Moving Bloody Sunday elegy ‘The White Handkerchief’ unveiled in advance of 50th anniversary premier

A milestone in the production of a new play about Bloody Sunday was reached with its official launch in the Playhouse on Wednesday morning.

Monday, 8th November 2021, 11:58 am

Written by Liam Campbell, scored by Brian O’Doherty, and featuring a local cast under the guidance of Playhouse director Kieran Griffiths, ‘The White Handkerchief - an Elegy’ will premier in the Guildhall on January 30, 2022.

Warren McCook (playing William McKinney), Orla Mullan (playing Peggy Deery), Jonny Everett (playing Paratrooper 1 - Alfie) and Rachel Harley (playing Alana Burke) performed excerpts from the production which is firmly focused on the life stories and humanity of the victims.

The first vignette featured an imagined scene-setting monologue from William McKinney, who was 26 when he was shot in the back while running through Glenfada Park, on January 30, 1972.

The second captured eighteen-year-old Alana Burke’s sense of pride in a new coat she was wearing when she was struck and seriously injured by a Saracen while attending the anti-internment march.

And the third pictured Peggy Deery, a widowed mother-of-fourteen aged 38 when she was shot on Bloody Sunday in a tense exchange with her Paratrooper assailant.

The small group who watched the preview were clearly moved by the powerful performances and it is evident the play has been informed by close engagement with the Bloody Sunday families. Among those in attendance was Kay Duddy, the sister of Jackie Duddy, who was only 17 when he became the first to die on Bloody Sunday.

Kay had with her the handkerchief that Fr. Edward Daly had waved as he and others attempted to carry her brother to safety that day. She told the ‘Journal’ she was moved by what the team behind ‘The White Handkerchief’ had managed to create.

“I think it is absolutely amazing. We feel very privileged they have chosen to do this and to think of the deceased and the wounded in such a respectful way and to carry it out so sensitively. It’s so important.

“ I even noticed among the actors and actresses at the first showing the families were invited to that they were moved playing those parts and by our reaction to them playing them,” she said.

Liam said he was acutely conscious of the onerous responsibility of undertaking a dramatic portrayal of an event like Bloody Sunday.

“I’m very aware of the sensitivities and I’m very honoured to have been given a chance to do this. It’s real lives, real tragedies, real sorrow and when you are dealing with that there is a weight that you carry with it. It’s been really reassuring to work with the creative team and it gives me great reassurance that we are moving in the right direction.”

He added that the work could only have been created with close collaboration with the victims and their families.

He cited the McKinney family, who gave him cine footage of the civil rights marches on Bloody Sunday and at Magilligan that had been captured by William before he was shot dead.

“They gave me the original footage but moreover they gave me nuggets, little diamonds of truth that you just don’t get from research, about the man he was, about his loves, his aspirations. Those are the things that really put the real truth into a play like this and gives it that human dimension. We have become so accustomed to the images of tragedy. In a sense they become like headlines that dominate our thinking around Bloody Sunday.

“It is one of the reasons why the story of William McKinney for me was the one that carries the story forward because he wasn’t one of organisers. He wasn’t one of the leaders. He was an ordinary man who was engaged to be married and had his whole life in front of him. For me that was important. He was just a son of Derry who was caught up in the tragedy.”

Jackie Duddy’s niece Julieann Campbell, who has written extensively on Bloody Sunday, as journalist and author, said: “It’s all the incidental things that make people human. I think that is just as important to remember as the tragedy and the headlines of the day.

“I think that is what will make the piece tick really, all those wee details about who people were, who they were going with and how they felt and that is all taken from the interviews with the families. It is all very relevant and true and that attention to detail is what is going to make it stand out.”

Kay believes these aspects can sometimes get lost amid all the proceedings and the tribunal and inquiry testimony.

“Transcripts can put people into the category of being a statistic rather than a person. This brings out the humanity of the people, the person, the ladies, the young boys, ‘the wains’ as we called them. Six 17-year-olds shot dead. They were wains out looking for a bit of craic.”

Julieann, reflecting on the excerpt featuring Alana Burke, said: “When I was watching the piece I remember one of the interviews I did with Alana and she said ‘I thought I was the bee’s knees’. That always stood out for me. She just went out thinking she was the ‘bee’s knees’ in her new wee cord coat and her whole life was changed.”

The image of a young girl in a new coat looking forward to showing it off to her friends ties with the overall message of innocence lost exemplified in the eponymous white handkerchief.

Liam explained: “There is something about the white handkerchief that represents purity and innocence and dignity and grace. When you consider the manner in which it was held by Fr. Daly but there were other white handkerchiefs on he day.

“For example, Barney McGuigan held a white handkerchief above his head as he tried to go to the aid of the dying Paddy Doherty because he didn’t want Paddy Doherty to die alone. Those acts of selflessness and human kindness are embodied in the imagery of the white handkerchief.”

Director Kieran Griffiths believes this will resonate beyond the streets of Derry.

“One of the things we are exploring is the children of the lost. When someone’s killed in war and a child is left without a parent that’s a global statement of war. A woman who is a widow with 14 children being shot, this resonates worldwide.

“It’s a worldwide metaphor. At times we step out of the actual moment within Bloody Sunday and take a wider looks at what is happening in the world and what happened around the time of civil rights from 1968.”

Kay said the various white handkerchiefs wielded on Bloody Sunday and at other massacres such as Ballymurphy had become symbols in the campaign for justice.

“It was actually used to stem Jackie’s blood whenever Bishop Daly was attending to him. He waved it like a blood-stained white flag when they were carrying our wain.”

She hopes the premier of the play on the 50th anniversary next year will concentrate minds and perhaps even prick a conscience.

“We live in hope that someone will want to tell the truth eventually. Someone will realise they have done wrong and know they will have to meet their maker. Jackie’s been buried for 50 years. Now I want him laid to rest.”