Somewhere in the late thirties or early forties, the esteemed Myles na gCopaleen, of Cruiskeen Lawn estate, took it upon himself to pen the deepest and truest articulation of the then-popular Gaeltacht biography, otherwise best known in the work of Tomas O’ Criomthain and Peig Sayers. And so, An Béal Bocht became the greatest expression of Irish rural-misery-porn, replete with the most grinding of poverty, the severest of schoolmasterly beatings, the smelliest of cottages and, above all, the most unrelenting of rainfall.
Paul Lee’s adaptation from book to play was intended for a week-long run in a pub for the 1989 Dublin Theatre Festival (suitably, it was in An Béal Bocht on Charlemont Street), but it ran and ran, eventually picking up the Guardian Critics’ Choice award in Edinburgh in 1991. In The New Theatre at Connolly Books, the intimacy of a pub venue is preserved, and this is both dramatically necessary (the obligatory classroom thrashing is enacted by a spatula-wielding hand puppet onto an unfortunate row of wooden spoons) and intensely engaging, as the audience is invited to sing along (to a biscuit-tin ceili), or join in the chorus of the parodic appropriation of O’Criomthain’s plaintive lament that “our likes will never be seen again”.
We follow the life of Bonaparte O’Coonasa, of Corcadoragha, the region in Ireland with the least wealth, most rainfall and finest spoken Gaelic in all of Ireland. And though our narrator cannot quite remember the first six months of his life, he does a fair recitation of the remainder, from playing, at his grandfather’s insistence, in dirt, ashes and hen’s droppings on the floor (a proper Gaelic upbringing), to his unjust deposition in prison, meeting, on the way in, his long-absent father, just on the way out. Throughout, O’Brien’s deft labyrinthine prose style is preserved and supported by fine visual gags, while his metafictional wranglings are given dramatic embodiment as the actors joyfully topple the fourth wall with sly contemporary digs and a determined destabilising of any suspension of disbelief.
Sayers and O’Criomthain may not be compulsory Leaving Cert fare any more, but the path of the Irish misery memoir remains well-worn. The most resonant contemporary example is Angela’s Ashes, a fierce rainy book, which sets its tone straight-out, stating bluntly that “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” And though the play was published several years before that particular catalogue of misfortune, its humour and particularly the wooden cut-outs characters which supplement the two-man show, retain a powerful satiric force when we consider McCourt’s inventory of “the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred years”.
So while O’Brien’s specific satiric targets may be less relevant to us than previous generations, we cannot fail to appreciate the keen and ruthless assault he visits upon the mythology of misery and the grim satisfaction with which his characters dwell in their condition. Putting the poor mouth on (ag cur an béal bocht ar) is, O’Brien shows, both abnegation and abdication, it is the surrendering of our power in the world. Confronted as we are with a determined series of assaults upon living and working conditions wrapped in the rhetoric of inevitability, we would do well to bear Bonaparte O’Coonasa in mind.