The multi-talented actor/playwright and generally all-round remarkable Gerry Farrell is bringing his latest play, The Last Prime Minister of Ireland, to Ballina Arts Centre on Friday, March 31, and anyone remotely interested in Irish history, or anyone with no interest in history at all but just in need of an entertaining night out, should purchase their ticket now.
Gerry’s last play before this one, The First Protestant, was a gripping psychological drama about Martin Luther, which garnered rave reviews. The Last Prime Minister of Ireland delves into the personal and political life of David Lloyd George, the man who sent the Black and Tans to Ireland and sticks to the tried-and-tested Farrell recipe of leavening darkness with wit.
Everyone learns something new. But everyone is startled into laughter.
Gerry was born and reared in the rural town of Manorhamilton in Co Leitrim.
He and his 11 brothers and sisters lived over the drapery shop owned by their parents.
“My father worked very hard,” says Gerry. “He might go to a fair and sell clothes off the stall in all kinds of weather, while my mother was at home with 12 children, and minding the shop at the same time.
“There was a little garden at the back leading onto a road, and sometimes another woman might say to my mother, ‘Would you not be afraid someone would lift one of the children,’ and my mother would answer, ‘It would be a mercy of God if someone would take half a dozen of them’, but we knew she was joking. Well, I hope she was!
“She was very kind to us, I never once heard her raise her voice.”
It was a different matter with the De La Salle Brothers who ran his local national school.
“They taught us religion and beat you, and that was what I came out of national school with… Oh, and the Penal Laws.”
Secondary school was a revelation, thanks to an ‘incredible trio’ of teachers.
Gerry was mesmerised by his young history teacher, Patricia McGovern.
“She was from Dublin, and a product of the Sixties, different colours in her hair and long maxi-skirts, a flower-power look, and she would perch up on the table at the front of the room, never on her chair, and she would smoke a cigarette and talk about the Renaissance and the Reformation… I used to sit there in absolute awe.”
When Patricia began putting on and directing plays, Gerry signed up as one of the cast. She also got him to read Ulysses, another revelation.
Then there was Johnny Duignan, who taught him English.
“He gave me great encouragement. When he read out a short story of mine, or of anyone’s, to the whole class, you got a sense it was okay to explore, to be creative.”
And last but not least was Johnny’s brother Prin, who taught Irish literature.
“I’ll never forget him reading us Irish poetry… I got in the habit of learning the poems off by heart.”
Their relationship has continued. Today Prin is the director of The Last Prime Minister of Ireland, which is produced by the Manorhamilton-based bilingual theatre company, Splódar.
Following his incredible, transformative school years, Gerry began work as a psychiatric nurse.
“My uncle, who had fought in the Great War, was a long-time patient in St Columbus psychiatric hospital in Sligo, and we used to visit him there when I was a child, and I thought it was a fascinating place. Very laid back, relaxed… I loved the polished lino and the comfortable seats.
“When I went to work there, I did discover some darker corners… Yet all the staff were from Sligo and Leitrim, all the patients were from Sligo and Leitrim, so we were all related, and there was something homely about it.”
After a stint at the Maudsley in London (“a lot more clinical”), he went on to study psychotherapy in Trinity College Dublin, and did so well that on the last day of the course, he was called over by the head of the department (“I thought, oh Lord, I’ve failed everything”) and was asked to teach on the course the following year.
Since then, he’s continued to practice psychotherapy, while in his inimitable way continuing to study history and write plays.
His early first success was his adaption of James Joyces’ Ulysses, the book his teacher Patricia McGovern had encouraged him to read; the play twice toured the United States (and, by the way, is back in Bewleys in Dublin for a week in June.)
Gerry has always done yards of background research for all his plays and unsurprisingly is fascinated by the psychology of his characters. When writing The Last Prime Minister of Ireland, he learned Welsh in order to understand his subject better, and apparently, he didn’t find it at all daunting. Though a Celtic language, it has a completely different vocabulary from Irish; however, the grammatical structure is virtually the same. And Gerry’s old Irish teacher, Prin Duignan, “could make grammar sound like a fascinating subject”.
The play is in English, so why learn Welsh?
“When you learn the language someone spoke as a child, you can get into the character more,” Gerry explains.
Lloyd George was raised in a Welsh-speaking family, and almost entered politics as a Welsh nationalist; he was often referred to in his early years as the ‘Welsh Parnell’. His first political act, as a ten-year-old boy, was to organise a silent protest against the Church of England minister who would visit his non-conformist primary school, demanding the children recite the creed of a religion not their own.
Lloyd George went on to lay the foundations of the welfare state, grant partial suffrage to women, take power from the House of Lords (he called it “a body of five hundred men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed”) and lead Britain to victory in the Great War.
He also signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, granting Home Rule.
“By studying Lloyd George, you get a different view of Irish politics,” says Gerry Farrell.
“To him, the 1916 uprising was a ‘huge nuisance’, distracting from the war effort. And I never knew before I did my research for this play, that in 1917 there was a moment when the whole ‘Irish Question’ was almost solved without any further violence.”
“Yes, there was a convention in Trinity College, Dublin, where we almost had it through… But the convention was sabotaged… Lloyd George speculated that it was because the Catholic Church preferred the idea of a partitioned Ireland, in which they would have more clout.”
It’s not the only surprise in store for the audience. The representation of Michael Collins during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations may raise a few eyebrows as well…
The play’s premiere was intended to coincide with the 100th anniversary, in 2021, of the Treaty, but the covid-19 pandemic intervened, so it is only now on tour, and it is picking up great reviews wherever it goes, and it is entertainment at its best. Enjoy!
- The Last Prime Minister of Ireland, produced by Splódar Theatre, comes to Ballina Arts Centre on Saturday, March 31, at 8pm. Tickets: €18/€16.