If you are into boxing, and I’m not, Fighting Irish gives you something to latch onto from the outset. If you love a good courtroom drama, which I do, then that is the surprising bonus just over halfway through. In either case, this is a cracking story, rooted in the lives and experiences of a real family, wherein the tale becomes a vehicle for underlying themes, which many will readily and intimately identify with and everyone should be able to appreciate.
A cracking story, rooted in the lives and experiences of a real family
The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, is no stranger to world premieres. Upon opening in 1958 Bryan Bailey, the theatre’s first director, wasted no time in attracting a new play for a new theatre with Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley, followed by Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem to complete the trilogy in the following two years. Others followed as the theatre became a hotbed of cutting-edge contemporary drama for over two decades.
Now, as part of the Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 programme, the theatre is proud to present another premiere, this time from local first-time writer Jamie McGough, a play based on events from his own family’s history and inspired by their retelling of the stories of their lives in Coventry and Ireland.
The origins of the play’s story go back to 1947 when Martin Joseph McGough was despatched to England, aged just 13. Nine years later he married his English love, Eileen Blumsom and they had four children. They settled in Tile Hill, Coventry, surrounded by other Irish families where boxing was a popular pastime. Muhammad Ali even made a special stop there on his 1983 Midlands tour. In the mid-1970’s, their sons, Sean, Martin Vincent and Jarlath, won several national titles. It was the first time three brothers had represented England internationally. Then, in the Spring of 1978, Jarlath became the youngest ever Irish light-heavyweight champion and that summer boxed for Ireland at the European Junior Championships.
By now there was an element of discontent festering about these lads coming over from England to fight for Ireland. The following year, undeterred, all three of the McGough brothers entered the Irish championships. Amongst a hail of controversy, Jarlath was disqualified in the second round as he defended his title; a turning point in the lives of the family, as the simmering prejudice towards him as an Anglo/Irish surfaced and the evident corruption of the officials brimmed over. We witness the riot that ensued in the National Stadium that night and the arrest of Jarlath and Martin McGough along with their subsequent trial, at the Four Courts in Dublin, in the summer of 1979.
It becomes not just a fight to retain a boxing title, but a battle for justice and a search for identity. It’s summed up in a searing, heartfelt exclamation from Jarlath. “I have to fight everyone – opponents, referees, judges. I’m Irish in England, English in Ireland. Who am I?”
It’s a cry that generations of migrants, refugees and displaced persons have made to this day.
The play is staged in B2, the black-box studio theatre that is not unlike the Donmar Warehouse, with about the same capacity. This production has it configured in the round for the first time since it opened in 2007. For a play based on boxing, the choice of set is obvious, but in the hands of designer Patrick Connellan (who also did costumes), the predictable and simple is elevated to the stunning, especially when enhanced by a colourful and evocative lighting design from Joe Hornsby and the venue is filled with music, songs and a soundscape by Oliver Howard and Jason Sylvester. The play makes very specific demands on everyone involved in what has clearly been a hugely collaborative team effort to nurture this play from script to stage under director Corey Campbell, assisted by Sara Myers. The list of credits for creatives is considerable and too long to name everyone, but reflects the need for fight consultants, a dramaturg, a voice and dialect coach and several assistants to them.
Despite having a cast of eleven, there is also a lot of doubling-up of characters to be done in what amounts to an ensemble piece with clearly drawn characters. Louis Ellis and Daniel Krikler as Jarlath and Martin Vincent capture the ambition of boys committed to their sport, the drive to succeed and also the desire for justice. This latter theme is embraced more widely by Christian James, who as Sean passionately takes up the political agendas of the day and fights in another arena, reminding us of the historical context. Behind the boys is the family, with Colm Gormley playing the ever-supportive father out to protect his lads and Shady Murphy, displaying matriarchal control and gritty determination in all circumstances. Keith Dunphy, as Alderman John Gannon, is in many ways pitted against the McGoughs as he remains unwavering in opposition to what he sees as English intruders representing Ireland. The courtroom scene is dominated by Eddy Payne as barrister Adrian Hardiman, whose initial doubts about the case are overcome as he sees a way forward and proceeds with vehemence.
When the main story is over, a moving finale – almost as an epilogue – brings updates on where they are now and what happened to them. It’s a sharp reminder that this is not a work of fiction but the saga of a fighting family.