THE LAUGHING BOY

An Buachaill Gealgháireach

Το Γελαστό Παιδί

It is unlikely that Kathleen Behan would, knowingly, have been familiar with a palikari, the Greek word for a young man, who is in his prime, who is honest and honourable and courageous, and who has achieved greatness beyond his years. But she certainly recognised one when she saw him.

In her eyes, Michael Collins was a palikari, a heroic figure whom she admired as much for his republican ideals as for his human and physical attributes, his irresistible sense of humour, and his kindness. Collins had come to her aid when her husband was in prison and she found herself penniless, destitute and pregnant with a child who would grow up to be the rebel poet, playwright and hell-raiser Brendan Behan.

Kathleen nicknamed Collins ‘the laughing boy’, an affectionate phrase around which her wayward son would write a poem, an homage to the ‘Big Fellow’. He would subsequently integrate it, as a song, into The Hostage, the English version of his acclaimed Irish-language play An Giall.

The Hostage was produced in 1958 at the Theatre Royal in London’s Stratford East, directed by the legendary Joan Littlewood, who imbued it with her trademark music-hall style. The storyline focuses on an English soldier, who is held captive in a brothel by members of the IRA in the hope of preventing the execution of one of their own men. Littlewood’s production won multiple awards, rendering Behan and his play the talk of the theatre world.

In this, the centenary year of Collins’s assassination, a remarkable tri-lingual (English/Irish/Greek) film has been released, a poetic odyssey into the semi-mythical, previously untold story of that song and its unlikely significance in the turbulent histories of two countries at the opposite ends of Europe – Greece and Ireland.

Word of the play and Behan’s talent for gallows humour, political fearlessness and farcical irony had spread far and wide. It reached Athens and the ears of director Leonidas Trivizas, who acquired the rights for a stage production in the city.

The song, which is both a lament and a love song, invaded Trivizas’s imagination. He brought on board the renowned translator Vassilis Rotas to translate it into Greek and then turned to another iconic figure, the composer and former political prisoner Mikis Theodorakis, to reconfigure the music. Classically trained and hugely influenced by both ecclesiastical and rebetiko (the jazz-inspired music of the working-class Greek subculture) traditions, Theodorakis created a stirring new version of the song, which would take on a life of its own. It would come to symbolise the struggle for liberation of the Irish people, as well as those of other international movements striving for social justice and freedom.

More significantly, it would be adopted as the property of the Greek people, sung both at secret family gatherings and, loud and proud, at street protests against the right-wing dictatorship which ruled the country during the late 1960s and 1970s. Retitled To Yelasto Paidi, it was taken up as an anthem of left-wing resistance, a song which remains a vital and integral part of Greek popular, political and cultural life to this day.

Producer, classicist and modern Greek specialist Kathryn Baird first heard the story of The Laughing Boy and its extraordinary afterlife in Greece from the scholar and Hellenist Patrick Sammon, who had collaborated on a short radio programme about it with the Dublin-based actress Cotchie D’Arcy

“The story affected me deeply”, she says “I was fascinated to try and find out what made a song, written by a young Irish boy about an almost-mythological Irish figure in a particular historical context, travel thousands of miles to the other side of Europe and implant itself in the hearts of the Greek people.

“In Greece, it was speaking to a completely different set of historical circumstances, though the romantic figure of the freedom-fighting hero is universal.”

The film germinated in her mind for about ten years until, with the Collins centenary looming, she and Sheila Friel at Imagine Media managed to pique the interest of Proinsias Ni Ghrainne, commissioning editor for the Irish language broadcaster TG4. Baird promptly invited the distinguished Hellenophile poet Theo Dorgan to join her on this voyage of discovery.

It was a shrewd move as Greece turned out to be very dear to the hearts of Dorgan and his wife, the poet Paula Meehan.

“By one of the many serendipities that have given a fair wind to this film, I discovered that Theo and Paula spend a lot of time on the island of Ikaria, where Mikis Theodorakis, had been exiled in his youth”, says Baird.  

“Then Theo and I approached the supremely talented director, Alan Gilsenan, who was delighted to come on board. So, at last, we set sail.”

Beautifully shot by DOP Colm Hogan and sensitively fronted by Dorgan – whom we witness experiencing his own moments of emotional catharsis – the film moves between Dublin, Paris (a pivotal location in the parallel lives of Behan and Theodorakis) and Athens, passing the song like a relay baton between countries and communities, recalling seminal moments in its history through a thrilling series of archive news footage and exclusive one-on-one interviews.

It is offered up for interpretation by singers like the magnificent Maria Farantouri, Chrysoula Kechagioglou, MayKay (Mary-Kate Geraghty), Liam Ó Maonlaí and musicians like Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, David Power and Labrini Gioti.

This is as rich and bewitching and thickly textured a film as the countries which gave birth and enduring life to an endearingly simple song, written for his mother by a wayward Irishman in celebration of a national hero, travelling across the ancient and modern worlds and giving voice to peoples whose fight for justice and democracy continues.

Written & presented by Theo Dorgan

Directed by Alan Gilsenan

Produced by Kathryn Baird & Sheila Friel

An Imagine Media Production for TG4, with support from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Northern Ireland Screen and the Embassy of Ireland, Athens.

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