Recently our local amateur drama group was courageous enough to mount a production of Dion Boucicault’s Victorian melodrama The Colleen Bawn.
I don’t use the word Victorian casually, for this was one of the Queen’s favourite plays; she had drawings she had done of the scenes in her personal art collection. She loved the theatre, but gave it up in her years of mourning. I have often wondered what thoughts about her Irish subjects she derived from the drama: that the Irish were both wildly sentimental and wildly violent perhaps.
But this production set me thinking about the drama itself.
The play was being produced to mark the 200th anniversary of the murder of Ellen Hanley in July 1819. This occurred, not in Killarney, but in the Shannon Estuary. It was used by Gerald Griffin, who reported the trial as a journalist, as the plot of his novel The Collegians (1829), which remains his best known work.
This was transformed by Dion Boucicault into his play The Colleen Bawn (first produced in New York in 1860). But he moved the scene of the action to “the banks of Killarney”, largely because even then the Kerry lake district was the best known place in Ireland among Americans .
Within two years this had become Julius Benedict’s opera The Lily of Killarney, produced in London in February 1862. One of the songs, Eily Mavourneen, which evokes the sentimental Irish idiom of the period so well, is still sung.
The settings of the play and opera were quickly indentified with actual places in Killarney, which to this day these remain popular tourists sights.
Some years ago on a visit to the lake we asked a helpful girl in the tourist office about interesting things to around the lakes. She immediately mentioned these locations. But I said they were purely fictitious and had nothing to do with the real history of the town. Oh no, she assured us, they were all true and the murder had certainly taken place in Killarney. She wouldn’t be shifted.
At the time I thought this a remarkable translation of reality by fiction. But there is an even more extraordinary example in Brittany.
In the 5th and 6th Centuries there was a movement of Britons across the Chanel, under pressure from the invading Anglo-Saxons, into Brittany where they became the Bretons, and began to develop a distinctive Celtic culture of their own.
But they also brought with them the whole panoply of the Arthurian saga. Instead, however, of the tales referring back to England, many of them became associated with Brittany.
It was now believed that Joseph of Arimathea (generally associated with Glastonbury in Somerset) actually came to Brittany, bringing with him either the sacred vials that had held the blood and water from the side of the crucified Jesus, or the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper. But then he simply vanished and the relics, whatever they may have been, were lost sight of.
The Round Table too, and all the details of the legend of Tristan and Isolde came to be associated with local landmarks. For an Irish visitor to hear of legends so long assonated with England and Ireland in a new territory is a strange experience.
So on new landscape was imposed old legends: exactly the process that had overtaken Killarney.
This has to make one wonder about our fine repertoire of legends connected with Irish places. Can these to have originated elsewhere and been imposed on our mountains, fields and waters? It is a disturbing thought.
So when people talk about traditions and traditional associations, perhaps we need to cautious. Of course with some traditions, such as the teachings of the Church for instance, do change and deepen as we explore them and understand them better. But even here caution is needed.
Are the traditions so many Catholic invoke really traditions, or are they merely a convenient creation of more recent centuries that served the purpose of those in command?
Here, as everywhere in life, we need to be wide-awake and cautious.