‘Observe the Sons’ explores disillusion with war, bond of brotherhood in World War I


For soldiers at war, the destructive forces that cause them to take arms often prove to be the glue that forms the strongest bonds.

“Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” written by Frank McGuinness and the latest production of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, tells the story of eight sons of Northern Ireland and their experiences leading up to the battle.

The play, which runs from Sept. 4 to 20 at the Charity Randall Theatre, trails eight members of the 36th Ulster Division, a force that was all but annihilated at the Battle of the Somme during World War I.

“When they published all of the casualty lists in Belfast, the Shankill Road … had black flags in every second house,” director Matt Torney said. “It was like an entire generation of young men wiped out.”

The 36th Ulster Division was comprised of Northern Protestant Irish, who formed it specifically to defend their land against Catholics. But rather than highlight Ireland’s well-known sectarian disputes, the play sheds light on the gratuitous nature of war and the men who fight in it.

“The show deals more with inward struggles about reasons why men go to war, and, after they’ve gone to war, how they become disillusioned — how the realities of war affect them and how it stacks up to their expectations,” said Justin Holcomb, who plays the role of Christopher Roulston, an uptight preacher. 

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a play about Catholics or Protestants in any way,” said Ciaran Byrne, who plays John Millen, a member of the 36th Ulster. “For me, it’s essentially a love story. It’s that love of land and love of fellow man for who you will, in the end, lay down your life.”

While it is later suspected that one of the eight is Catholic, the 36th Ulster Division was thought to be comprised of entirely Protestant Irishmen. This congruity among the characters enables the play to explore other themes, including the bonds between men at war and homophobia.

But the play does more than just ignore conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. According to Torney, McGuinness, a Catholic, attempts to bridge the cultural gap between Protestants and those of his own faith.

“The writer of this was Catholic, and he wanted to understand the Protestant psyche,” Torney said. “He wanted to understand the history and wanted to understand the pride we have in Ulster.”

Fundamental Protestant values, hard work and unrelenting faith, Torney said, don’t always lend themselves to the arts — creating an opportunity for other playwrights to recount this harrowing tale.

“The Protestant ethic in Northern Ireland is much more oriented around work and politics. Instead of being actors, they become politicians. They use their skills in language and writing to serve their political goals,” Torney said.

Despite some seemingly complex historical anecdotes, including references to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the show is not intended for an audience full of historians.

“You don’t need a degree in history to understand the play, because it’s a play about young men who could, just as easily, be going off to Iraq,” said Torney.

Additionally, McGuinness is heralded for his use of black humor in the play — something Torney insists is a calling card of Northern Irishmen. Somehow, despite the morbidity of their situation, the eight young men of the 36th Ulster Division find time to crack some jokes.

“It’s very funny, because it’s a play about people in war, not a play about war,” said Torney. 

Unfortunately for the characters and audience alike, the laughs don’t last forever. From the onset of the play, the audience learns that only one of the seven young men featured, Kenneth Pyper, actually survives the Battle. Told through a flashback, he recounts their experiences leading up to the battle, all while aware of their fate.

“The central conflict, I feel, would be between what’s coming and how they feel about it,” Byrne said. “Them wanting to live, juxtaposed to their circumstances, which is going to do everything to take that want of life away from them.”