‘We’re all just people’: play remembers PUP leader David Ervine
by Laura RODRIGUEZ-DAVIS
2 September 2023
The sold-out performance of The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary concluded with a standing ovation from the audience. Written by Robert Niblock, directed by Matthew McElhinney, and produced by Green Shoot Productions, the one-man show featuring actor Paul Garrett as David Ervine recounted the life and legacy of the ex-loyalist paramilitary member turned politician. The play was followed by a panel discussion reviewing Ervine’s legacy and influence in Northern Ireland.
Upon entering the main stage of the Lyric Theatre, the audience observed two stacked oversized books, from which Garrett dynamically embodied, not only Ervine, but a number of other notable figures from the former assembly leader’s life. Starting from the beginning of Ervine’s life, the play journeyed through his youth, marriage to his wife Jeanette, and eventual recruitment into the Ulster Volunteer Force. His paramilitary involvement led to his imprisonment at Long Kesh, where Ervine served time alongside playwright Niblock.
While in prison, with influence from fellow UVF inmate Augustus “Gusty” Spence, Ervine reconsidered his approach to protecting and serving his community, which became the impetus of his foray into the political arena and participation in the peace process culminating in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. With Garrett as the sole performer, The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary differs from other political dramas featured this year during the 25th anniversary of the peace accord, such as Beyond Belief and Agreement. This, however, offers a unique intimacy and personal quality that feels like a warmly extended invitation into the memory of Ervine.
Offering a generous glimpse into the joys and struggles of the man often remembered as a logophile, the play testified to the courage of Ervine, who frequently found himself misunderstood and at odds with those in his own community. His unwavering commitment to ensuring peace in Northern Ireland, even if it challenged entrenched community narratives, is expertly captured by the performance and further appreciates the value of Ervine’s impact.
Niblock’s script, clearly stemming from personal acquaintanceship with Ervine, is cleverly written with an understanding of the late political leader and awareness of his importance to both the working-class Protestant community and peace in Northern Ireland. Blended with humour and reverence, the show was carefully crafted with its audience in mind, providing not only a tribute to Ervine himself but a space for remembrance for those impacted by his legacy.
After the rousing applause finally ceded, patrons were invited to stay for a panel discussion about the show and Ervine. Chaired by Lynda Bryans, the panel included playwright Robert Niblock, academic Dr Connal Parr, peace activist Bronagh Hinds, and Let’s Talk Loyalism think-tank member Moore Holmes. Panellists and audience members alike shared stories and memories, recalling Ervine’s warm humour paired with his well-worded passion for his community. “I would say he was the articulate voice of unionism,” Hinds reflected.
Holmes compared Ervine to a bellwether, the lead sheep wearing a bell to guide lost sheep back into the fold. “That’s how I see David Ervine. He was a bellwether within loyalism.” Panellists agreed that Ervine was irreplaceable and while there is no modern-day equivalent, his ideas and influence live on. When considering what Ervine would be doing today if he was still alive, Parr mused that he would serve as an independent unionist voice, ensuring open dialogue.
Questions from the audience sparked discussion about unionist voter engagement, conjecture about Ervine’s view of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the current concerns of the loyalist community. Niblock concluded the panel, asserting, “Loyalism has a lot more to offer.”
The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary poignantly revisits the life and impact of Ervine: from his humble beginnings to his journey into the throes of violent sectarianism and ultimately helping bring peace to people of all communities in Northern Ireland. For a man who often used ambitious words, he is remembered by a simple principle: “We’re all just people.”
The Man Who Swallowed A Dictionary runs at the Lyric Theatre until 10 September 2023.