Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

The structure of the play is certainly strange; McGuinness placed the end at the beginning, with the seven fellow soldiers dead. However, this is intended to emphasise the point of Old Pyper’s loneliness and regret. The imagery of the solitary Old Pyper, now an old man, is intended to remain with, and perhaps haunt the audience throughout the play, until the reasons are uncovered towards the end. The passion and anger with which Old Pyper rambles within the first few lines of the play aim to intrigue the audience; perhaps they suggest insanity.

This notion is supported by the fact that although he is alone in the room, Old Pyper appears to be talking to a number of people, as if they were in the room with him, which of course they are when they appear as ghosts later on in the scene. Those he refers to are his fallen comrades from the first day of the Somme, and it is soon clear that he was the only one to survive, and still after all the time that has passed, he remains bitter and resentful both to himself, his fellow soldiers and indeed God.

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I feel that Part 1 is more able to be appreciated when experienced in written form, as it is easy to refer back to, whereas when on-stage once it has passed there is no means of moving back to check the speech of Old Pyper, as there are numerous ironic and regretful references mentioned in Part 1, to be realised later on in the play. One notable example is when Old Pyper mentions that he ‘enlisted in the hope of death’, and this decision is later criticised by Millen, who refers to Pyper as ‘a maniac’, and also Craig passes judgment on Pyper for being the only one to sign up not to sign up to represent the nation through the UVF.

This final criticism comes among the final few words before the soldiers commence battle, and clearly has a major effect on Pyper, as the bitter irony is that he is the only one left alive, even though he was the only one who signed up cynically. Pyper however does not view his life as survival; ‘Darkness, for eternity, is not survival’. Pyper had previously mentioned at Lough Erne that he did not believe in the solitary God, but rather ‘Domestic Gods’, something which intrigues Craig, Roulston and Crawford.

He claimed it was better to be living, to ‘touch’ and ‘live’. Once again this proves bitterly ironic in the context of Part 1, when he mentions how he was ‘taught, by the very depth of their belief, to believe’, referring to the ‘heroes’ who ‘died with [him] without complaint’. He does not believe he is a hero, and is in distress due to the seeing of ghosts of his fallen companions ‘during daylight’. The realism of the scene is heightened when Pyper pauses, and changes his mood.

After the ringing, bigoted speech in which he mentions surrender, freedom and ‘blood as [his] inheritance, totally out of place among dense rhetoric and clichi?? s, he loses spirit, perhaps after realising his idiotic outburst, and appears to fall into a deep depression, and demands that the ghosts leave him, as he ‘does not wish to be [their] chosen’. It is probable that the ghosts are a metaphor for his guilt and regret during this scene.

It appears strange that Pyper mentions how he changed after the war, ‘for [them]’, even though the audience is not aware of what happened in the space between. This is certainly an unorthodox method of dramatic writing, but in this situation I find it works rather well. He then proceeds to recount the little things that took place during the time he was with his comrades, such as ‘hymns and football’, but also the example of the orange sash that ‘a good man who wanted to enter the church’, Roulston, gave to him.

Whilst preparing for battle, the men each swap sashes with another and so, as these represent the local loyalties, it is clear that the men become one, and so the orange sash has added significance for Old Pyper. This orange sash provides another link back to the first scene, and similarly a trigger for Pyper to refer back to the haunting July 1st, whereupon the ghosts of arguably the three closer men to him, certainly the three men who changed him most during the time, appear; Craig, Roulston and Crawford.

It is at this point, when Old Pyper appears to converse with the ghosts, that he is indeed unbalanced, probably a result of the harrowing memories of the Somme. The human touches from Pyper seem to give way to the horror that has taken place, and even though it is only a few pages in, this is certainly a well-constructed, poignant moment in the play. Old Pyper then begins to recount the horror of the actual battle, the only mention of the actual conflict in the play, to horrific detail, and he seems unable to stop narrating the gruesome details, ‘I saw that too, [McIlwaine] cut in two’.

He then stops, and then as if Craig was there with him, tells him how he ‘died that day with [him]’. This shows that Pyper, since that day, has had almost no point to live, apart from to carry on the remembrance of the seven, to ‘maintain the freedom of faith that they fought and died for’. He then goes on to realise that the reason for him missing them more each day could be because he is coming closer to them. He then calls out to the spirits to let him know why it was him that remained. Clearly, after all the contemplating, he still remains bitter and without answers.

He then almost seems to justify himself, claiming that he ‘was born knowing there was something rotting in humanity’, and that he deserves to die for his actions. There is now a sense of Old Testament to his rhetoric, mentioning both Adam and the temple of the Lord. Upon the arrival of Moore, Millen, McIlwaine and Anderson, he realises that the circle is complete, and begins to recite phrases that appear later on, with some relevance, such as ‘I have remarkably fine skin’, and ‘ Look David, I’ve cut myself peeling an apple, kiss it better’.

It is at this point that the younger Pyper appears, as if to bring Old Pyper back to the beginning, taking the audience with it, for him to recount once again. I feel that Scene 1 is constructed excellently, and sets the standard for the rest of the play. It is both chilling, and intriguing to the audience. The placing of the supposed final scene at the beginning of the play is superb, although it does highlight the necessity of the text to pick up the smaller points between Old Pyper and the eight men.