The Ferryman

Posted on 21 February 2018

The Ferryman is as much about family dynamics as it is about The Troubles. The Carneys are an intergenerational extended family living and working on their farm during the height of The Troubles in the early 1980s.

Love and passion are at the core of the lives of the intergenerational Carney clan.  Love between: husband and wife, parents and their children, siblings, aunts/ uncles and their nieces and nephews. There is also an unrequited love which brought happiness to Aunt Maggie and an unripened love, which would wreak havoc if allowed to mature. Passion for the Republican cause and the IRA and the reactive hatred of the British/ British state is constantly simmering. The sorrow of The Troubles pervades the family like a highly toxic smog.

As within any family, The Carneys disagree, fight and have times when their moments of dislike turn to anger and bitter hatred. The youngest siblings compete for attention, all the family members mock and laugh at each other. We can also feel the menace of violence and retribution which is just under the skin, making you shiver in fear. The Carneys as individuals and a family group can never escape their past – do they deserve a reprieve? Quinn, the father and head of the family, has to face up to the consequences of his actions as a former member of the IRA.

This cast of incredibly talented adult and child actors are so authentic that I believed and enjoyed the family dynamics: the laughter, wit, ribbing and fond mockery that you can get in a close-knit family group which love, support, and fight each other. As many people who have grown up in a large and/or extended family will know, each family member is assigned their role, with patterns of behaviour which they are destined to replay forever. The magnificent script and brilliant acting by the cast present the natural rhythms of family life unique to the Carneys. I became very invested in their lives; I wanted everything to work out for the Carneys.

Aunt Maggie Faraway probably suffers from Alzheimer’s and the family are used to her periodically disappearing into her mind. When Aunt Maggie is aware of her surroundings and of being in the present, the children have learned to think of this as Aunt Maggie coming to visit the family, as if she doesn’t live with them or has been away on holiday, which is a thoughtful and positive approach to Alzheimer’s. Aunt Maggie regales us with stories of her childhood, including her unrequited love, which was a joyful experience rather than a lonely yearning.

Uncle Pat, the Carneys’ main storyteller, who was 7 in 1911, relates the story of their farm’s first harvest, again. Aunt Pat, his sister, a curmudgeonly cynic, is full of negativity for everyone and everything except her twin passions for a united Ireland/the IRA and her anger railing against the British and their mistreatment of the Irish and of IRA prisoners on hunger strike. She is overflowing with bile and loathing at Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to allow the hunger strikers political status, spewing invectives against Thatcher’s view that they are just criminals. Aunt Pat’s running commentary on the events in the family is very funny but bitter and often cruel. She  says of Uncle Pat’s story about the harvest “nothing happens in the story, no-one gets drunk, no-one feels up anyone they shouldn’t.”

Tom Kettle, a British man who mysteriously ended up in Northern Ireland, is not a Carney but he is part of the family. He is a worker on the farm and has learning disabilities. He is gently mocked, like all family members, but not patronised or turned into a figure of fun or novelty. Uncle Pat’s defence of Kettle against Aunt Pat’s hatred of his Britishness is spirited and humorous: “He has his skills even though his brains are jitterbuggy. He can put up a haystack in half an hour he has done 30 harvests for this family while you’ve been there farting into that cushion.”

Initially, I thought Caitlyn was the wife of Quinn and the mother of his 6 children, due to the casual intimacy between Caitlyn and Quinn and Caitlyn and the children. But she is his brother Seamus’ wife. The brother who was “disappeared” by the IRA and was recently found in the bog which had perfectly preserved his body, revealing he had been shot in the head.The repercussions of this event are devastating and shocking.

How do you explain Mary Carney, the wife of Quinn and the mother of their six children, who suffers from a longstanding, self-diagnosed “virus” which is probably depression? She has disappeared by retreating to her room and removing herself from family life when she has bouts of the “virus” leaving Quinn, Caitlyn and the rest of the family to pull together.

The Ferryman is not a whimsical tale of the mystical Irish, although there are strong references to the supernatural, embodied by Aunt Maggie. It is a complex and ultimately tragic story, which is intelligently written and loquacious without wasting a word. It is perfectly paced. The director must be commended for drawing out what seems to be the innate gifts of an amazing cast, who are so natural that they make it look easy. The adult and child actors exhibit a great range of skills including fantastic timing and interaction together as a group. They chat, cut in, interrupt each other, go off on tangents, have fun, dance and sing, fight, mock and make up, moving to the beat of the Carney family life as the fetid air of The Troubles gradually poisons them.  It is Quinn’s love which makes him act rashly, sealing the Carneys’ fates and endangering their lives.

The run at the Gielgud Theatre must end May 19, 2018, so book The Ferryman tickets now before it is too late.


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Sandra Howell

By Sandra Howell

Since I was a child and now as an adult, I have loved performing, as an amateur, in choirs and the theatre. As a theatre goer my tastes are broad, I relish musical theatre and dance.  I am passionate about plays by a huge range of writers. I am excited by the wide variety of contemporary plays which entertain, challenge and make me feel deeply.

10 years after a life-threatening road traffic collision left me disabled, I retired from working as a National Officer of a trade union. In recent years, I have been inspired to write short fiction after attending creative writing courses. In 2017, I began writing theatre reviews and I am thrilled by the opportunities to combine two of my loves: live theatre and writing.