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Heard that one about the play featuring a monk who hijacked an Irish plane?

We spoke to its writer and director Janet Moran about crafting A Holy Show.

THEY SAY YOU can make art out of anything – but making a comedy out of the true-life story about a monk who hijacked an Irish plane in order to find out the third secret of Fatima?

Well… that must have been a challenge.

But it’s all in a day’s work for actress/writer/director Janet Moran, who has crafted a funny and thoughtful play out of the true-life story that captivated Ireland in 1981. In April of that year, Aer Lingus flight 164 from Dublin to London was diverted to France after being hijacked by an Australian former monk named Larry Downey.

Flight EI 164 was about five minutes from Heathrow airport when passenger Downey, a 55-year-old Australian, is said to have gone into the cabin toilet, doused himself with petrol and headed to the cockpit holding a lighter and making threats so he could be taken to Iran.

He was told the plane didn’t have the fuel to get to Tehran, so he settled for France.

The future Taoiseach and then-Irish Transport Minister Albert Reynolds flew to France to handle the situation, given it was an Irish plane in the spotlight.

A few years ago, Moran tells TheJournal.ie, she was watching Reeling in the Years when she saw footage of Reynolds trying to sort out the hjiacking. A seed was planted – wouldn’t it make a great play?

“I just couldn’t believe it – when you think of a hjacking, your mind goes to the most terrible things,” says Moran. “But the footage shows the passengers celebrating with their rescuers.”

She was particular taken by the moment Reynolds is asked about what exactly is the third secret of Fatima, and his response: “It’s a secret. Nobody knows.”

“So I just thought it was kind of glorious and it was a kind of madcap story and thankfully nobody was hurt – [Downey] didn’t actually have a weapon,” says Moran. “It was a great way to look at Ireland then and now, how our relationship with faith has changed since then. It seems apt that an Irish hijacking would have a religious angle.”

Ireland was a more insular place in 1981, says Moran – “that has thankfully changed for the better since then”.

Moral guide

She was also interested in exploring what such an extreme event might do to people.

“One thing [that interested me] was that in absence of that moral guide, what should we be looking to as a guide for living? And I also think in a situation like that, in a hijacking or extreme situation, I think people often reach for the people they love; they bring out the best in themselves. That perspective in life can bring out the best in people. And that was interesting, when the chips were down what is important? And to me it’s the people you love, the people around you.”

The play takes the audience through the plane’s journey, with Moran focusing on a number of different imagined characters that all show a different part of Irish society. 

“There are two elderly sisters, based on my own granny and her sister. You have a young couple who are sexually inexperienced and nervous going on honeymoon – that would have been more prevalent in 1981. You have a businessman who is a bit OTT and prefigures the Celtic Tiger.”

The play was written while she was on a residency at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, while five and a half months pregnant. After she had her baby, she left the play for a while, but then returned to it later.

It opened in 2018, then went to Edinburgh last August, and the reception has been so good that it’s now about to go on an Irish tour. “It got great reviews so we were so lucky – the reaction has been so good,” says Moran, adding that they only had to tailor a few of the jokes for the Edinburgh audience.

Indeed, The List called the play “Gloriously comic and unexpectedly thoughtful …it carries you off to places you didn’t think it would go”, while the Edinburgh Reporter said: “This is a very funny script that really really entertained the audience who lapped up this original piece of work.”

Research

Some of the audience at each show goes in not realising the event really happened, until real-life footage is shown 45 minutes in.

“Someone said to me the other day: if you made it up you wouldn’t believe it,” says Moran. She was very lucky that a friend of hers, who is 101, has a son who was on board the hijacked plane.

“I was able to interview his son early on – that was terrific. He is a funny and wry man.”

She also watched the Scannal documentary and a documentary called The Holy Hijacker about the incident. “The Scannal documentary was the first time I really got a sense of how terrifying the situation was for passengers,” says Moran. She says that when it comes to finding the humour in it: “I think if you play everything truthfully it’s funny, if you play everything truthfully you find the pathos as well. I don’t have to make the absurd bits absurd – they are absurd.”

Moran is known for her theatre work in shows including Ulysses, The Plough & The Stars, Juno and the Paycock (National Theatre, London/Abbey Theatre co-production), Shibari, Translations, and film and television work including Love/Hate, Dublin Oldschool, Breakfast on Pluto and Quirke (BBC). 

In 2015, she was one of the actors who took to the stage at the inaugural Waking the Feminists event at the Abbey Theatre. The event called for gender equality across Irish theatre. Has she seen changes take place since?

“I actually think it’s made a huge difference,” she says, praising its grassroots accomplishments. “Personally for me I definitely felt that if people are going to make space you need to step up and try something, not sit in the background and say ‘I couldn’t do that’. Part of it is being older and having more confidence. I definitely hadn’t thought it was possible before and Waking the Feminists made me think [change] was.”

“I think it’s not just the women themselves who were woken, obviously,” adds Moran, describing how Screen Ireland is among the organisations that implemented gender equality programmes as a result. 

“I think the checks and balances are there and people in power, like on boards, are conscious of how it’s up to them to make sure targets are met.”

As an actor for more than 20 years, Moran enjoys having introduced the directing and writing side to her work. This is the second play she has directed. “It’s really nice to be constantly challenging yourself, so it’s been really exciting to me after 20 years of acting to have a show I’ve written on.”

But you’re probably asking – how did the hijacking end? Well, let’s just say that it involved the French special forces, a 10-hour stand-off, and Albert Reynolds boarding the plane to greet all of the passengers as they disembarked. A truly Irish hijacking indeed.

Written and directed by Moran, the cast stars Roseanna Purcell (Copper Face Jacks: The Musical, Red Rock, Fair City) and Mark Fitzgerald (Copper Face Jacks: The Musical, Alone It Stands). From 23 January, A Holy Show is going on a full nationwide tour, with dates announced for Galway, Limerick, Laois, Wicklow, Cavan, Carlow, Cork, Longford, Clare, Belfast and Tipperary as well as a host of Dublin dates and two dates in Paris. Tickets on sale now. See local venues for booking details

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