply to campaigners, Minister for Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, has stated that some of the buildings are of post-1916 construction and therefore are of no historic value.  In opinion pieces in the Irish Times, one week after the other, Frank McDonald and Diarmaid Ferriter wrote articles supporting the Government.

JUST FOUR HOUSES — a sketch for three actors


(Sounds of shells crashing, flames roaring, combustibles exploding, rifle fire, the chatter of machine-guns)

Irish Volunteer A: “Bloody hell, it was hot in the GPO!”

Irish Citizen Army Volunteer: “Hot as Hell. We were lucky to get out alive, with ammunition about to blow.”

Volunteer A: “We can’t stay here in this laneway in the open, though.”

ICA Volunteer: “No, let’s get under cover quick! Into that terrace there … Moore Street this is, right? Sixteen houses ….

Volunteer B: “No, we have to occupy just four houses in this street.”

Vol. A: “Only four? But there’s nearly 300 of us here!”

Vol. B: “I know. But orders …”

Vol. A: “Damnation! OK, best bash that door down, No. 10.”

Vol. B: “No, not that one.”

Vol. A: “Why not?”

Vol. B: “Only Numbers 14 to 17.”

ICA Vol: “But they’re in the middle of the terrace. We’d get shot to pieces by the British machine gun up at Parnell Street – and we have to carry Connolly’s stretcher so he’d get shot too!”

Vol. B: “Yeah, they’ve already shot up The O’Rahilly’s lads.”

Vol A: “Whose orders are these? Who says we should all pile in just four houses in the middle of the terrace?”

Vol. B: “Somebody called Humphreys …. and a Mac Donald …. and a man called Ferriter. Something about only those four houses being of historic significance.”

ICA man: “What? Bloody rubbish – look, go and ask Connolly what he thinks. He’s the Commandant of this garrison, not that lot, whoever they are.”

(A few minutes later)

Irish Volunteer B: “Well, what did Connolly say?”

Vol A: “His exact words? ‘Don’t be stupid lad – break down the door of No. 10 there and tunnel along the terrace, from house to house, aye, all the way to the end – No. 25, isn’t it?’ ”

ICA man: “That’s more like it – I knew we’d get some sense out of Jim – I mean, the Commandant.”

Vol A: “Thanks be to Jayzus for someone with sense in charge. Who the hell are that other lot and where did they come from, that Humphreys, MacDonald and Ferriter?”

Vol B: “I dunno. Give’s a hand with this door before we get shot out here, gabbing …”

(Sound of nearby hammering, wood splintering …)

The Defendant — a short play

Diarmuid Breatnach

“We have had ‘stepping stones’ presented to us before in our history – they turned out to be stone walls.”

 (A revolutionary is on trial).

judge in full wig etc

Act 1.

Scene: A courtroom – Judge’s bench high, clerk at lower bench nearby, faced by dock, containing defendant and two guards, one at each side.  Long bench in front of dock containing Prosecution and Defence barristers or lawyers.

Judge:  Read the charges, clerk.

Clerk: The defendant is charged with treason, sedition, incitement to rebellion against the lawful government, conspiracy with persons unknown to incite discontent, unlawful assembly, obstruction of the highway and membership of an illegal organisation.

Judge:  Defendant, you have heard the charges?

Defendant:        I have.

Judge:  Address the Court properly.

Defendant:        I have heard the charges, Judge.

Judge:  The proper manner to address me is Your Honour.

Defendant:        I have heard the charges, Judge.

Judge:  I see.  Very well, let us proceed.  How do you plead to the charges?

Defendant:        Not guilty of any crime against the people.

Judge:  Clerk, enter a plea of “Not Guilty.”

Prosecuting Counsel stands up, approaches defendant in the dock.

Prosecuting Counsel:    You are against the Agreement?

Defendant:        I am.  It clearly does not deliver what we fought for, an independent united Republic.  In addition, I and some others fought for a socialist republic and it has not delivered that either.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You are aware that the electorate voted to accept the Agreement?

Defendant: Yes, but…

Prosecuting Counsel:    Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Defendant:        Yes.

Prosecuting Counsel:     And do you believe in democracy?

Defendant:        Define ‘democracy’.

Prosecuting Counsel:     The will of the majority.

Defendant:        With suitable safeguards for certain minorities, certainly.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Yet you have admitted to undertaking actions against the Agreement, have you not?

Defendant:        I have.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You consider yourself above the will of the people, the majority, then?

Defendant:        No.  But I consider that I have a duty to act according to what is right and I can see clearly that the Agreement delivers nothing of what we fought for.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Yet the people voted for it.

Defendant:        The people were tired of war and repression and were lied to.  Many of our leaders betrayed us and brought many of our movement with them.

Prosecuting Counsel:     That is your interpretation.  Might it not be that your leaders and those of your movement who followed them were wiser than you?

Defendant:        No.

Prosecuting Counsel:     No?  You could not possibly be wrong?

Defendant:        I am not wrong on this.  The movement fought for a an independent, united republic.  We did not get it.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Your leaders and your movement – I beg your pardon, many in your movement – consider it a stepping stone.

Defendant:        We have had ‘stepping stones’ presented to us before in our history – they turned out to be stone walls.

Prosecuting Counsel:     So you would pursue a strategy of violence in the face of the clear will of the majority!

Defendant:        I do not choose violence.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You do not?  Have you not admitted earlier a statement attributed to you, that violence would be necessary to achieve a successful revolution?

Defendant:        Yes.

Prosecuting Counsel:     So you do choose violence.

Defendant:        I do not.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Pray explain.

Defendant:        I said that the history of classes and of imperialism shows us that no class has ever been permitted to overthrow the one above it by peaceful means; similarly that no nation has won independence from the state oppressing it without having to face violence.  It is the oppressors of the people who choose violence, not us.

But naturally, we should defend ourselves.  Anyway, it is hypocrisy for a state to accuse us of violence, when they have a long history of violence and are at this moment collaborating with others who are waging war and armed invasion of countries.

Prosecuting Counsel:     That is a different matter and not the concern of this court.

( Defendant mutters something)

Prosecuting Counsel:  What did you say?

Defendant:        I said ‘You would say that and anyway it should be the concern of any court of justice.’

Prosecuting Counsel:     This is a court of law and it is trying a case to decide whether you are guilty or innocent.  Let us proceed along another track.  Do you believe in dialogue?

Defendant:        Certainly.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Why then do you not use the Agreement as a basis for dialogue to achieve your aims?  Surely that is the democratic way?

Defendant:        I’d be happy to engage in dialogue as to the details of Britain’s withdrawal from Ireland.  I’d be happy to engage in dialogue as to the details of the capitalists handing over the wealth they have plundered from the people.

Prosecuting Counsel:  You would confiscate the property of businessmen?

Defendant:           That wealth was created by working people.  I would consider it one of the first tasks of a socialist government to confiscate the wealth of the rich, yes.

Prosecuting Counsel:     And ruin the country!

Defendant:        I consider that it is the imperialists and the capitalists that are ruining the country.  Our native industries are undeveloped or taken over by foreign monopolies.  There is wide-scale poverty, homelessness, ill-health, unemployment and emigration.

Prosecuting Counsel:     These are hard times internationally, yes.

Defendant:        Exactly.

Prosecuting Counsel:     What do you mean ‘exactly’?

Defendant:        The capitalists and imperialists internationally have caused these ‘hard times’ as you call them.  They grow richer while the people grow poorer.  The second is the direct result of the first or, if you like, the first is the cause of the second.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Let us take another track.  Do you admit that this present government was elected by a majority?

Defendant:        No.

Prosecuting Counsel:     No?  You do not?

Defendant:        No.  It gained an overall majority of parliamentary representatives.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Is that not the same thing?

Defendant:        No.  There are those who were eligible to vote but did not and those who voted for other parties but did not elect enough representatives.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You quibble.

Defendant:        I do not, those are facts and the figures will clearly demonstrate that this present government was elected by a minority of the electorate.  But even if it had been elected by the majority ….

Prosecuting Counsel:     Yes, please do continue.

Defendant:        Even then, it broke many important promises it had made prior to coming to power.  It has de-legitimised itself.

Prosecuting Counsel:     No party can carry out everything it promises ….. situations arise, measures have to be taken to respond ….

Defendant:        I agree that capitalist parties do not carry out their promises.  They need the votes of the people but represent the interests of a tiny minority.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Oh, please, spare us your socialist rhetoric!

Defendant:        I am attempting to respond to your questions.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You have encouraged sedition against the lawful government.

Defendant:        Sedition according to the laws of this state – capitalist laws.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Would you not agree that you are in a minority opinion?

Defendant:        On what?

Prosecuting Counsel:     In your political views.

Defendant:        I am in majority opinion that imperialist war is a bad thing.  I am in a majority opinion that poverty, homelessness, unemployment and emigration are bad things.  I am not in a minority opinion that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

But I do admit that I am in minority opinion as to the feasibility of the solutions I propose.  I admit that I am in a minority as to the confidence that revolutionary change is within our power.  In that I am in a minority – for the moment.

Prosecuting Counsel:     Ah, you believe that the people will see sense and support your ideas.

Defendant:        I wouldn’t put it quite like that but … yes.

Prosecuting Counsel:     A bit arrogant, would you not say?

Defendant:        Not at all.  In the history of this and many other lands, many thinkers and activists have been in a minority before their opinions became accepted by the majority.  Most accepted scientific opinion now was once that of a minority – indeed, often of a persecuted minority.

Prosecuting Counsel:     You consider yourself a persecuted minority?

Defendant:        My presence here and the charges are proof enough of that.  But one day we shall be a majority.

Prosecuting Counsel:     May the Court please, I have no more questions of this defendant.

(Prosecuting Counsel sits)

(All freeze)

Act 2.

 (All unfreeze)

  State Prosecution Counsel standing, summing up, addressing the Judge …………….

Prosecuting Counsel:        The Defendant has pleaded ‘not guilty’ but his own answers under cross-examination have belied that plea.  He has in effect admitted to treason, sedition, incitement to rebellion against the lawful government, conspiracy with persons unknown to incite discontent, unlawful assembly and obstruction of the highway.

The only charge to which he has not admitted is membership of an illegal organisation.  However, we have clearly shown from the evidence of the police and army witnesses that he is indeed a member of an illegal organisation.

The State submits that the case has been proven in all respects and asks for a verdict of  “Guilty as charged.”  In addition the State asks for the maximum sentence — the prisoner is a danger to society and totally without remorse.

 (Prosecution Counsel sits.)

(All freeze)

Act 3.

 (All unfreeze) ….

Judge addressing the Defendant ….

Judge:  Defendant, you have been found guilty as charged on all counts.  Do you wish to say anything before sentence is passed?

Defendant:        Yes.  I once again contend that I am not guilty of any crime against the people.  The actions I undertook were for the victory of my class, the working class, which entails the defeat of the local ruling class and foreign imperialism.  If I am guilty of anything, it is that I did not always work hard or competently enough for the cause.

Time and again, others like me have stood before your courts and of the British before yours and been sentenced to imprisonment or even death.  They faced it with courage and I will try to do the same.  I do not expect mercy and I will not ask for it.  I do not apologise for doing what I know was right.

But I tell you this: one day, it will be representatives of my class that will sit up there and it will be you down here to answer for your crimes.  I bid my farewell to comrades, family and friends and I ask them to forgive me for any way in which I have failed them.  And may my place in the ranks be filled by many more.

Judge:  Have you quite finished?

Defendant:        I have.

Judge:  You will be kept in custody while the court considers your sentence.  Guards, take the Defendant down.

Defendant is escorted out by guards.

Clerk (in muttered but audible aside to the Judge):  “Surely your honour is going to sentence him to death?”

Judge (whispering but audible):  “Possibly …. however, I need to consider what harm may be done by making a martyr of him.  Possibly some years in jail will have him forgotten more quickly …. and possibly break that arrogance of his too.”

(Loudly):  “Clerk, record the verdict and decision made here this day … 12th of January …. 1923, Irish Free State”.

(All freeze momentarily)