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Play about Jean McConville's IRA murder is axed

By Ivan Little

Published 09/06/2015

Actress Rachel Priest appearing in Our Lady of the Goldfinches during its run in Salford in 2012
Actress Rachel Priest appearing in Our Lady of the Goldfinches during its run in Salford in 2012

A plan to bring a controversial play about the IRA murder of Jean McConville to the heart of west Belfast, close to where she was murdered more than 40 years ago, has been shelved.

But Republican-turned-writer Danny Morrison said it was problems with funding - not interference or censorship - that forced the re-think on the invitation to the English company behind the production.

Surprisingly, it was actually Mr Morrison, the former publicity director of Sinn Fein, who pressed for the play to be staged at this year's Feile an Phobail community festival.

The ex-chairman of the Feile, said he was disappointed that the play, Our Lady of the Goldfinches, by English writer Jane McNulty, would not be seen by audiences in west Belfast.

"It was a funding issue, pure and simple," said Mr Morrison, who famously announced the republican's movement's armalite and ballot box strategy.

"We've never baulked from staging anything in the Feile, no matter how controversial the subject matter is."

Jane McNulty said she was saddened that the production, which was first staged at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, Manchester, in 2012 would not be coming to the festival.

"Belfast would have been its natural home," she added. "I must say, it was initially a bit of a surprise to receive the approach from Danny Morrison, knowing his background.

"But he was very keen and he told me he found the play very moving. However, after a few months, he said that he wasn't able to get the finance together."

Mr Morrison said there had been no political pressure to abandon the production.

"We had found a venue for a hundred people a night - Colaiste na Gaeilge on the Falls Road - but the cost of the transport and the accommodation for the English actors and crew were beyond the means of the Feile, which has been experiencing funding cuts in recent years," he added.

Mrs McConville, a 38-year-old Protestant mother-of-10 who converted to Catholicism after her wedding, was abducted from her Divis Flats home in west Belfast in December 1972.

She was shot dead by the IRA, which accused her of being an informer. It buried her in a secret grave and she became the highest-profile member of the Disappeared, whose families campaigned for the Provisionals to return their bodies for a Christian burial.

Mrs McConville's remains were found by chance on Shelling Hill Beach in Co Louth in August 2003 after prolonged searches nearby.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams - now a TD for Louth - has consistently denied claims from other republicans that he gave the orders for Mrs McConville's kidnapping and execution.

Mr Morrison said he first heard about the play from a friend several months ago, after which he asked for a script to be sent to him.

He added: "I thought it was very good. There were no holds barred in the storyline and in what it was tackling. We've had plays in the Feile by a former Red Hand Commando lifer, Robert Niblock, and we've had former UVF prisoners talking in the Feile before.

"We've also had other people on our platforms who are highly critical of the republican movement. So it wasn't a matter of principle that the new play had to be shelved. It was a matter of costs. I think the play is a legitimate artistic response to something awful that happened in the conflict here."

Seamus McKendry, the husband of Jean McConville's daughter Helen, said: "It's a crying shame that the play isn't coming. We thought it would have been a brilliant opportunity to show the world what happened, warts and all. Helen and I saw it in Salford and it was terrific."

Jane McNulty, whose grandfather was from Co Mayo, said she had followed the story of Jean McConville for over 40 years. "I'm old enough to remember the abduction when it happened," she added. "I saw the reports on the TV and it all just stuck with me.

"So when it all came back with the campaign by the families of the Disappeared to find their loved ones, it had an instant impact on me."

Jane said her first contact with Helen came after the fruitless initial search for her mother's body began at Templetown beach in Co Louth in 1999.

Jane, who is a TV screenwriter as well as a playwright, tried but failed to interest television companies in a docu-drama about Mrs McConville's murder. But the idea would not leave her alone, so she decided she would write a play instead.

In 2008, she contacted Helen McKendry to seek her approval. "I said that she could stop me if she wanted," Jane said. "But she was very supportive.

"I came over to Ireland and Helen and Seamus took me to Shelling Hill, which was very emotional."

It was on the beach that Jane got the idea for the play's title.

"On the day I was there, a large number of goldfinches - a charm I think is the collective noun - were feeding on the thistles above the spot where Jean's body was found," she said.

"It suddenly hit me that these birds or their ancestors had been Jean's companions for 40 years.

"But, of course, goldfinches are said to have got their red beaks because they tried to pluck off the thorns from Christ's head as he carried his cross to the crucifixion.

"So that was another element to my story and Jean became my lady of the goldfinches."

Jane said Gerry Adams was not named in the play. "The only name mentioned is that of Jean McConville and that's only on one occasion," she added. "There is an IRA volunteer in the play and he becomes a hunger striker who eventually dies. It's not a naturalistic play - it is more symbolic, if you will."

The playwright hopes the show will eventually be staged in Belfast. "We are making plans to somehow come to Ireland next year for a little tour," she said.

And Mr Morrison added: "I would certainly be interested in bringing it here in the future. I hope that a separate funding application can be sorted out."

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