By Finn McKenna
Elsewhere, the opera by Michael Gallen based around the Monaghan Soviet which ran in the Abbey Theatre (15-20 November), was somehow both unique and familiar. It was also surreal, absurd and a performance that this reviewer has no yardstick to compare it with, it being my first time at an opera (or libretto). In any case, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.
What attracted me to it was the subject matter – the Monaghan Asylum Soviet of 1919. As a Monaghan native I’ve heard whispers about the so-called Monaghan Soviet, but have yet to come across a developed analysis or telling of the story in literature or in art.
The opera’s director and co-writer, Michael Gallen, developed the idea for the opera at the time of the Easter Rising’s centenary:
“I had decided to focus on the movement of communities around the border at that time. I came across this line about how this Soviet that had taken place in the Monaghan Asylum had momentarily overcome the sectarian divisions that were rife in the area. I had never heard of it. It’s not a particularly well-known story at all, even locally.”
A much diluted narrative of Ireland’s revolutionary history between 1916-23 is taught in schools. Rarely, if ever, is there mention of the experiments of workers’ control that developed at this stage in Irish hHistory. Months after the Monaghan Soviet, the working class of Limerick took power for two weeks with the establishment of the Limerick Soviet. During this short period, the workers of Limerick managed and controlled production and governance; they decided who was permitted to enter and to leave the city; they even printed their own currency.
These forgotten events of Irish history occurred in the context of a global revolutionary movement which had been ignited by the cataclysm of the First World War and the inspiring events of the Russian Revolution. At this world-historic juncture, soviets (from the Russian word for council) and soviet states came into existence outside of Russia, from Bavaria all the way to Limerick.
This context of Elsewhere is brought out in flashes, with passing references to Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht during the first song of the performance. Exploitation, oppression, becoming, unbecoming are motifs featured in the opera’s beginnings. The presence of the red flag of socialism reflects the penetration of socialist ideas the world-over at this time, including in places like Monaghan.
What was the Monaghan Soviet?
The performance tells the tale of the strike by workers and (some of) the patients of the “mental asylum” in Monaghan town in January 1919. The inhumane conditions of the workers, which included a 93-hour work-week and gender pay inequality, are sung about in a way that captures the resentment and accumulation of anger and exhaustion that culminates in barricade action.
During the first half of the performance the struggle is teased out. It was a revelation to hear the extent of the self-organisation of the strike committee – not only was a barricade erected but the strikers armed themselves with iron bars ready to face-off the local police and military. The Irish Times and An Phoblacht are both referenced as documenting the twists and turns of the strike that was ultimately won by the workers.
Peadar O’Donnell as Soviet leader
The man who led the real-life strike committee was the revolutionary socialist and trade unionist Peadar O’Donnell. O’Donnell had imbibed socialist ideas after time spent in Scotland in 1917. Sometime after the events of the Monaghan Soviet, O’Donnell organised workers in the mills of Caledon, Co. Tyrone. He was able to unite Protestant and Catholic workers in both Monaghan and Caledon but was especially effective in Caledon. The employers of Caledon consciously strove to incite sectarianism between the mill-workers of the town. O’Donnell was able to encourage the local Orange band to lead a somewhat surreal demonstration of workers (Catholic and Protestant) under a red flag demanding improvements in their pay and working conditions.
The political nous and dexterity of O’Donnell is accurately depicted in Elsewhere. In fact, the zenith of the play’s political storytelling comes in the portrayal of O’Donnell and the role that he played. Gallen certainly seems to have studied the methods of O’Donnell and the impact that he had on working people at this time. This is indicated in the use of the words ‘ignite’/’ignition’; O’Donnell was a masterful agitator with the capacity to inspire workers and the oppressed to move into action.
The story is told through the prism of Céline, a patient who lives on in the asylum years after the events of the Soviet. One character, Inspector Conlon (a right-wing, high-ranking asylum professional) cynically jokes that Céline fantasizes about herself being the incarnation of Peadar O’Donnell.
The timeline of the performance is hazy. At a certain point of the performance, Céline recollects seeing O’Donnell and observes a peculiar kind of compassion in him. O’Donnell’s ideas and values leave an indelible mark on Céline’s thinking.
Throughout the play Céline is divided in two – with two actors playing Céline (who even take to the stage at the same moments and engage in a dialogue). This unusual casting device allows for an examination of Céline’s struggles and internal conflicts as she exists in the asylum. A spirit of liberation exists within her, but she is also downtrodden, oppressed, stigmatised and diagnosed as mentally unwell. This conflict is the basis of her split.
The performance slides into the realm of absurdity, with fantasies that Céline experiences at times. What Céline is subjected to in the wake of the Soviet victory is a backslide in terms of her basic human recognition. She is knocked back from being an active agent who helped shape the victory of the strike committee down to the position of incarcerated, demobilised patient.
The deterioration of Céline’s mental state in the years following the Soviet reflects the real-life worsening of the overall position of women in Irish society. The counter-revolution that won in the early 1920s institutionalized barbaric carceral institutions such as Magdalene Laundries. The quelling of Céline’s spirit, voice and vision can be interpreted as a metaphor for the running down of women in Irish society post-partition and post-independence.
Chaotic but dazzling
In examining boundaries and borders, the play is touching on divisions that human beings artificially create. Not directly mentioned, the partition of Ireland is nudged at within the thematic exploration of borders and splits. Furthermore, boundaries of the performance itself are broken and bent as the reactionary inspector breaks the fourth wall and engages with the audience.
Elsewhere nudges at grand ideas and concepts regularly. There is a lot of style and some kitsch. It is beyond the capabilities of the reviewer to fully break-down and understand the format of the performance. Bizarre scenes where the cantankerous asylum inspector musically duels with an apparition of Karl Marx are typical of the zaniness of the latter half of the performance. Granted, such quick-paced visions and ideas can be understood to be the projection of Céline’s racing mind. Still, the latter half of the performance is bursting at the seams with concepts in a chaotic fashion. This frenzy of ideas symbolises a break from the initial concrete political exploration of the strike. Political ideas and messaging were clearer in the show’s first half. Then again, Céline’s journey is dislocated in the second half.
Much of its fast-paced nature means that it is genuinely hard to keep up with every line and turn of the show, but it can also be said that Elsewhere certainly dazzles.
Vital history and legacy
Whatever the intention of the opera’s creators, the show entails a dialogue between the forces of the old order and the rising sights, vision and aspirations of the downtrodden who begin to feel themselves as a historic force. One hundred years on from the events of the Monaghan soviet, there’s still many lessons to be drawn from this period of Irish history.
Gallen’s work has unearthed some of that hidden past. This in and of itself carries its own merits and represents an important contribution to Ireland’s often overlooked socialist history. The conditions that birthed the Monaghan Soviet i.e. Spanish Flu, the aftermath of the First World War, revolution in Russia as well as national oppression in Ireland generated significant working-class struggle.
Capitalism still unfortunately exists today, in a decaying and rotting form. With climate change and Covid ever intensifying, the need for a socialist society has more urgency and relevance today than arguably ever before in human history. The appearance of Elsewhere in the Abbey Theatre in 2021 says something about the conditions of the world we live in today. In some ways a lot has changed. On the other hand, many of us are still desiring the same change and many others are becoming acquainted with socialist ideas that still bear significance today.