As a musician and poet, Éamon Carr came to prominence in the Irish counterculture in the late 1960s, and as drummer for Horslips, he memorably created lyrics blending the Ulster Cycle and other Celtic tales into hard-charging or softly lilting music. Now, he returns to these inspirations, but, in the intervening decades, the impacts of Northern violence, itself recapitulated, mythologised, and raw, darken this play, subtitled ‘a journal of sorrows’. For, during the 1990s, Carr as a journalist revisited places he had toured as a musician, and he heard new stories of strife, vengeance and suffering again.
In a spare but eloquent style, Deirdre Unforgiven by its title conflates the tragic protagonist, enslaved and compelled to wed lusting, selfish usurping King of Ulster Conor, with what I sense as an echo of Clint Eastwood’s compellingly and similarly haunted anti-hero, himself unhinged by lost love and simmering sorrow. As Professor Shannon McRae’s preface and Carr’s introduction explain, these verses adapt Yeats’ Japanese Noh ritual to drama. Enhanced by John Devlin’s drawings, this is a pairing well suited for Carr (see his 2008 poetry collection and homage to Basho, The Origami Crow); here he conveys through the stripped-down incantatory recitals of ancient Greek tragedy the structure for his bleak ritual scenario.
Taking place in the ‘uncertain time’ just before dawn (itself redolent of suggestion in charged Irish rhetoric) a triple Chorus precedes a Young Man, a reporter, fresh from an eerie conversation with a crow-like figure on the Shankill. The Chorus and the Old Woman, the Celtic goddess of war the Morrigan, fill out Deirdre’s backstory ‘of yesterday’s news that is heard too soon’. Meanwhile, the reporter recalls as of 1999 yet ‘another bad day at Drumcree’ between marchers and protesters.
The ghosts of Deirdre and of the unforgiving ruler over Ulster, Conor, masked as is the Old Woman, tell their side of the saga. They reveal Conor’s thwarted frustration and Deirdre’s desperate elopement with Naoise. Deirdre arises to warn: ‘There will not be enough mourners to lament/ those who fall’ but as the Chorus speaks for so many witnesses: ‘They listened/ and dismissed her concerns’.
Opening the second scene, the Young Man recounts more victims: footballers caught in a blast, a grave for one who died too young, three boys at home as they slept blown up by a petrol bomb. Deirdre bewails her passion for Naoise, for it blinded the pair: ‘we didn’t see the blight’. She tells of her doom after that of Naoise and his brothers, and as she collapses, the Old Woman continues her tale. The Chorus repeats the triple spiral of lore: ‘Pure black banner/ Pure blue sky/ Pure red blood’. Conor’s desolation and the reporter’s despair combine, for both lack words to assuage their torment.
The Young Man, in a very Yeatsian image of how the off-kilter past whirls into the present, sums up their predicament: ‘Somewhere, whip in hand, a laughing child/ sets a wooden-top spinning./ Now ask,/ for this world to keep turning/ must we all,/ each one,/ hear the lash sing?’ Silence follows.
Deirdre chose to fling herself on a rock, to dash out her life rather than submit to Conor. Her defiance, commemorated by a memorial tree ‘that when the wind blows/ sings of infinite sadness’, represents the capitulation of the female to the male, the injustice perpetuated by the cocky and headstrong over those perceived or outfoxed to remain weak. The Old Woman, no stranger to this anguish for she herself embodies its mythic atavistic force, concludes: ‘For wherever there are dead men/ that’s where you’ll find me./ My wings forever wrap the fallen/ who so wanted to be free’.
Carr’s play invites no easy resolution. As Yeats did, so does he. Deirdre Unforgiven presents a stark reminder of the brutality behind the cant, and the cost incurred by too glib a chant or rousing ballad.