On a recent trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to see Jez Butterworth’s 2018 play The Ferryman. The show has been a hit both in London and on Broadway, and it’s garnered numerous awards and nominations for both the writing and the incredible (and huge—20 actors) cast. Because of where I work, one of the things that stuck out to me was how intergenerational the cast is. The oldest characters are in their eighties while the youngest is about six months old. As the past and the present converge in The Ferryman, the play’s three oldest characters all attempt to lead their younger relatives toward a better future. The play is notable for its deployment of older characters for both plot and thematic purposes, and I’d like to think through what it’s trying to do with them.
There’s a lot to unpack The Ferryman, and I’m not going to attempt it all here. But there’s a little bit of background that’s helpful for understanding its treatment of aging. The play is set in the midst of the Troubles, the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between Unionists who want the North to become part of the Republic of Ireland and Loyalists who want it to remain part of the United Kingdom.* During this period, the provisional Irish Republican Army carried out numerous attacks, and the British police and military struck back hard. The Ferryman takes place in 1981, in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strikes in which ten Irish republican inmates died in a futile attempt to have themselves declared political prisoners. Tensions in Northern Ireland were running very high, and the long history of conflict between British forces and Irish people desiring independence was very much at the front of everyone’s mind.
The play’s three oldest characters represent this long history. Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat (yes, really, they’re both called Pat), and Aunt Maggie Faraway have seen much of it, and they insist on placing the play’s present events in historical context. The three characters have different approaches to history, memory, and the future, and their attempts to share it have direct impacts on events in the play.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify how all of these characters are related to each other. At the center of the play are former IRA operative Quinn Carney, his wife Mary, and his sister-in-law Caitlin, the wife of his brother Seamus, who was killed by fellow IRA members in 1972. Seamus’s body has just been found in a bog, and that’s the impetus for the action in The Ferryman. Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie Faraway are all siblings of Quinn and Seamus’s deceased father, Big Jack. Rounding out the family are Quinn and Mary’s seven children, ranging in age from late teens to young baby, and Caitlin’s teenage son Oisin. There are also three cousins from Belfast who come down to help with the harvest, a priest, three IRA men, and a mentally disabled Englishman who lives nearby.
Uncle Pat is the least controversial and the most peaceful of the three elders. He’s a scholar at heart, and during the play, he’s rereading the ancient Roman poet Virgil. For Uncle Pat, the violence of the Troubles is a complete waste. He wants peace, and most of all, he wants no more of his family members to die. Since we learn later from Aunt Pat that one of their siblings was killed in the failed Easter Rising of 1916 and his nephew’s body has just been discovered, it’s not surprising that Uncle Pat simply wants the carnage to stop. He certainly doesn’t support forgetting the past, but he doesn’t want to keep fighting its battles. For him, remembering the past means learning from it and moving on.
Aunt Pat is the play’s firebrand. She does want to keep fighting the battles of the past and in fact insists on it. Early in the play, Aunt Pat carries a radio around with her and is determined to make her younger family members listen to the speech in which Thatcher formally announces that she will not declare the hunger strikers to be political prisoners. Since the family is trying to get ready for the harvest (they are farmers), the intrusion of politics is extremely unwelcome. Aunt Pat’s insistence on rehashing the past, and on telling the story of how she followed her beloved older brother to Dublin for the 1916 Rising only to have him die in her arms, forces the family to confront history. For Aunt Pat, the Troubles in 1981 are part of a struggle that goes back to her young adulthood, and Seamus’s death is a result of the same conflict as her brother’s. Because Aunt Pat discloses that she kept her brother’s pistol, this confrontation with history eventually leads to tragic consequences in the present.
The third and final elder, Aunt Maggie Faraway, has a different relationship altogether with the past. Aunt Maggie is suffering from dementia, so she only remembers the past occasionally in, it has to be said, convenient moments. Aunt Maggie spends much of the play sitting silently off to the side in her wheelchair, but in her lucid moments, she shares both stories of the past and prophecies for the future. She tells one of her four great-nieces that she’ll have nine children but refuses to answer the same child’s question about whether her father is a murderer. If Quinn wasn’t a murderer at the time young Honor asks this question, he is by the end of the play, so Aunt Maggie could be refusing in this moment to tell either the past or the future.
At the heart of Aunt Maggie’s few reminiscences and prophecies lies the idea that without intervention, the past and the future will be very similar. And indeed, after the dramatic climax, Aunt Maggie gets the last word. Her ambiguous final declaration is, “They are coming… They are coming…” “They” might be the banshees, the UK police, or the IRA. The audience doesn’t really know. We only know that the Carney family has not been able to overcome the demons of their past. Quinn has committed murder, and though the men he kills are pretty awful and he kills them in defense of his family, there will certainly be consequences. He will at best go to jail and could be killed, and his children will know for sure that their father is a murderer. And one member of the youngest generation is dead because he could not resist his cousins’ goading or the lure of Aunt Pat’s republican pistol.
The lesson The Ferryman teaches through its elder generation is not a generalized “we must learn from the past in order to go forward into the future.” Taken together, Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie Faraway tell us that we have to be very, very careful about what lessons we take from the past. The character who most takes to heart Aunt Pat’s lesson—that Ireland must fight until it’s a united, independent republic—winds up tragically dead. Uncle Pat’s calls to look to the ancients instead of to the 1916 rebels go all but unheeded. In the end, it’s Aunt Maggie’s lesson that looking to the past for the future is dangerous that plays out on stage. “They are coming,” and all the Carneys can do is wait.
There’s one more thing I want to note about The Ferryman’s older characters: they’re all played by aging actors—or at least, actors who are aging by stage standards. At 66, Fred Applegate, who plays Uncle Pat, is the youngest of three. Ann McDonough (Aunt Pat) is 69, and the incomparable Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie Faraway) is 77. There aren’t a lot of great roles for actors who have reached those points in their lives, especially for women, but Butterworth has provided three pretty juicy ones. I felt especially privileged to see Flanagan, who made a role that could have been faintly comic into something very powerful. Butterworth’s and Director Sam Medes’s appreciation of what older actors bring has a lot to do with this, of course. Though none of these three is the lead, they all have a lot to do with how the plot plays out, and I was delighted to see seniors play such key roles.
*The Irish Studies scholar in me would be remiss if I did not mention here that the Troubles have their roots much farther back in Irish history than decades. You might even say that they began in the twelfth century, when Henry II invaded Ireland. The British were always a colonial power in Ireland, and there’s never really been a time in Irish history when nationalists/unionists/republicans weren’t trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to throw them out. However, the Troubles are usually understood to have lasted from the formation of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966 through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. I also want to note that polling indicates that a majority—though sometimes a slim one—of Northern Irish want their country to remain part of the UK.