The Dead School: An Ordinary Descent into Mayhem


“I’m not interested in writing about murder and mayhem per se, I think that is a kind of conduit or filter through which I refract or push my imaginative view of what the world is all about. Being born, living and dying – it is mayhem, chaos and madness.” Patrick McCabe

Traditional Irish small-town ordinariness is the archetypal territory of McCabe in The Dead School. This play retells the tales of rural Ireland by describing a place and its people through a secret lens. For Patrick McCabe, people who put down small towns are just trudging out the same old opinions – they don’t open their eyes. For the events in The Dead School are at times microcosmic and insignificant but yet they slowly culminate and reach a tragic crescendo of ordinary mayhem. It is this that he captures with great detail – that particular kind of bizarre, insane world of Irish country life in the 1970s at a critical moment; a moment where past rules, past opinions and past traditions no longer apply; a moment of utter and deadly inter-generational struggle. The world captured by McCabe in The Dead School becomes the realm of the social fantastic – one of everyday chaos and madness.

The Pathology of Cultural Transition in Ireland


The physical environment of The Dead School becomes the locus for this inter-generational clash. The schoolroom and the two main characters (Raphael Bell and Malachy Dungeon) that command it become symbols of the decay of the twin Irish gods of nationalism and religion and of the new rampant individualism.

A brief outline of the background, interests and music of the lives of Raphael and Malachy shows that these two protagonists couldn’t be more different.

Raphael Bell:


Background: Son of Evelyn and Mattie Bell. Born “on a warm July afternoon in the year of Our Lord 1913.” A model of good behavior, head altar boy, head prefect at St Martin’s College, the ‘king of all headmasters.’

Interests: religion, visiting the sick, the Eucharistic Congress (1932), pride taken in all things Gaelic and Irish, poems of the executed insurgents of 1916, balladeers, martyrs, St Brigid’s cross.

Music: Count John McCormack’s ‘Panis Angelicus’ and ‘Macushla’, Charles Kickham’s ‘She Lived Beside the Anner’.


Malachy Dungeon:


Background: son of Cissie and Packie Dudgeon, “the biggest bollocks in the town”. He assumes the identity of American movie heroes.

Interests: partying, drugs, drinking, KFC, American Movies (Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Chinatown), comics, TV.

Music: Horslips, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bob Marley.


An Incomplete Transition

With discussion topis such as abortion, womens underwear, sex before marriage and divorce entering more and more into public discourse and interpersonal dialogue, Raphael, the protector of the old ways, begins to feel “as if someone slapped him right across the face.” For Malachy, the rebel, this is the language of his world, the new world.

Both men appear like aliens to the other and so they clash in a way which signifies more than just a difference of opinion. This is an incidence of cultural crisis for two men who have both lost a parent in their early lives and are therefore emotionally stunted as a consequence.

In The Dead School, the transition of the old Irish institutions – that of the church, family and state – to that of modern Ireland is fractured and incomplete. Consequentially, McCabe’s broken protagonists embody the repression and claustrophobia of Irish life, and are driven, in the case of Malachy, by the desire to reach beyond it to alternative identities derived from popular music, comic books, cinema and television. Raphael, on the other hand, becomes more and more atavistic, resisting every attempt by the new Ireland to influence him.




The interface and transition between ‘the new’ (the culture of global, telecommunicational, postmodern Ireland) and ‘the traditional’ (the family, the small town, the authorized national narrative, the social and religious character of the state) is imagined by McCabe as seriously pathological, having disastrous and monstrous effects. In The Dead School, the characters are in a state of flux as they move perilously from one cultural domain to the next. And there is no exit from this painful emotional and psychological state. It is a pervasive presence throughout the protagonists’ personal, familial and communal histories as a form of contamination, as a submerged, unthinkable supplement that can be put off for so long, until the entire structure of their world falls to pieces.

In The Dead School, both protagonists are sent crashing headlong into the warring forces of change and tradition to which there can be only one end: madness, mayhem and commonplace disaster.

The Dead School tours nationwide to Galway Town Hall Theatre, Civic Theatre Tallaght, The Everyman Cork, The Watergate Theatre Kilkenny and Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire in February and March 2016. See our Tour Dates page for more information. 

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