Arts

Stage hit A Holy Show based on Ireland's only skyjack set to tour

Hit play A Holy Show is based on one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of Irish aviation. Ahead of its debut Irish tour, David Roy chats to writer and director Janet Moran about her inspiration for this comedic two-hander

Roseanna Purcell and Mark Fitzgerald in A Holy Show, which embarks on a national tour from January 23

DESPITE being perpetrated by an Australian, Ireland's only 'skyjacking' was also the most 'Irish' of crimes.

When Lawrence Downey seized control of Aer Lingus flight EI-164 from Dublin to London on May 2 1981, no weapons were involved, no-one was hurt, and it was all the Catholic Church's fault (sort of): the crazed 55-year-old Aussie's major demand was that the Third Secret of Fatima – then still under lock and key at the Vatican – be revealed to the world.

Having doused his hands in petrol while wielding a cigarette lighter and what he declared were vials of 'cyanide gas', Downey initially demanded to be flown to Iran. However, when pilot Eddie Foyle explained the Boeing 737 didn't have enough fuel for this unexpected 3,500-mile detour, the former professional boxer and Trappist Monk – fittingly, Downey was expelled from the order for punching a superior – settled on being flown to France.

Thus, the 10 crew members and 102 passengers on Flight 164 found themselves landing at Le Touquet in Normandy where they became hostages to Downey's bizarre crusade to have the Vatican reveal the mysterious Third Secret of Fatima.

Irish Transport Minister Albert Reynolds was flown out to the scene to act as chief negotiator on behalf of the Irish government until, after eight hours on the tarmac – during which the hijacker mostly sat around chatting to the crew with the aircraft door open – the plane was eventually boarded by French police and Downey whisked off to jail without the Vatican ever bowing to his demands.

Albert Reynolds acted as chief negotiator for the Irish government

The passengers duly celebrated their release by having dinner and drinks with their rescuers, a beaming Reynolds returned to Ireland as a hero with a bright political future ahead of him and Downey was sentenced to five years in French prison, serving 16 months before being deported to Australia.

When news footage of this bizarre tale was featured in RTÉ's popular nostalgia-based TV show Reeling In The Years, it became the inspiration for Dublin actress/writer/director Janet Moran's stage production A Holy Show, which finds two actors taking on a multitude of characters in this fictionalised and comedic account of the Flight 164 hijacking.


Having won rave reviews at Dublin's Fringe Festival in 2018 and the Edinburgh Fringe last year, A Holy Show is now about to embark on its first Irish tour which includes a run of dates at Belfast's MAC next month.

"I first saw the footage about 10 years ago and was really taken with it – it's really funny," says Janet, who is the writer and director of the play.

"Obviously, the hijack wasn't funny for the people on the plane, but it just seemed so singularly Irish that the only hijack we've ever had was by a monk who wanted to know a secret.

"And, thankfully, nobody was hurt – so it is something you can indulge in the madness of. I remember thinking at the time that it would be a really fun way to look at faith and Ireland's relationship to faith and how that has changed. We're a much less superstitious and insular country than we were back then."

Having decided to do something based on the incident, fate then intervened in a most unexpected manner.

"I was very lucky," explains Janet, "because I have a friend who's actually 101 years old now, a beautiful Slovakian man, and when I mentioned that I was thinking of writing something about the hijack he said, 'naturally, my son was on the plane'!

"So I was able to interview his son, Peter, who's a very wry and funny man and was able to give me some great details about the experience of it. For instance, even when you're looking at the possible end of your life, more practical considerations like being hungry or thirsty or the fact that the toilets are disgusting are still what you can be focused on.

"Peter came to see the very first preview and thankfully he was delighted with it, even though I'd taken something that he said and made it into a funny moment – I was worried that he might think I was taking the mickey out of him!"

It seems that other 'survivors' of Flight 164 have also been in touch with Janet to say that they will be coming to see A Holy Show on its upcoming tour, which the writer director is currently preparing for.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," says Janet of the upcoming dates. "The best thing is having another chance to 'get at' the play again: we did the first run in The Peacock [theatre] at the Fringe and it was really great and sold out and everything, but I felt like there were changes I wanted to make.

"Then we did it for Edinburgh which was really great and I did a version for RTÉ Radio One recently as well, so I feel like I have the benefit of all three versions going into this new and improved version, which I think is tighter and funnier with a great ending too. And I have new cast this time as well, so I'm really excited."

Janet Moran (centre) with original A Holy Show actors Caitriona Ennis and Patrick Moy

As mentioned, new cast in the form of Roseanna Purcell and Mark Fitzgerald will face the challenge of attempting to conjure up 10 different characters each throughout the course of the show.

"They play everybody on the plane and there's no costume changes – we have some video effects which help locate you in the plane, in terms of where characters are sitting, but it's really up to them," Janet tells me.

"A lot of the characters are from different parts of Ireland – like there's a young Belfast guy moving to London – so its about the variety of accents and physicality in their performances. It's like a non-stop hour and 15 minutes and it moves so fast, God love them. They've got their work cut out for them."

One person who won't get the chance to share his feedback on A Holy Show is Lawrence Downey himself: he died in 2002, just two years after the Third Secret he was so obsessed with was finally released by Pope John Paul II to a resounding 'meh'.

Info on the Aussie hijacker is scarce, though it is known that his checkered past also included stints as an estate agent and as the leader of a failed revolutionary army in East Timor, funded by dodgy land deals. Wanted for fraud in Australia, Downey subsequently fled to Ireland to 'hide out' and was working at a language school in Shannon at the time he hatched his bizarre plan involving Flight 164.

"A guy called Colm who'd made a documentary about Lawrence Downey came to see [A Holy Show] last year just before we went to Edinburgh," reveals Janet. "He'd spent about three weeks with him and had some great info. Colm said he was like 95 per cent 'great man in the pub' who women loved, and then five per cent just off the charts mad."

Surely such an enigmatic and highly eccentric figure could only approve of A Holy Show's irreverent and imaginative fictionalisation of his headline-grabbing bid for enlightenment.

:: A Holy Show's Irish tour begins at Project Arts Centre (projectartscentre.ie) in Dublin from January 23 to 25 and continues through February, including shows at Belfast's MAC Theatre (TheMACLive.com) from February 27 to 29. Full tour dates via FB.com/AHolyShowByJanetMoran

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