The Tale is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays with three acts of intense emotion, followed by comic interludes and a happy, almost Deus ex Machina resolution. Leontes and Polixenes, kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, are childhood friends who fall out over the love of one woman — Leontes’ queen, Hermione. There are many plot twists and tragedies, inevitable and occasionally surprising, but at the end of the play, the kings, and kingdoms, are reconciled. There are synopses here and here which are as good as any, but we feel we should also explore the thematic elements of the text in relation to Donegal’s geographic and economic setting.
Our choice of The Winter’s Tale is shaped by the political and social history of this part of Ireland but also by the current situation surrounding Brexit. As far as history is concerned, County Donegal’s isolation came about as a result of the Partition of Ireland. After the Irish War of Independence against British colonial rule, the island was divided permanently into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. There is plenty of detail about that period of Irish history elsewhere, so we will not delve too much further.
Donegal became a part of that new Free State, but culturally, it still retained strong links with Scotland and Northern Ireland. There’s an excellent map here showing the nature of our location and isolation. If it isn’t Sligo or Galway, we have to travel through Northern Ireland to get anywhere else on the island. You’ll also find many generations of Donegal people lived and worked or were born in Scotland, and you’re as likely to hear a Glasgow accent in Letterkenny as a Donegal one.
We are the forgotten county. The Tourist Board used to say, “Up here, it’s different!” and they weren’t wrong. We are left off maps of Ireland by government departments, we are asked what currency we use far too often (Euros… or Sterling, or whatever you have in your pocket) and we are often regarded as Culchies by the rest of the country — a peculiar Hiberno-English word, meaning an unsophisticated country person. We are more northern than Northern Ireland, more southern than County Derry, but probably have more in common with Belfast than we do with Dublin.
For us, the border is not just an arbitrary, unconceivable line on a map. It affects our everyday life, it is a line we cross weekly, often daily — 30,000 of us daily. Since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, and the relative peace that has settled on the island, it is something we’ve almost forgotten existed. With Brexit, the possibility of the raising of a hard border again, is deeply disturbing and a very real threat to our day to day lives, and the still fragile Peace Process.
When discussing the cultural landscape of the Irish border communities, we will often refer to the two traditions; Predominantly Catholic, Nationalists/Republicans, and predominantly Protestant Unionists/Loyalists. The Northern Irish State was created to ensure the protection and of the predominantly Unionist enclave on the island, who considered themselves British, not Irish. This community, or tradition, was a product of the Plantation of Ulster in the early 17th Century, contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s authorship of The Winter’s Tale. The Planters came from Scotland and Northern England, and settled on lands forfeited by the Gaelic Chieftains who had left Ireland in 1607, from the port ofRathmullan in Donegal. Donegal was also part of the Plantation though not to the extent other northern counties were, though we do still retain a significant Protestant community. We will not dwell too much on the causes of Northern Ireland’s recent bloody history, but The Troubles were a direct result of this political and sectarian divide. Over 3,500 people lost their lives, thousands more were injured and three generations were traumatised by the bloody conflict. The GFA brought an end to the violence and our fear is that the return of a border, customs and security patrols may ignite the violence again. There has already been one car-bomb in the centre of Derry/Londonderry recently, planted by disaffected, dissident Republicans.
So that is the setting in which we are making our Winter’s Tale. The reasoning behind our goal of creating our Tale within this geographical and political setting is, we hope, both compelling and singular.
The parallels between The Winter’s Tale’s themes of conflict and resolution are self-evident. Although our nearest neighbours, Ireland’s relationship with Britain has never been a comfortable one and in the 20th Century resulted in violence, hurt and hatred. Since the signing of the GFA, there has been a thaw in the resentment and mistrust on both sides. But all of that rapprochement has been threatened by the imminence of Brexit and the increasing polarisation and hardening of attitudes both in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom. Voices on the right of the governing Conservative party in the UK have been blaming the Irish government for being awkward and intractable, seemingly unaware or simply not caring about the promises made by previous British administrations under the terms of the GFA.
The blinkered rage against the sovereign independence of the Irish State is as unedifying and unreasonable as Leontes’ wrath towards Polixenes. The historical and present day relationships between Ireland and Britain are echoed in the schism between the states of Bohemia and Sicilia. Here and now, we can only hope that common humanity and wisdom prevail, and a reconciliation is possible — an accommodation which recognises the two traditions, but also the close ties between this island and our neighbour, where 10% of the UK’s population consider themselves to be of Irish heritage.
The Tale’s themes of jealousy, anger, regret, repentance are too familiar in the often fractured bonds between Ireland and Britain. Our Tale aims to explore these themes, crossing international boundaries, hoping to reinforce the path to peace, and to remind us all that our two islands must rediscover the stories that unite us rather than those which divide. The reconciliation of the final scene is a poignant reminder that whatever we have said or done in our own pasts, there is always the possibility of reconciliation, no matter how small the odds.
In addition to our focus on the drawing out of these themes we also believe that the language of Shakespeare has a unique connection to this part of Ireland. As we mentioned, the Planters arrived in this part of Ireland at the same time as Shakespeare was writing the Tale. The phrases and idioms, rhythms and cadences of their language has persisted in many rural parts of the north-west, whether you call it Ulster-Scots or Hiberno-English. Shakespeare’s tongue is as alive here as anywhere else in the world, and possibly more so due to the geographic isolation. We speak with the same voice as the Bard, and we believe, if he were alive today, he would recognise the language of the north-west of Ireland as familiar and as unmistakable as the dialects of Warwickshire.
So come all ye, to a Donegal Tale,
Spoken in our voices ancient and new,
We’ll bear you across oceans and borders,
Lend you our hearts, our land and our mountains,
Come summer, we’ll tread the paths and byways,
Of Sicilia and Bohemia,
In search of peace, dialogue and brave hope.