Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ben Hennessy's Boy Soldier

Theatrical lineage can be very direct sometimes. Take Ben Hennessy's play, Boy Soldier, which tells of a group of Waterford lads who, for various reasons found themselves fighting in the First World War.

That scenario might instantly bring to mind Frank McGuinness' Observe the Son of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which covered similar events from an Ulster perspective. Well, the connections between the two plays is more than skin deep.

"The idea for Boy Solider really first came back in 1990 when we did a production of Observe the Sons..," says Hennessy, who is also Artistic Director of Waterford-based, Red Kettle Theatre company. "Sean Lawlor from the cast had done a lot of research on WW1 and told me about John Condon, the youngest allied soldier to die in that war."

As Red Kettle had hired eight WWI one uniforms for McGuinness' play, the company even took time out to make a short film about the subject. Hennessy has since essayed the story in a play for children, a radio play, and finally in 2006, premiered their full scale stage contribution to the mini-canon of Irish world war one plays.

"I think lots of people would be aware now of the Ulstermen's contribution there, but other Irishmen who fought were, for various reasons, left unacknowledged. For us it wasn't just acknowledging John Condon, but equally about acknowledging all the Irish soldiers who fought in that war."

And there were many. When Hennessy and his company took a research trip to Flanders, they discovered that as many as 12 men from Waterford had died on the same day as Condon. "And when we went to the Irish Peace Park our Michael Power found eight other Michael Powers inscribed there."

The Flandres grave marked John Condon, giving an age of 14 years, is, Hennessy says, the second most visited grave in the world; topped only by that of the unknown soldier. There has been much debate, however, about what age Condon actually was, and even if he is buried in that spot.

"We cover that debate in the play," says Hennessy. "But in a way, I'm not sure that it matters if that is where he is buried or not, or if he was indeed 14. John Condon, from Waterford, has become famous as the symbol for child soldiers all over the world."

And particularly in Waterford?

"I think there is definitely a much greater knowledge of John Condon in Waterford now than there was even two years ago. A plaque has been put up, and there was a move to put up a monument. But that met with some opposition. Y'know, a statue with a British uniform…that still hasn't happened."

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