In the 1870’s, Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland was the site of a major schism in the Catholic Church – becoming the focus of a controversial power struggle between the British Parliament in Westminster and the Roman Empire, the repercussions of which were felt throughout Europe. The parish priest in a wild attempt to stand up for his beliefs, sued his Bishop and his Cardinal in civil court, and was defrocked and the church put under interdict. This sent the town into uproar, creating a bitter division in Callan, the echoes of which can still faintly be felt to this day.
Thomas Kilroy spent his childhood in Callan in the 1930's and 40's - a town still very much divided by the schism. Half of the town attended mass in the Church of the Assumption (the Big Chapel); the other half went to the Augustinian Friary, and 'never the twain would meet'.
Kilroy's 1971 fictionalised re-telling of the events that unfolded is a masterpiece of story-telling. Among the many themes, Kilroy, with a keen eye firmly on the events in Northern Ireland at the time of writing, examines the dangers of blind belief, where religious fervour spills swiftly and easily into blind violence. He also explores the importance of education in society.
The root of the schism was an attempt by the renegade priest to introduce radical educational reform to the town, in the face of hardline church authority - this, in the birthplace of Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers.
Today, the echoes of the big chapel bell take on new resonances. Callan becomes a microcosm of a broader global picture.
The revelations of the Catholic Church's fascistic control over Irish civil society in our recent past; the slow and painful separation of church and state in our education system, where access to non-denominational education is still limited to the lucky few.
In global terms, the novel tolls a warning against the dangers of dichotomy and over simplification. The Big Chapel's Reds and Schismatics reflect the polarisation of left wing v's right, Catholic v's Muslim, native v's migrant. In the Trump/Brexit era you are either one of us or one of them; you're in or you're out; you're black or you're white. Ignorance triumphs over reason and knowledge; truth fights a desperate battle against 'alternative facts'.
We are using the story of The Big Chapel to speak about the world we live in now. A world where lies and truth become interchangeable and where dangerous rhetoric and who shouts it loudest controls public opinion. It is a story about radicalisation and violence in pursuit of resolution. It is also about how young people represent our best chance for change.
The events of the book, which take place in a broken chronology over a number of years, now happens in real time and over the course one day. We have condensed the story to be about the forceful taking of Fr. Lannigan’s schools by the Schismatics of the Bishop’s side and the simmering tensions between the two warring factions. This eventually builds to a riot on the town’s cross and eventually the tipping of the balance of power to the Schismatics as they launch an assault on the big chapel to finally remove Lannigan once and for all. The balance of our story moves between scenes of riot and scenes of prayer. Our interior scenes offer quiet, focused exchanges that help to tell the human aspects of the story. Our exterior scenes are raucous, loud interactions that represent the violence and division of the novel.
The characters, story and themes of the novel remain the same and the spirit of Kilroy’s work is crucial to our adaptation. However, the experience of The Big Chapel has evolved into something more visceral, emotive and participatory. It is a big, challenging story and our adaptation rises to this challenge by offering a unique, timely take that evokes the scale and ambition of Kilroy’s novel.
‘…the town seemed to elevate itself, sleek, glittering roof upon roof in a beauty of black and pewter-grey shoulders with an occasional fleshy side of pink brick, all rising and converging on the steeple of the Big Chapel on the heights.’
In The Big Chapel, the buildings and streets of ‘Kyle’ are personified by Thomas Kilroy; they shape and impact the lives of the characters in the novel as if they were characters of the novel themselves.
How does the architecture that surrounds us impact on our everyday lives? How does it shape our past, present and future?
Callan is on the cusp of shifts and changes as a pilot town of Project Ireland 2040. Asylum Productions have invited both Studio Weave and the students of UCD School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy to consider these questions and more as we engage the people of the town in this large-scale, inclusive project.
Internationally renowned architects, Studio Weave have been researching, engaging and creating projects in Callan for the past seven years – you can read more about their work HERE.
The Big Chapel podcast is part of a year long celebration of Thomas Kilroy’s novel coproduced by Asylum Productions, Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Abbey Theatre, in association with Kilkenny Library Service
Funded by the Arts Council/An Comhairle Ealaíon.
Music by Irene Buckley : Engineer Martin Bridgeman (Episode 1).
Presenter Etaoin Holahan
Each episode focuses on a chapter of the novel in conversation with enthusiasts, experts, and admirers.
We begin our journey inside the novel in conversation with Thomas Kilroy and Stephen Rea, followed by Kilkenny playwright John Morton in episode 2.
Over the last 12 years, Asylum Productions have a had a pretty unique relationship with the town of Callan in Co. Kilkenny…
Since 2007 we have been working (playing) in Callan.
We played in one (large) building - the Callan Workhouse - eventually creating Six by Sundown by Ciarán Ruby - initially inspired by Callan-born playwright Thomas Kilroy’s tales of adventures there in the 1950s.
We played in one (small) street - Upper Bridge Street, eventually creating Bridge Street Will Be by John Morton - inspired by stories gathered by Equinox Theatre Company - who ran a café as part of the Abhainn Rí Festival in 2014 - offering tea or coffee and a slice of cake in exchange for stories about the street.
What’s amazing about making theatre in a living breathing town with living, breathing people in it going about their daily business living and breathing) is that it’s not just theatre that happens…