The Silver Dollar Boys

Cork Examiner review

by Kay Hingerty, 1986.

Neil Donnelly’s “Silver Dollar Boys” at the Abbey is set in a Christian Brothers School of about 20 years ago. The boys in Leaving Cert. Class have endured, often evaded, a form of education which was administered with varying degrees of terror and sarcasm – this last often providing entertainment, but not for the pupil victims.

The teachers were often themselves victims of the system. Brother Lorcan (Peadar Lamb) deplores the teaching of the Irish language, which uses up learning hours with the knowledge of no use to the student facing the world outside. Students are imbued with hatred of the English as they study history. “Take it (history) away and what have you left?” “Clear minds”, responds Brother Lorcan.

Eamon Kelly’s analysis of “the war-loving characters of the dastardly English against the pure and simple Irish” comes with “findings” of a foregone conclusion reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes deductions. Equally extravagant is Kelly’s deference of the Irish language as an invaluable ploy in the baffling of New York taxi drivers (multi-lingual, but not “multi” enough) who act as foreign-spy detectors for the UNO. This vastly amused even the New Yorkers in the audience.

These were the highlights of the teaching. Other indoctrinations were used: Brother Fitzmaurice (Martin Dempsey) gives a lovely unsubtle build-up to setting a case for a career in the Brotherhood, resulting in one recruit, the unctuous teacher’s pet – MacDara O’ Fatharta – in a very sustained performance, through all of its developments.

The students are a frustrated lot, but they have fun goading the teachers, bursting out of repression. Barry Lynch’s Lorenzo is a joy of Sicilian import to the Midlands. In an exuberant (but controlled) performance, he illustrates the big-time of small town life; when he “dies” in a preview for the boys of the Jesse James film just arrived; when his Maradonna-like soccer fills the rather bare stage.

Malcolm Douglas gives a sympathetic portrayal of Billy Wrafter, whose built-up resilience to being daunted doesn’t survive being sought after by the schoolmaster and rejected by his girl. He embarks on the life of a terrorist, with tragic results.

Ben Barnes directs the excellent cast, which includes Des Cave, Catherine Byrne, John Olohan, Jonathan Ryan and Ronan Smith

The Irish Times review

by David Nowlan, 1981.

Billy Wrafter is no genius. Like many another lad he gets beaten by the Brothers when he doesn’t know his lessons. At home his father doesn’t care much – and cares less after he has to visit the school because Billy has said that Brother Lorcan (father’s old football-playing chum) was responsible for the great bruises on his body. Father conveniently no longer believes Billy, so mother takes up the cudgels on her son’s behalf against the sinisterly intellectual and probably homosexual lay teacher who does further damage to Billy. But mother, God help her, is already half demented, and Billy ups and away to Kilburn where, fuelled with anger against his home town and with crazy ideas of Irish patriotism (ironically fed to him by one of the Brothers who treated him kindly at school), he falls in with a drug-shooting Armagh man and a pop-singing dope peddler who plant bombs. Meanwhile his schoolmates at home have either made it rich in showbands or the drink trade or themselves have entered the Brothers.
When the play opens Billy and his Kilburn chums are poised for a bank raid in his hometown. Confrontation, hatred, revenge and disaster are the legacies left to Billy by his tortured childhood. But Mr. Donnelly is more interested in tracing how Billy came to the edge of the world than in watching him fall over the precipice. His play takes us back 20 years to the Midlands of Ireland to unearth the seeds of Billy’s destruction: the brutal teacher, the misguided ones, the inadequate parents, the taunting school-chums, the teasing girls and that glib culture which mixes English soccer with American pop and jingoistic Irish nationalism. It is a dispassionate journey of discovery in which there is no single villain; rather, a set of circumstances in which Billy reckons that no one will listen to him. Well, he’ll make himself felt, and we’re back to that threatening start. Or is it the finish?

“The Silver Dollar Boys,” which received its first performance in the Peacock Theatre last night as part of the Abbey’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival, is a comic and serious play. By no means all of it works, but some scenes are triumphantly successful (one hilarious history lesson will not quickly be forgotten) and few are without interest even if some are larded with cliché. Mr. Donnelly has not given his director an easy task: the play is delivered in a couple of dozen episodes and, while each scene is unquestionably theatrical, the overall mechanics might have proved easier to handle on film or videotape. But Ben Barnes has overcome most of the problems with a fluid production in Wendy Shea’s very cleverly functional setting and Tony Wakefield’s helpful lighting.

The performances are grand for the most part, generally resisting the temptation to base caricatures on some of the clichés. Malcolm Douglas, Stephen Brennan, Macdara O’Fatharta and Maeliosa Stafford make a marvellous gangling sly quartet of schoolboys, with Douglas catching Billy’s anguish and the others making the most of the considerable comedy. Peadar Lamb is a grand bullyboy brother, Kevin McHugh a nastily smooth and nauseatingly superior English master, and Tom Hickey a sharply funny, oddly touching, patriot Brother of the old school.

The Irish Press review

by Michael Sheridan, 1981

Neil Donnelly made a brilliant start to his career as a playwright with Upstarts. The play, set in a Garda station in the midlands, caught all the claustrophobia of the small town mentality and painted a highly effective portrait of the stifling politics of compromise.

This work dealt with a number of themes, with violence and brutality in a prominent position. Donnelly’s second play, The Silver Dollar Boys, which opened at The Peacock last night, deals with the same subjects in a different context and in a radically different manner than Upstarts.

The midland claustrophobia is still present, as is the punishing atmosphere of the one-horse town. This time it is experienced through the eyes and sore ears of the local boys in the Christian Brothers’ school during the late fifties. There is still, believe it or not, a generation in Ireland which remembers the classroom sadists with decreasing horror.

There were, of course, the good teachers and the bad ones and thankfully the author does not tar the whole profession with the one brush, and his good comic sense gives the audience something more than a one-dimensional view. And he succeeds marvellously in expressing the incredible narrow mindedness of an education system obsessed with preserving a so-called Irish tradition. A scene at the beginning of Act Two, in which the history teacher trots out the patriot game with brainwashing Gaelic abandon, is both hilarious and incredibly real. Brother Duffy, marvellously recreated by Tom Hickey, has a view of historical events that would make Mein Kampf read like a romantic novel.

But the other side of the collar is revoltingly expressed by Brother Lorcan, who believes in execution before trial. Peadar Lamb captures every strap-beating nuance with the glee of a drunken storm-trooper. Donnelly does not like the Christian Brothers much, but neither does my father, who falls into a catatonic trance at the mention of their name. In this area the playwright is highly successful in creating the classroom world seen through the beaten-down eyes of the victims of the system. But later on, when he attempts to trace the careers of the men let loose into the big bad world, the play takes a thematic dip.

We are confronted with an IRA recruit and successful businessmen, who show just how accurately they have learned the morality of love thy neighbour. The trouble is the work attempts to span too much of the lives and the “livehoods.” The logic of the classroom breaks down, but it takes the play down also to a level of banal comment.

However, there are so many good things in The Silver Dollar Boys, and even if it fails fully to articulate its thesis, it must receive high recommendation. The big cast perform with verve, commitment and skill under the fine controlling hand of director Ben Barnes, who overcomes almost all the difficult tasks of staging.

Sligo Champion review

by Malcolm Hamilton, 1987.

To run deep into the formative years of youth and answer the questions of why we are what we are is the task Neil Donnelly undertook with his play The Silver Dollar Boys, which opened last night in Sligo’s Hawkswell Theatre.

The play, performed by the Playwrights and Actors Company, is a marvellously witty and compassionate study into the lives of four young men growing up by the rulebook of Christian Brothers teaching during the ’60s in Ireland.

Both the performances of the company and the direction of Kevin McHugh proved incisive in bringing Neil Donnelly’s script to an absorbing life of its own. The play is in two acts. The first of these concern the actual formation of the four central characters, the young students, Lorenzo, Des, Bob and Billy.

As boys in the local Christian Brothers College they pass through the social influences of their age, maturing through a haze of football, subjective Irish history lessons, illegal bottles of whiskey, and sexual fantasies, all combined for the most part by Donnelly’s enormous potential for wit.

By the end of the first act the pattern of humour, however, is betrayed as the more serious implications of environment and background begin to shape the eventual destinies of the four young men. It is here that Billy, after a run in with a highly respected, but nonetheless perverted teacher, abandons school for a gloomy future.

Act two continues the tale, into their four adult lives, the abandonment of time and young illusions. In the case of the three young men who remained in school, their lives took the now fairly normal, but nonetheless colourful courses that the ’60s and ’70s opened out for their generation.

For the unfortunate Billy, however, life was to lead him firstly into civil rights protests in the North and from there into a deeper republican involvement, crime, and a sad conclusion.

His plight is perhaps the one most important to Donnelly’s play and its inherent theme, namely the responsibility of an environmental, and educational influences on the shaping of a young adult.

In climbing back into school desks and school uniforms Nigel Mercier (Lorenzo), Frank Smith (Des), Enda Oates (Bob), and Ger Dunbar (Billy), proved so adept that one found it hard to accept their final adult roles in the play. Gerry Walsh was a magnificently funny Brother Duffy as was Paul Raynor in the part of the rotund and energetic Brother Lorcan. The play runs until August 15.

In Dublin Magazine review

by Tomas O Maitiu, 1986.

Fair is fair. Credit where credit is due. I enjoyed Neil Donnelly’s ‘The Silver Dollar Boys’ as much as anything I’ve seen this year. Well the first half anyway. Eamon Kelly’s Brother Duffy is superb. Peadar Lamb as Brother Lorcan is muscular Christianity personified (most of the muscles being in the head) and John Olohan’s teddy boy is a pleasing evocation of the type. The interplay between the four ‘schoolboys’ Jonathan Ryan, Macdara O’Fatharta, Barry Lynch (really good surprisingly, because I can’t stand him on TV) and Malcolm Douglas is excellent. It is only when we follow the boys into maturity or what passes for it that the thing begins to creak. Everything works out too neatly. The mammy’s boy is gay, the molested disillusioned one an IRA man, the duffer a wealthy man, the ladies’ man having his marriage annulled.

Perhaps the magic of the first scenes is just the recognition of the situations that I and all Brothers’ Boys’ feel when confronted with what we were. When as Patrick Campbell says somewhere ‘Tall pale lads were beaten with billiard cues, and we wonder how we ever struggled up to become adults’. I know a real shudder ran through me when Kelly cleaned the blackboard, threw the glantoir to Malcolm Douglas and began chalking the lesson. All the nationalistic nonsense, all the pointless discipline and petty cruelties came back. But for God’s sake at least it doesn’t happen any more and isn’t it better to laugh at it than moan about it like Jordan and Plunkett and even Joyce. Go and see it if only to realise how much better off you are now you’ve grown up. Ceart go leor. Sin a bhfuil go Foill.

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