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Allusion: The Ferryman (2017)

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The Ferryman employs dense allusion in the troubling manner of traditional tragedy to set up a confrontation between the forces of history and myth, where history wins but myth points to what might have been, but cannot yet be achieved. Allusions principally to Virgil, Shakespeare, Pinter, Heaney, Yeats and Friel destabilise the apparently heroic status of its protagonist and the Republican cause, and establish myth rather than history as a humane narrative for its characters. Tragic allusion and the supernatural come together in the play’s final moments where in Quinn’s rash actions can be seen to evoke an immanent force hitherto outside history which erupts into the present, figured by the banshee. Yet The Ferryman can perhaps be seen to be present enduring colonialist stereotypes.


  • Jez Butterworth
  • The Ferryman
  • Tragedy
  • Allusion
  • Myth
  • The Troubles
  • Irish History

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-62711-9_8
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  1. 1.

    For this way of defining the audience see Bennett (1997: 40ff.), and Freshwater (2009: 12–13).

  2. 2.

    From a supporting but different perspective it can also be plausibly be argued that the same ideological narrative can be seen to underwrite different hierarchical patriarchal societies as distant in time as those in Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE) and Disney’s The Lion King (1994). See Griffith (1995: 112–3, fn152).

  3. 3.

    In the first published edition of the play Father Horrigan states in the Prologue that he knew Quinn and Muldoon ‘shared the cage there in Long Kesh’ (Butterworth 2017a: 12).

  4. 4.

    Asked directly in a US PBS interview in 2019 ‘who is the Ferryman in the play?’ Butterworth did not produce a direct answer. Rather, he replied that ‘I think it has that title because of that passage about four hundred lines into Book Six of The Aeneid that deals with the idea that the most punished souls are those who are forbidden burial—that have been forbidden burial and are denied passage across the Acheron … and so [it proposes] that idea that they are in a forgotten, despairing, chronic state, and that it curses those who love the dead as well as the dead themselves; [it] just is an idea that is thousands of years old and will be true in thousands of years’ time. I’m sure it’s an idea that whoever dreamt up the campaign of vanishing people, rather than dumping their bodies in the street, will have been aware of.’ Butterworth was being interviewed with his partner Laura Donnelly, who played Caitlin in the original London and New York productions. Donnelly’s uncle, Eugene Simons, was killed by the IRA and ‘disappeared’ in January 1981 (Sreenivasan 2019). See also Armistead (2017).

  5. 5.

    A close connection between the IRA and psychopathic gangsterism is depicted the 2015 film Black Mass (directed by Scott Cooper) for which Butterworth and Mark Mallouk wrote the screenplay. Black Mass is a bloody biopic of the career of the Boston hoodlum James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and includes depiction of Bulger’s funding of the 1984 Boston arms shipment which was intercepted by the Irish navy off the coast of Kerry on board the trawler Marita Ann. In one scene Bulger, played by Johnny Depp, is shown welcoming Joe Cahill, the ex-Provisional IRA chief of staff who was on a mission in the USA to acquire weapons.

  6. 6.

    Plunkett was the Archbishop of Armagh who was framed as a traitor and executed in the anti-Catholic frenzy in England in 1681. He was canonised in 1975. Drogheda in County Louth was the site of an infamous massacre of prisoners and civilians by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

  7. 7.

    The ‘stockinged corpses’ were a ‘farmer’s family who had been shot in reprisals by the Black and Tans [irregular British soldiers noted for their brutality in the 1919–21 War of Independence], left lying on their backs beside an open door’. Heaney had seen a picture of this in the IRA commander Tom Barry’s memoirs (O’Donoghue 2009: 135). The fate of the four ‘slaughtered’ Catholic brothers is recounted in Parker (1993: 107).

  8. 8.

    In the original version of The Ferryman Uncle Pat’s first words quote the book of Exodus, 34.22 (Butterworth 2017a: 20). Butterworth’s revision makes him even more anchored in the classical world.

  9. 9.

    The song also appears in Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come !, where it is sung about Gar’s lost love, Kathleen, who gets married on harvest day (Brian Friel 1996: 55).

  10. 10.

    It may be relevant that the name ‘Big Jack’, the leader who welcomed the English child, was the much-used nickname of Jack Charlton, the successful English manager of the Republic of Ireland football team from 1985 to 1996.

  11. 11.

    In an interview with The New Yorker Butterworth says that the character’s surname, ‘is based on a man by the same surname whom [the playwright] knew as a boy, who proposed to his mother a week after his father died. Butterworth says, “He was a factotum—he worked in the rose garden. He wasn’t the full bucket! He came round with flowers, and I heard the whole thing through an open window. It was the most dramatic thing I’d ever heard. I don’t usually do it, cutting something out from life and putting it in the collage”’ (Zarin 2019). For an eloquent denial of the living author’s right to give the determinate interpretation of the meaning of an allusion in their work, see Chapter Three of Umberto Eco’s Interpretation and Overinterpretation: ‘When a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers—the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involves the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules but also the whole encyclopaedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely, the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading’ (Eco 1992: 67–8). Consequently, ‘there are cases in which the author is still living, the critics have given their interpretations of his text, and it can then be interesting to ask the author how much and to what an extent he, as an empirical person, was aware of the manifold interpretations his text supported. At this point the response of the author must not be used in order to validate the interpretations of his text, but to show the discrepancies between the author’s intention and the intention of the text’ (Eco 1992: 73). Even with an intentionalist view, Eco points out that in any case the author cannot recall all the occasions a word or an event or allusion entered their subconscious memory.

  12. 12.

    Hiroko Mikami argues that the play’s abundance of literary allusion works to distance it from the events it depicts, claiming that it is written ‘at the time when people began seeking to understand terrorism and the nature of violence.’ Consequently, it is part of a class of English plays about Ireland that ‘transcend regional boundaries and have become a part of the literary discourse about the Troubles in our contemporary world’ (Mikami 2020: 124). Unfortunately I do not believe such a transcendence is achieved or achievable in the foreseeable future.


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Correspondence to Sean McEvoy .

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McEvoy, S. (2021). Allusion: The Ferryman (2017). In: Class, Culture and Tragedy in the Plays of Jez Butterworth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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