WHEN writer Declan Hassett started crafting his play about the former Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, a friend of his “who knows Irish theatre”, told him: “Whatever you do, don’t canonise him.”
Declan says: “I thought it was very good advice. I didn’t set out to canonise him. Whether it will be perceived as that, I can’t do anything about it.”
Jack, directed by Pat Talbot, runs at the Everyman from March 8 to 18. This is the centenary year of the birth of the Cork-born politician who was a GAA superstar in his younger years, winning six All-Ireland medals.
The play, which stars Garvan McGrath as Lynch, Alf McCarthy as ‘bystander’ and an ensemble cast of Tadhg Dennehy, Dominic Moore and Peter O’Mahony playing various roles, was conceived four years ago.
“I was walking past the Everyman when Pat Talbot said to me, ‘What about Jack Lynch?’” recalls Declan. “We were talking about sport. Pat was saying that younger generations would have no idea what Jack Lynch was about in terms of sport. As we talked about a play, we felt we would short change him if we didn’t bring in the political side. Otherwise, it would just be Jack’s sporting life.”
Hassett, a former editor of the Evening Echo and a former arts editor of the Irish Examiner, says Lynch wasn’t an aggressive player “but he was no daw, no pushover.”
“My father really introduced me to Lynch by talking about him incessantly and saying he was the only man who stood up to Kerry footballers who were giants of men at the time.”
As a sportsman, Lynch had a reputation for fair play, characteristics that he employed in political life. Former leader of Fine Gael, Liam Cosgrave, described him as “the most popular Irish politician since Daniel O’Connell”.
Reflecting on the man born close to St Anne’s in Shandon, Hassett says that “drama found Jack Lynch”.
“It was something of a surprise when, in 1966, Lynch was Sean Lemass’s favourite for Taoiseach. This, despite the fact that Charlie Haughey was Lemass’s son-in-law. Lemass was looking for a safe pair of hands and Jack became Fianna Fáil’s third Taoiseach.”
For his theatrical presentation, Hassett didn’t want a straightforward narrator, filling in the story of the life and times of Lynch, in between the action.
“I thought that if we had a guy called Bystander, he’d be a bit like myself as a journalist and observer of people and life. Bystander interrogates Lynch about the main points of his career as Taoiseach, particularly the arms crisis (when Lynch effectively averted civil war on the island). He also brings up Lynch’s 1977 giveaway budget in which car tax was abolished. A lot of his critics would have said he was buying an election by doing that.”
The play starts with Bystander talking about paying a visit to Lynch’s grave.
“It takes off from there. We’re not following a conscious chronological flow, even though initially, as a journalist, I’d be inclined to do that. I think people will be surprised as to how the play works.
“Having been a theatre reviewer for so long, I try to keep the audience in mind. We’re hoping to introduce Jack Lynch to a young age group but I presume the majority of the audience will be of a certain age, a more mature age.”
Hassett says there is great physicality in the play.
“Hurleys appear on stage, perhaps to emphasise the tension of Northern Ireland and the looming Troubles. The hurleys are kind of symbolic.”
As well as using verbatim reports from the Dáil and what was said at a particular time, there’s original writing in the play from Declan too.
“I’ve had to create characters to convey Lynch’s childhood. I suppose you could call it a memory play.”
The set by Olan Wrynn is unmistakably the northside of Cork, including Blackpool, Shandon and the Butter Market.
“There are some very dramatic scenes which depict Ard Fheiseanna in the RDS in which the Soldiers of Destiny fall apart. It’s very clear that we’re at an Ard Fheis.”
The ensemble cast play everyone from a Christian Brother to Charlie Haughey.
“Haughey is depicted by Tadhg. I think he has a great future. When I saw him first, I wondered how someone so young could play the role. But it’s unmistakenly Charlie. It’s interesting that Haughey and Lynch are both quoted as praising each other. It might come as a surprise to the audience that the two men recognised different qualities in each other. They’re two very different creatures who found something to admire in each other.”
Referring to the arms crisis (which led to Lynch sacking Haughey and Neil Blaney), Hassett says that Lynch “had a cool head and was a safe pair of hands. That is not to diminish his role. But he was a man of his time. That endeared him to people.”
The pipe-smoking Corkman deserves more than being described as ‘benign’, says Declan.
“That would reduce him. He had an inner steel. I remember him being critical of (an incident) in my stewardship as Evening Echo editor on a particular story. He quite correctly put me in my place. He was perfectly right. I think it was to do with Verolme Dockyard.”
Was the news story sensationalised?
“Somewhat. Lynch subsequently asked if (what he said) was OK. He was wondering how I reacted.”
Lynch was something of an appeaser but in Hassett’s estimation, had plenty of backbone.
Jack runs nightly at 8pm, from Wednesday March 8 to Saturday March 18 (excluding Sunday, March 12) at the Everyman Theatre, MacCurtain Street. Tickets, €26, concession €23, and students €9, available from www.everymancork.com, or phone 021 4501 673. Jack is proudly sponsored by Citylife.