Issue 196 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Soldier's Song
by Bryan James Ryder
The Soldier's Song is a play about the lives of a working class Catholic family living on the Falls Road just before the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Jimmy McManus, the father, has been unemployed for 15 years. He spends his days in the social club or cheering on the IRA from his armchair. He hates Protestants because they burnt him out of his home and if he went to work in the factory he fears the UVF would threaten him with assassination.
Eamon, his son, is in the IRA, but he's having doubts which the prospect of a ceasefire are intensifying. If they call the bombing off now, what was the point of the last 25 years? The armed struggle seems more and more pointless, he's horrified at the human cost and the loss of innocent lives, but he cannot find another solution to the problem.
Eamon's mother works as a cleaner. Now she's had enough of her job, the kitchen sink and the ironing. If she can get two O levels then maybe she could get a full time supervisor's job and they could afford to move to a safer part of the city.
Elaine, his sister, has already got out. She's got a place at university and as soon as she graduates she'll leave the squalor and small mindedness of the ghetto behind her. For those she leaves behind she feels contempt rather than sympathy. She blames the troubles on the IRA and the UVF rather than the British and doesn't believe that things will ever change.
Eamon and his mother resent Elaine for being ashamed of where she comes from. The last 25 years in the North of Ireland have seen the emergence of a sizeable Catholic middle class, who were able to take advantage of the space provided by the civil rights struggle to get a university education and professional jobs, and who now have different aspirations to the working class communities they came from. Indeed they see those who choose to fight back as part of the problem. But if Republicanism is a dead end and access to the middle class is only for a few, what solution is there for everyone else?
Every character has their own hopes. But none dare believe in the possibility of more general changes.
The play isn't a perfect analysis of what's happening in the North of Ireland or even why people join the IRA, nor does it attempt to point to the possibility of a class solution. But there has been controversy surrounding it because of its sympathetic portrayal of those who support the IRA and there have been calls to have the play banned.
It contains useful insights into how traditional political assumptions are questioned and begin to break down when they no longer fit with the reality of people's lives. The play is fast moving and has an excellent cast and is well worth seeing.
The Soldier's Song plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, until 13 April