A poster from Balally Players’ production of The Great Hunger by the late Tom MacIntyre.

Re-visiting MacIntyre’s ‘The Great Hunger’

Historian Jonathan Smyth's latest edition of Times Past revisits the late Tom MacIntyre's 'The Great Hunger'...

Writers and artists are the jewels of a nation’s culture. An enjoyable discovery of poetry and literature often begins for children during their schooldays. Patrick Kavanagh’s Shancoduff, A Christmas Childhood or On Raglan Road has brought many a classroom great joy.

No man or woman about the farm can fail to identify with Kavanagh’s poems on the countryside. Whether taking in the cows from the fields for milking, planting potatoes or standing in the cold foddering animals, his poetry captures the magic of a life around us we’ve taken for granted.

Another Kavanagh masterpiece, ‘The Great Hunger’, captures the blighted vision of a young man in the old days. Patrick Maguire, is caught spiritually, physically and mentally between all that goes on in the corner of the world he lives in. Then, in the 1980s, Tom MacIntyre transformed ‘The Great Hunger’ into a critically acclaimed play which exposed the insular hardships of a stifled existence. It was staged in theatres all over the world.

The Great Hunger premiered in the Abbey Theatre in 1983. ‘Irish Playography’ described it as a play ‘portraying the terrible isolation of a man, Maguire, tied to the husbandry of poor soil. Maguire’s hunger is not a physical one - a need for food – (but a hunger of the senses created through upbringing, poverty and religion), adding that ‘despite his sterility, absence from world affairs and sexual pleasure, the play is both celebratory and spiritual.’ In the play, scenes are dictated by movement and gesture, rather than dialogue. The role of Patrick Maguire was made memorable because of Tom Hickey’s superlative performance.

The gate that closes the gap into the field became a prominent feature of the play. In one scene, Patrick Maguire appears upside down hanging onto the gate by the legs. It is dramatic imagery at its best. No words are needed here. The scene is reminiscent of a story I had heard about Kavanagh coming home to Inniskeen from Dublin one Friday. Getting off the bus, he would take a short-cut through the fields to the house. Some of the locals had become irritated and did not like to see themselves featured in his poems. As a cruel trick, they loosened the hinges of the farm gate he always crossed. But, Kavanagh came home much later than usual that evening and by a quirk of fate avoided the trap. Unfortunately, another man was not so lucky and broke a leg when the gate came down on him. The shortcut, as they say, can sometimes be a longcut.

The Great Hunger went on to a second tour in 1988 and was shown to audiences in other parts of the world. By the time it had finished touring, the play had performed in theatres from New York, to a cowshed at the back of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. For realism the cowshed was perhaps the most apt of all locations. Actor Bríd Ní Neachtain recalled that the first evening at Annmakerrig was a ‘big gala’ fundraising event. In a podcast for the Abbey Theatre, she said that the shed needed a good cleaning and that the rats were running about the place.

Another person watching the play that night in the cowshed was Diana Theodores. She wrote in ‘Dance Chronicle’ on 1 January 1996, that Tom MacIntyre’s play, ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘introduces the value of words in a new way ... In one scene Tom Hickey as Maguire kneels before “Mother” (a mysterious wooden concoction that looks like a sphinx and a chest of drawers combined) and pounds his fist into her “chest”. Over and over and over he pounds’ adding that, ‘sometimes his pounding is like an axe splitting wood. Sometimes it is the desperate pounding of a fist on a chest.’ In another scene, she describes how ‘Maguire and the others labour along rows of potatoes, filling their buckets to a cacophony of coughs, hacks and splutters. Each bucket is filled and dumped out with a belligerent crashing and all the while Maguire calls out for his dog and mutters: “never where he’s wanted” with resigned fury.’

My first encounter with Tom MacIntyre was during the Caomhnú Literary Festival. A ‘writing for radio workshop’ with Shane Connaughton was taking place. Tom came along to the workshop, then afterwards taught the next group. Some months later, I was working on a book about the late Thomas (Tom) Barron, and again met Tom MacIntyre. During the conversation, Barron was mentioned, and it transpired he had been one of Tom’s oldest and best friends. He said, phone me, and I will talk to you about him, have a pen ready and take notes. During the phone call, he mentioned that it was Barron who: ‘taught and led me into everything about folklore and archaeology’.

Eight months later when the book was finished. I was delighted and honoured when a lovely message arrived from Tom to say he had read and enjoyed it. A conversation with Tom was always memorable, not to be forgotten, for his knowledge was vast. His strong voice carried a gentle wisdom, enthralling those who were privileged to listen. His plays, poetry, and short stories will continue to lead both audience and reader into a portal of creative happenings, concisely expressed. There is an integral honesty to his work, bringing you on a journey of new and refreshing perspectives.

In an interview for the Abbey Theatre, Tom MacIntyre revealed: ‘The silence in the theatre at key moments, that is the silence I long to hear, you know they’re spellbound.’

Now that is the kind of play to go and see.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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