The Play Jackals by Night Crows by Day
1943 Kilburn, Donegal man Tommy couldn’t wait to join the British army fighting Nazi fascism. But can his high ideals survive service in the Far East? And how will his young Irish wife in London cope with separation?
By Maureen Alcorn
Like most men who survived the Second World War, my dad was unwilling to share many stories about his experiences. Firstly I guess because I was a child and he wouldn’t want to frighten me about the evil that war unleashes. Secondly, men are notoriously bad at talking about their emotions, especially my dad’s generation.
And I think the experience of serving in Burma and fighting tooth and claw against the Japanese was so traumatic, my dad never fully processed it as witnessed by the terrible nightmares he suffered sporadically, waking up screaming, terrified by the dream images of soldiers plunging towards him, bayonets at the ready.
My dad grew up in Donegal, on a twenty acre farm near the banks of Mulroy Bay, in a tiny hamlet called Muneaugh. Home was a tiny thatched cottage, which he shared with two brothers and two sisters. Water was hauled from a nearby well.
All a million miles away from the humid jungles of Burma, facing a tough, relentless enemy determined to fight to the last man. But that’s where my dad went, signing up as soon as he reached eighteen. I think he was motivated by the glamour of the RAF, the moral rightness of the fight and the inevitability of leaving a rural Ireland that could not sustain him.
At least 165,000 men from Eire enlisted to fight in a war they were never compelled to join – and whilst it’s true that for many the imperative was economic, others wanted the excitement of action or were convinced it was a just war.
Ireland remained neutral during the war. De Valera remained ambivalent about the thousands of men flocking across the channel to join up. In essence, they were keeping a poor country afloat, sending money back to their families when unemployment was rampant.
When Anne Curtis, creator of Green Theatre Company, brought a group of writers together to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising with a festival of plays on the theme of Irish lives in London since the Rising, I was immediately drawn to setting my play in the early forties and basing it loosely on my dad’s experiences.
In contrast to ‘Jackals by Night, Crows by Day’ my dad headed for Birmingham, not the London of the play, as his brother Tommy had already established himself there and married my Great Aunt Alice – a formidable woman low on patience and high on passing judgement.
I decided to split the play into two parallel parts – showing what happens to a young wife in London while her husband is fighting against the Japanese Army in Burma.
I did a bit of research before I began writing – about life in Ireland during the war years. There was a real tension in the perception of the British, who believed the Irish were living the high life.
There was also war torn London to research – bombings, rationing, petty criminality and the urge to survive at all costs.
I really enjoyed writing the play. It helped me to imagine what my dad and the hundreds of thousands of other men endured for the long years of the war in Burma.
The title, by the way, is taken from an account by one of the soldiers who had fought in Burma and warned against being taken prisoner. The Japanese would kill their prisoners slowly, by impaling them crucifix style against the branches of a tree, leaving the crows to pick out their eyes by day and jackals to devour their feet by night.
Jackals by Night, Crows by Day at the Colour House Theatre, Watermill Way, London SW19 2RD on Sunday 23rd October.