“What a play about 1916 means to you? What does it mean to you as an individual; not about the state, not about the country, not about the political agenda. It’s all about how it’s going to affect you.”
After opening this Tuesday past, The Unsung Hero is in its full swing and will be showing in Theatre Upstairs all the way till Saturday, April 2nd.
In the meantime, I had an opportunity to sit down for a chat with David Gilna, the writer of The Unsung hero. The story that had not been told before David Gilna decided to write it. Two people, Michael and Nannie, who were omitted from the pages of history books, two unsung heroes who have finally received the voice they’ve been waiting for for a whole centenary.
David Gilna is writer who is inspired by people: people who pass him on the streets, people who sit with him on the bus, people who sit at the tables in the cafes where David writes. Gilna’s path as a playwright is far from a simple one, but it’s the one which can without any doubt be referred to as “a blessing in disguise”.
Originally from Swords, David has become really interested in performing arts when a friend of his introduced him to acting by bringing him to DCU Drama, where Gilna fell in love with the world of acting, rehearsing and theatre in general. In order to pursue his passion, after graduating school he went on to continue his studies at The National Performing Arts School. Having done a couple of films, ads and radio plays, David still wasn’t entirely convinced that a whole career can grow out of it. Nevertheless, he wanted to give it a try so he enrolled in the Theatre Studies course in Colaiste Dhulaigh.
Some time after, David was in an accident that put him into a coma, the recovery after which wasn’t an easy one. David started having difficulties communicating with people. And one of the specialists advised him to write about how he felt in order to verbalize the situation and help oneself to come to terms with it. That was the first step not only on David’s way of recovery but also in his career as a playwright. David’s first play “Gift of Lightning” was born out of the notes he made during his recovering process. After its Dublin debut, the production went on to be staged in London’s West End, where it got a five star review from The Times.
Having known Michael Scott, the director of The Unsung Hero,for more than twelve years now, David says he is one of the best mentors Gilna has had the pleasure to work with. Scott has brought the best out of Gilna both as an actor and as a writer.
Always wanting to learn as much as possible, always wanting to develop and progress, David acknowledges that he has been lucky to work and being mentored by some of Ireland’s best theatre professionals.
Gilna’s second play “The bedsit Window” was about the reality of the world of arts and the harshness of life. The play is set to show people how cruel and unfair real life can be; to show the audience the side of being and living that people don’t usually like talking about.”There is a bit of craic, a bit of banter, but it’s a tough world”, says David.
A play about Love, Freedom and Duty.
The Unsung Hero is Gilna’s third play. Having known quite closely the O’Rahilly’s family, in particular Michael Joseph’s son Aodogan O’Rahilly, David learnt the story of the 1916 Easter Rising from first hands. He remembers himself being a 6-7 year old boy, sitting on Aodogan’s (one of Michael’s sons) lap and asking about the massive painting the family had on their house wall. Upon questioning who the paining was of, David learnt that it was The O’Rahilly father, Michael Joseph, who died on the back of Moore Street while he was fighting for the freedom of Ireland.
It wasn’t only the image that stuck in David’s head, but also the unfairness he felt when learning Irish history at school: he realised there was almost no mention of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly in the books.
As a playwright David could consider himself quite lucky; he didn’t only have the access to the family archives, but he also had an opportunity to talk to The O’Rahilly’s family in order to receive a somewhat more insightful, more private, more personal stories filled with warm memories, emotions and colours as opposed to simple dry facts. And it probably was because David personally knew the O’Rahillys that allowed him not only to write a play but fill it with a deeper meaning and show the humanity of it. He didn’t just want to write a story about O’Rahilly – the forgotten hero, he wanted to give a voice to Nannie and tell her story, as well. Even though in the shadows, she was just as much part of that battle in 1916 as her husband was. “Six months pregnant, having to raise a family on her own, Nannie is the true unsung hero of this story”, David says.
Head in books, letters and newspapers, David deeply enjoyed the challenging process of writing The Unsung Hero. He tells me that he had read so much about Pearse, Connolly, Markievicz and other people involved in the Easter Rising that he actually felt like he personally knew them. And even though it was crucial for him to get all the facts right, he also wanted the story to sound fresh and make the language alive and authentic to the time when the action took place.
Unfortunately, not everything does the final cut. During the research, David has discovered a number of interesting facts about The O’Rahillys. For example: Michael taught Nannie Irish and she taught him French; so, only those two languages were allowed to be spoken in their house. Or: After his father’s death, Aodogan wouldn’t buy anything English at all. Or: The fact that Nannie O’Rahilly wouldn’t allow any of the letter she exchanged with her husband to be published while she was alive; even now, years since her passing, there are still letters unavailable to the public eye.
Another thing that really touched David’s heart was the fact one of the most notable of Irish poets, W B Yeats, wrote a poem called “Sing of The O’Rahilly” about Michael Joseph. Written more than 20 years after the Easter Rising, it was one of the bard’s last poems. And that was one of the reasons why Gilna decided to mention Yeats and include one of his poems (“He wishes for the cloths of heaven”) into the play.
Being a playwright, who enjoys sitting in during the rehearsals and come to every performance, David is happy that the actors playing Michael and Nannie (Conor Delaney and Roseanna Purcell) have done justice to their characters. Having worked on the play for two years now, David says that even still he gets something new, something different every time he sees it being performed. “Always have your editor’s hat on”, says Gilna.
Bringing The Unsung Hero to a venue like Theatre Upstairs, which is a very intimate space that allows the audience to feel deep inside the action occurring on stage, has a location significance in itself. When Michael Joseph arrived to O’Connell Str on that Easter Sunday, he didn’t only park his car around the corner from Eden Quay, but he also walked right down this building and took right to get to GPO. It’s also here, where he co-founded the Irish Volunteers Army. A century has past, but these walls that saw the Easter Rising, that once were bathed in soldiers’ blood, that heard the whispers and the talks, that hided one too many wounded and nearly dead in between them, are still very much standing and supporting Irish citizens.
A moment in history that shall never be forgotten. The Unsung Hero runs in Theatre Upstairs till April, 2nd. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.theatreupstairs.ie/the-unsung-hero