On This Day – 26.1.1907  The ‘Playboy’ opens in the Abbey Theatre



J.M.SYNGE (1905)

It never ceases to amaze how far people will go out of their way to be offended. It’s a phenomenon on a par only with the numbers of those who will take gross offence at something they have neither seen nor heard, because, obviously, it is so offensive.

Take John Millington Synge’s classic Playboy of the Western World, which opened in the Abbey Theatre in 1907.  W.B.Yeats, the poet and the theatre’s eminence, said of Synge, that ‘whenever a country produces a man of genius, that man is never like the country’s idea of itself’, and he would know. He might just as well have been writing about W.B.Yeats.

Ireland in 1907 liked to think of itself as sober, steady and respectable. In a word, boring. But the West of Ireland seaboard that Synge depicted was wild, rumbustious, sexy and delightfully disreputable. This was, after all, the story of a converted village idiot who enchants a west of Ireland community by telling them that he has ‘killed his da’ with a blow to the head. Not exactly reputable middle class Rathmines and Rathgar sort of material, though it was from the leafy boroughs of Dublin that the theatre drew its audiences.

Of course Synge had ‘previous’ where the fumblers in greasy tills were concerned. This was, after all, the man who had written a drama, The Shadow of the Glen, about a frustrated Wicklow woman who ups and leaves her marriage to follow a tramp she barely knows. Even Henrik Ibsen himself, the Godfather of louche theatre, might have baulked at that one.

So the Dublin middle classes, sober, steady and respectable to a man and woman, were probably lying in wait for Synge’s follow-up to Shadow of the Glen. Just as you might allow the first wave of a headlong attack to pass through your defences, they let the production off the hook on the opening night.

By 28 January, however, a couple of nights into its run, word had got out that if you came to the Abbey you could be truly scarified by what you saw and heard onstage. Catholics could shiver at a Protestant playwright having the anti-hero of the play, Christy Mahon, utter the line:

With the help of God, I killed him surely, and may the holy immaculate mother intercede for his soul.

The prurient could cover their reddened ears in shame when Christy transgressed against sexual morality with the shocking insult to Irish womanhood:

What would I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their                shifts itself maybe …

It was the reference to ‘shifts’ that seems to have done it. A ‘shift’ by the way is female undergarment, just in case you have yet to reach the age of sixty. The performance on Monday 28 January was rendered almost inaudible by members of the audience shouting ‘kill the author’, an exceptionally muscular form of theatre review. The following night Yeats called the Dublin Metropolitan Police to keep the peace, while a young Sean O’Casey stood outside the theatre being pushed around by what he described as ‘Gaelic Leaguers foaming at the mouth’.

In the Gaelic League newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, which he edited at the time, Patrick Pearse called for a boycott of the play, observing of Synge that, ‘It is not against a nation that he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.’ In fairness to Pearse, he had changed his tune on Synge, as on much else, by 1913. Neither did the rioters cause the play to be taken off. The run continued, and the disturbances ended.

Later, when the Playboy finally premiered in the west of Ireland, where it was set, many theatre-goers were said to have been bored by the production, their attitude being, ‘You can see the like of that any night you like in the pub’.

When it travelled to the USA in 1911 they were ready for it there too. The performers were booed and hissed throughout the New York opening, and were arrested in Philadelphia and charged with putting on an immoral performance. The charges were later dropped.

By the way, Yeats didn’t come onstage in 1907 and tell the restive audience, ‘You have disgraced yourselves again’. That didn’t happen until the sequel almost twenty years later in 1926 at the Plough and the Stars riots. The artistic riposte on this occasion was for the theatre to launch, at the last count, fifty-six separate stagings or productions of O’Casey’s classic. The Playboy can’t be too far short of that

John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World opened at the Abbey Theatre one hundred and eleven years ago, on this day.






On This Day 19.1.1760 Irish giants



They tended not to live for very long, and, although people, quite literally, looked up to them, they were hardly treated with great respect, either in their lifetimes, or after their deaths.

Of the three most famous eighteenth century Irish giants, Charles Byrne and Cornelius McGrath died before they were twenty-four, while Patrick Cotter lived to the grand old age of forty-six.

McGrath, from Tipperary, reached the height of seven feet six inches at time when men of average height would have been two feet shorter. Between the age of fifteen and sixteen he shot up by twenty-one inches, causing him to suffer from chronic growing pains, from which the consumption of cider appears to have offered some relief. By the time he was sixteen he was already being exhibited for profit, mostly that of others. A portrait of McGrath exists in which he stands beside a Prussian grenadier—Prussians being reckoned as the tallest soldiers in Europe at the time—and McGrath towers over him.

His great height did enable the Tipperary giant to see much of Europe. He was, for example, painted by the artist Pietro Longhi in Venice in 1757, when he was twenty years old. But he didn’t have much longer to live, and when he died in 1760 his body was taken by a number of Trinity College Dublin students to the Department of Anatomy, where he was duly dissected. His skeleton is still retained there today, exhibited for anatomy students, despite many efforts to have his remains properly buried.

Born the year that McGrath died, were the celebrated Charles Byrne, and the even taller Patrick Cotter.

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Byrne was born in Co.Derry and stopped growing when he reached seven feet seven inches, the same height as the tallest player in the history of the American National Basketball Association, the Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.  By the age of twenty-one he was already performing in a show in London which was built around him, called, predictably enough, The Giant’s Causeway. Within a year, however, he was dead.

Byrne was aware before he died that the famous anatomist, John Hunter, had designs on his corpse. Hunter had already amassed a collection of notable ‘specimens’—his description—for his private museum. To thwart the acquisitive pathologist Byrne ordered that after his death his body should be deposited in a lead coffin, and buried at sea. When the Irish giant died in June 1783, after having had his life savings stolen from him by an enterprising pickpocket,  Hunter arranged for his body to be hijacked as it was being transported to the coast. It has been on display ever since in the museum named after Hunter in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Numerous campaigns to have Byrne’s dying wish honoured have been ignored. Byrne might be said to have had the last laugh, however, as he was immortalised by Booker prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel in The Giant, O’Brien in 1998.

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Patrick Cotter, born the same year as Byrne, 1760, is one of fewer than twenty people whose height has been verified at over eight feet. Based in Bristol, Cotter adopted the stage name O’Brien and was exhibited in the ubiquitous freak shows of the eighteenth century, until his death in 1806. He was more fortunate than McGrath and Byrne in that he lived longer than the other two combined, and, on his death, left a legacy of £2000. He also managed to avoid the post-mortem fate of his contemporaries. He was not anatomised, although he greatly feared that he would be and wanted to entombed in twelve feet of solid rock to thwart graverobbers. However, his body was exhumed three times, in 1906, in 1972—when he was officially measured at eight foot and one inch—and in 1986, after which he was cremated, thus finally and definitively avoiding the undignified fate of McGrath and Byrne.

Patrick Cotter, one of three celebrated but generally unfortunate Irish giants of the eighteenth century, was born two hundred and fifty-eight years ago, on this day



Charles Byrne and someone of much lesser stature


On This Day -12.1.1729  Birth of Edmund Burke




He may, or indeed he may not, have uttered the immortal phrase ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. He was a supporter of the American Revolution, and a horrified observer and opponent of the subsequent and extraordinarily bloody, French equivalent. He, and his father, were Anglican, although his mother and sister were Roman Catholic. In addition to which he was one of the greatest English statesmen of the eighteenth century. Except, as in many other instances, Edmund Burke was not English, but Irish.

He was born in Dublin in 1729, was educated at a Quaker school, and at Trinity College. In 1765 he was elected to the House of Commons for the constituency of Wendover, an infamous ‘pocket borough’ of barely one hundred voters, so-called because its representation—and it returned two MPs, not one—was in the pocket of Lord Fermanagh. By 1774, however, he had transferred to the constituency of Bristol where he actually had to fight genuine elections. But his advocacy of free trade with Ireland, and Catholic Emancipation, was not to the liking of the voters in the city at the centre of the British slave trade, and from 1780 onwards he was back in a pocket again, in the borough of Malton.

Burke quickly identified himself with the struggle of the American colonists, and the curtailment of the powers of the King at home. He also became part of a social circle that included the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the impecunious Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith, the actor-manager David Garrick, and the artist Joshua Reynolds.

Initially he kept his powder dry when it came to the French Revolution, but as the rule of the guillotine took hold he wrote of revolutionary France that ‘the elements which compose human society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of monsters [is] produced in the place of it’. In his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, Burke had a go, not only at the event itself but at its radical British supporters. He also made a few pounds in the process, as the pamphlet went on sale for five shillings, and sold almost twenty thousand copies.

Many have said that Burke’s finest hour was his very personal campaign to impeach the chief factotum of the infamous East India Company, Warren Hastings. Except that it was a bit more than an hour. Burke’s opening speech in the trial of Hastings took four days. His response to the defence case took a further nine days.  Hastings was accused of corruption as Governor General of India, and of having enriched himself during his tenure there. One previous high profile impeachment had been that of the great servant of King Charles 1 in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford. Despite the fact that it failed to impeach, Parliament found a way to execute Stafford anyway. Not that anyone was suggesting that Hastings should face the chop.

The entire procedure, which was in part a political trial designed by the Whigs to embarrass the ruling Tories, began in 1788 and didn’t end until 1795. The whole thing cost Hastings £70,000—which, according to a Bank of England inflation calculator, would be worth £8.5 million today. It all sounds very Tribunal-ish, doesn’t it.

Burke is seen by many historians as the father of English conservatism, but his opposition to British imperialism in Ireland, and India, often meant that he fell foul of the leading Tories of his day. He had lots of enemies, many of whom exploited his Irishness, and the suspicion that he was really a Roman Catholic all along, against him. One contemporary cartoon has Burke peeling a potato while sitting beside a chamber-pot claimed to be a true relic of St. Peter.

Burke, by the way, is also credited with being the first to observe that ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.’ And, indeed, a lot of people have done both, ignored history and repeated Burke’s famous axiom.

Edmund Burke, statesman, writer, orator and philosopher was born two hundred and eighty-nine years ago, on this day