Northern Ireland news

Derry Girls Sister Michael stars in Brian Friel's Troubles' play

Cork actress, Siobhán McSweeney, aka Sister Michael from Derry Girls returned to the city at the weekend for Brian Friel's "The Freedom of the City" performed at The Guildhall as part of the Lughnasa FrielFest Arts Over Borders. Picture by Matthew Andrews
Seamus McKinney

DERRY Girls favourite Sister Michael cast off her role as the acerbic headmistress in the hit TV Troubles' comedy to star in another drama set against the backdrop of sectarian conflict.

Siobhán McSweeney, best known for her depiction of Ireland's favourite nun in the award-winning Channel 4 show, was back in Derry last week for a stage production of Brian Friel's acclaimed drama The Freedom of the City at the Guildhall.

The Cork actress, who played the role of Lilly - one of three main characters - said it was the perfect location to stage the powerful Troubles' play.

Friel started writing the play in 1970 but completed it after the events of Bloody Sunday. The play examines all the tragedy, pain and turmoil of 1972.

The play is set within the Guildhall and the iconic venue is also where it was staged.

The plot settles on three main characters, Lilly, Michael and the young Skinner who seek refuge in the Guildhall when the march they are taking part in comes under attack.

Siobhán McSweeney in her more familiar role as Sister Michael in Derry Girls. Picture by Channel 4/Peter Marley

The drama interweaves with the characters’ stories before they are shot dead by British soldiers when they surrender. A judge – like the 1972 Widgery Tribunal – exonerates the soldiers.

Playing Lilly, a 43-year-old mother-of-11, Siobhán said it was difficult to escape the parallels playing the role in the very hall where the action is set.

Recent events in the city, including the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside, trouble around the Apprentice Boys’ Relief of Derry march and the ongoing controversy over Soldier F and Bloody Sunday, add an even greater energy.

The symbolism of the Guildhall further resonates as it was there that the names of the Bloody Sunday dead were eventually cleared of wrong-doing by Lord Saville.

The burden of Derry’s history lies heavily on the production and the fact that it was staged in the Guildhall was, Siobhán said, “gob-smacking”.

“The overall effect was absolutely magical to be in that hall with the sun going down and the light coming through; it added an extra power to the words that I could never have expected,” she said.

“There is both an honour and a responsibility when you’re portraying a character like Lilly, like Skinner, like Michael. These are not mythological figures; these are not abstract notions like political ideas. They’re very, very normal people, exactly like the people who got caught up in this conflict.

“I think everybody would agree that no-one wants to go back to the bad old days. Passions are high; they have been for some time. They’ve been exacerbated by the continued neglect of Westminster towards Northern Ireland and all the people of Northern Ireland.

“I think in Derry at the moment, it’s a very potent time and I hope that this play adds to a conversation,” she said.

For producer, Sean Doran, the play was a homecoming. Originally from Derry he said the play was as relevant now as it was when Friel wrote it.

“It’s powerful; it hits the solar plexus of everyone sitting there. It is Derry’s play; it’s even quite an accurate critique of Widgery but it’s about much more,” he said.

The Derry man said the fact that the play was performed in the Guildhall gave the production even more power and energy.

“The Guildhall is a character in the play. It heightens the experience to have it performed here in such a cavernous hall where the characters the actors are playing are under siege,” he said.

:: The play was produced by Arts Over Borders as part of the 4th Lughnasa FrielFest. Art Over Borders is a cross border cultural model which focuses on importance of place.

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