Belfast Telegraph

Glmpse into taut lives of part-time soldiers in Northern Ireland Troubles

Beneath the Harp and Crown. Royal British Legion, Comber

By Gail Walker

Among the many personal stories arising out of the Troubles, probably the most difficult to unearth have been those of members of the security forces.

There have been many varieties of tale told on stage and screen of the paramilitary experience - from Hunger to Five Minutes of Heaven - and even more telling of the interactions between police and Army and the public, militant or otherwise.

But only sporadically has there been creative work which tackles head-on the experience of the serving full-time or part-time soldier or cop.

And, in a sense, no wonder, as Philip Orr's new play demonstrates - the experience was one of constant threat in a world utterly and radically different from that many of the part-time soldiers of the UDR and, later the home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, tried to live "during the day".

As civilians, out of uniform, they lived and worked among the very same people that they, with justification, felt were out to kill them all the time and full-time.

Orr has assembled a set of coherent experiences taken from his conversations with ex-soldiers across the generations in Decorum NI, a victims and survivors service which has received funding from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and is an independent charity.

By skilfully locating those experiences in one character - a grieving father (played with subtlety, force and much grace over 50 minutes by Brian Payne) - Orr manages to present an engaging, sympathetic, wry, moving and credible account of what are incredible psychological and emotional circumstances.

There are marriage pressures due to his UDR activities - there is a catalogue of "must do's" before a soldier can even get in to his own house, including making sure the interior light is off in his car and that he pulls the curtains before switching on the lights indoors.

But resigning from the Army does not ease the marriage set-up. Nor does it save him from losing his son, who has also joined up, to a terrorist attack and spending his years up to the beginning of the play writing futile letters to the man convicted of his murder, without reply.

This element of the play is harrowing - it is a search for answers as much as for justice, simply to be heard as much as to be released from the grip of the past.

If this is a difficult story built up from the true experiences of many ex-soldiers, stories as hard to tell as they are to listen to, it is nonetheless a completely necessary one and certainly the first of this kind this reviewer has come across.

But the reluctance to engage with the security force narrative is not all on the side of the public, "loyalist" as well as "republican".

The after-show discussion revealed that one lady's son hadn't known she had been in the UDR until he was 50 and there was still considerable fear among ex-service personnel about revealing anything at all of their past, while ex-paramilitaries appear on chat shows.

Orr's play ends with the character receiving a reply to his many letters after many years. The murderer will have his story too, it seems. The question is: will our vexed ex-squaddie be quite prepared for that face to face encounter?

Silence, reticence and fear work both ways.

All the more reason for this play, researched and written under the auspices of Good Relations at Ards and North Down Borough Council, to be expanded upon a little and widely seen across this island.

Beneath the Harp and Crown continues this evening in the Space, SERC, Bangor and on Saturday in the Village Hall, Ballywalter, both at 7.30.

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