Granuaile at Axis Arts Centre Ballymun – Review

By Barry Lord

On Tuesday night, The Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun played host to the opening of an absorbing historical show about a woman who could be viewed as the original Iron Lady.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Granuaile, the Pirate Queen, this production – carefully developed by director Veronica Coburn in collaboration with the Axis Theatre – provided a rousing introduction.

Born in Connacht in 1530, Granuaile was a hugely significant and popular figure in Irish folklore.

The daughter of Chieftain Dubhdara Ó Máille and his wife Margaret, young Granuaile grew up in a male dominated world but showed signs from an early age that she was impervious to the gender politics of her day. When it came to seafaring and trading, this young woman was a cut above the rest.

She did everything she could to blend in with her more seasoned fellow clan members, even going as far as to shed her considerable locks to make herself look more masculine.

By the age of ten, she boarded her first ship and navigated the rough waters so skilfully that her male counterparts had no hesitation in following her lead when she later assumed the role of chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, after her father’s death.

From here, the fascinating tale – enthusiastically and skilfully related by actors Gabrielle Breathnach, as storyteller-in-chief, and Damien Devaney as her fictional brother Carl – continued to gain momentum.

Gabrielle Breathnach and Damien Devaney at Axis Arts Centre Ballymun
Gabrielle Breathnach and Damien Devaney

Granuaile went from a savvy trader of goods to a fearsome warrior with a 200 strong army at her back, repelling English invaders and rival clans alike.

There is also no denying that this was a steadfast and independent minded woman. Twice married, she dissolved her first arranged union after one year, by simply uttering the words ‘divorce’ three times.  

Of course this was long before lawyers started getting involved in these matters, but you can’t halt progress, I suppose.

The production relied on old school theatrical devices; props, wooden swords, animal carvings, effective lighting and smoke effects, rather than an over-reliance on ‘hey wow’ technology.

Of course, not all the props elicited the desired effect – one young lad in the audience made it clear that he wasn’t scared of the wolf, but hey, you can’t spook ‘em all.

The young audience was encouraged to use their imaginations and even invited to participate in a perilous sea voyage – I was invited too but I’d just eaten so I didn’t want to take a risk.

It was a young audience with a great awareness of the times. They needed little encouragement to air their views, when invited by Gabrielle, on a whole host of subjects, from women’s rights to arranged marriages.

Even poor old Carl got the kind of treatment reserved for the panto villain when he announced himself as an investment banker.

The theatre experience may not ultimately replace the game console or Pixar dvd as the go-to source of children’s entertainment, but for a while at least, those who attended this performance with their parents would have experienced the power of a physical performance and the simple pleasure of using words, not graphics, to create pictures they will never forget.

Each young member of the audience left with a little map in hand, encouraged to use it the way Granuaile used a compass and the stars as her guide through stormy seas to reach her ultimate destination in life.  

Not that we could see the stars thanks to the downpour that met us when we left the theatre, but whilst indoors, we were educated and entertained by a lovingly created production.

The run ends on March 16th so bring the kids along while you can. I guarantee you’ll all learn something.


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