The Ferryman: passion, betrayal and war

Jez Butterworth’s most recent achievement, The Ferryman, is a raucous, heart-wrenching show about family life in the midst of the IRA ‘Troubles’.

Set in 1981 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, the play is a string of contrasting ideas, feelings, and beliefs which should make it jarring yet instead it flows together beautifully.

Private life clashes with the wider political picture, magic and mystery exist alongside the raw physical work of the harvest, and two women living under the same roof fight for the heart of one man.

The play, directed by Sam Mendes of Skyfall fame, opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 24 April 2017 and was the fastest-selling play in the theatre’s history. It transferred to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre on 29 June 2017 and ran until 19 May this year. It is now preparing to open at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway in October.

Watching the intimate setting of the over-flowing household from the grandeur of London’s West End makes you, as an audience member, feel like an intruder. The audience is reflected in the character of Tom Kettle, the English factotum who is part of the farm life. The bitter aunt Patricia, a strong republican, is wary of him, as if he represents the English as a whole.

Through Patricia’s hatred of Margaret Thatcher, made clear when she says she would like to “disembowel” her, Butterworth has portrayed the strong sense of detachment between the two nations. The audience in London are very separate to the characters in the play, and we are constantly reminded of that.

The Troubles

Even without knowing anything prior to watching the play, you quickly find out when and where it takes place. 1981 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles and we learn early on that Seamus Carney was shot in the in retribution for his defection from the IRA. His body has finally been found in a peat bog in County Louth.

Meanwhile Seamus’ brother, Quinn Carney also has a murky past, having also been associated with the IRA before. In the play, this comes back to haunt him in the character of Muldoon, who hangs over the family like a bad smell, refusing to let the discovery of Seamus body damage the Republican cause.

The cousins who visit from Belfast for the harvest joke about and glorify the IRA. There is almost a sense that they have been brainwashed, convinced to join a murderous organisation.

So, in this way, The Ferryman is not stuck in history at all. Its themes are just as relevant now as they were to 1980s Northern Ireland. It comments on how easily people, especially young people, can be indoctrinated by the powerful.

A state of limbo

One fascinating aspect of the play is its constant references to being in a limbo state. This is true of Seamus’ body, stuck in a peat bog since the day he was killed ten years previously, perfectly preserved and so unable, if that’s what you believe, to properly pass through to the next life.

As if to emphasise this, reference is made to the Virgilian ferryman, Charon, who is the unburied soul roaming the earth, just like Seamus.

The uncertainty around Seamus’ death is excruciating for his widow, Caitlin, and their son Oisin. Caitlin explains that she could not properly move on until his body was found, until she knew for sure that he was gone. The mother and son remained living with Quinn, his wife Mary and their seven children for the whole ten years following the death, keeping the house in limbo, weighing it down, unable to move forwards.


Violence features heavily in The Ferryman. It is a play about both physical and mental violence. A gun keeps cropping up on the stage, continually appearing to remind the audience this is a family plagued by war and death.

In one scene, the cousins are up late at night drinking alcohol and talking about the war. The matter-of-fact way in which they chat about the violence involved suggests the young people growing up in these surroundings almost became desensitised to it, perhaps in the same way video games have this affect on people today.

Violence in the play is not only physical. Each family member is suffering their own mental violence and inner turmoil. Lies, deceit, anger, and disloyalty fuel many of the relationships.

Mary has spent the best part of the ten years since Caitlin moved in residing in bed with apparent viruses. The audience soon learn she is actually just fearful of having another woman in the house, who threatens her family and her love with Quinn.

Romance and family

In the play, love must exist in spite of the hate and violence surrounding the family.

Love is intermingled with betrayal. Mary has stopped loving her husband Quinn in the way she used to because she feels threatened by the beautiful Caitlin’s presence. Ironically the very reason Mary has become such a shell of a person is causing Quinn to be unfaithful because he has no other intimacy in his life. There are feelings between Caitlin and Quinn, but they cannot be pursued. Is Quinn betraying his dead brother, or is he doing his duty in looking after his widow?

Both aunts Patricia and Maggie refer to old romances from their pasts too. Tom Kettle professes his love for Caitlin. The Belfast cousins say they desire Caitlin. Romantic love is always plagued.

Love for children seems different. Despite the mistakes of parents, there is a steadfast love and care for children which, in the end, surpasses any romantic love.

A physical and symbolic setting

The set of the play is fascinating, again adhering to the idea of juxtapositions with both raw, physical props and very symbolic aspects of the staging.

The appearance of live animals and a real baby serves to remind audiences that this is a story about the real struggles of family life. As you watch, you suddenly snap into reality, as the real cries of a baby fill your ears.

The symbolic elements are those that reoccur. Beer and other alcohol is always on the stage, and in the hands of at least one character more or less the whole time. It starts off being for celebratory reasons, in the first scene as Quinn and Caitlin stay up together seeing the son rise, and the family then celebrate the annual harvest. But then it becomes associated with violence as the cousins joke and jeer about horrific things, all the while clutching alcohol.

I learned more about history from watching The Ferryman than I ever thought I would. It sheds light on a very misunderstood time in Northern Irish history, showing you what it was like for ordinary families to live through. All the while there is drama, comedy, love, and hate interwoven in an engrossing story. The Ferryman a spectacle you will be glad you made time for.

#theatre #WestEnd #TheFerryman #culture