God Has No Country One Man Play gets great reviews

19 November, 2013

In a tribute to one of Killarney’s most heroic sons, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, God Has No Country, written and performed by Donal Courtney, premiered at the Malton Hotel during the recent Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Week.

Nicknamed “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”, Kerry cleric, O’Flaherty, aided by Sam Derry, Henrietta Chevalier and others, was responsible for helping save 6500 people during the German occupation of Rome. He moved between the neutral Holy See and Gestapo-controlled territory in order to coordinate the highly dangerous rescue missions. In his later years, when O’Flaherty returned to Kerry to live with his sister in Caherciveen, he rarely - if ever - spoke of his wartime exploits.

Initially, God Has No Country began as a writing project during Courtney’s time as an MA student at NUI Maynooth. At that point, one might have considered the playwright’s task an insurmountable one: how could one tell O’Flaherty’s story in an hour-long performance?

This is one of the dilemmas that Courtney confessed to during a post-show chat with Memorial Committee Chairman, Jerry O’Grady, on opening night. But, as the production opens and Courtney, in role as the Monsignor, rushes in through the audience to the sound of blaring air raid sirens, it becomes clear that this is drama, rather than documentary, per se, that wishes to investigate O’Flaherty the human being.

Courtney deftly illustrates O’Flaherty’s deep love for Killarney. His Roman surrounds prompt O’Flaherty’s fond recollections of memories of life in Killarney: the roars at Fitzgerald Stadium on Munster Football Final day; his home at Mangerton View; and the smell of Mrs. O’Leary’s home-cooked corned beef wafting through the laneways around the town.

Describing his experiences as a clerical student during Ireland’s War of Independence, and his inclinations to fight the Black and Tans, the dilemma facing the young man becomes clear: “Did God want me to hate?” This becomes central to Courtney’s interpretation of the Monsignor’s life. Thus, in a series of short, spritely-paced scenes, which deliberately nuance the Monsignor’s infamous sharp, confident stride, Courtney, performing on a sparsely-furnished stage set of a table and chair, which is revealed as O’Flaherty’s office in the German College, encourages his audience to accept this portrayal of a warm, hearty, deep-thinking, Kerry raconteur.

The Monsignor’s deeply felt, innate Christian sensibility of conscience is palpable. We meet a man dogged by moral conscience and Courtney’s writing portrays O’Flaherty buoyed on by a deep sense of concern. As the Monsignor became a target of Gestapo officer, Kappler, he evades capture numerous times and recalls once dressing as a coal man in order to escape, despite knowing how “mortified” his mother would have been at the sight!

A mark of Courtney’s own humanity came during the post-show talk. Not only did he dedicate the performance to his late father, the first Chairman of the Memorial Committee, he revealed moving coincidences, including how his own grandfather had been the Monsignor’s tailor. Ultimately, this inclines a distant, historical figure more closely home, both metaphorically and geographically, to be understood as a questioning, sometimes tormented, but inevitably loving, warm individual.

With some slight technical issues to be ironed out – perhaps more subtle fading in and out of sound and music, and a glossy programme if funding should allow - this production will find itself at home in a wide variety of venues across the country. It is no less than Killarney’s Donal Courtney and Monsignor O’Flaherty deserve.

Dr. Fiona Brennan is author of George Fitzmaurice “Wild in His Own Way”: Biography of an Abbey Playwright (Carysfort Press 2005). Her exhibition, Chasing the Dream: Killarney’s Drama and the Founding of the Kerry Drama Festival, showed, last month, at Killarney Library. She also lectured on the same topic during the recent NPWS Lecture Series.