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Irish actor tells a story with God Has No Country

March 28, 2017
Donal Courtney on stage(photo / Tom Maher)

On March 31 and April 1, Rochester will host the U.S. premiere of God Has No Country, a one-man play written and performed by Irish actor Donal Courtney. The drama tells the story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish cleric in German-occupied Rome who used his Vatican connections to harbor Jews and escaped prisoners of war during World War II. Ultimately, he saved more than 6,500 lives.

Courtney will present the play at 7 p.m. on both nights, in Todd Theatre. There’s no admission charge. The performances, along with an acting workshop, are part of this spring’s Humanities Project.

Based in Dublin, Courtney has performed the show in Ireland for the last three years and will take it to Rome in the summer and to Singapore next fall. “It’s not just an Irish story,” he says. “I’m eager to see how it plays to a U.S. audience.”

It’s a personal piece of art for Courtney. Like O’Flaherty, he was raised in Killarney—but the elder man’s life story was unknown to him. “I’d gone to the same school, walked through the same streets, but I’d never heard of him,” Courtney says. He discovered that his own grandfather, a tailor, had made suits for O’Flaherty.

“The more I researched, the more I realized I had in common with him,” Courtney says.

But O’Flaherty, who died in 1963, was reticent about his heroism, and Courtney saw taking to the stage as an opportunity to make the priest’s story more widely known. Topical issues permeate the play: religion, war, and humanitarian crisis, among them. And Courtney expands upon those questions in lively discussions with audiences after each performance.

two posters side by side, one promoting the GOD HAS NOT COUNTRY play aon March 31 and April 1 and the other promoting the ACTING IRISH master class on April 1

But he also has a strong regard for the sheer power of O’Flaherty’s tale.

“At the heart of it all, it’s just a good story,” he says.

Courtney found his way to acting through his love of writing drama. A 1991 graduate of Ireland’s famed Gaiety School of Acting, the country’s national theater school, he began to study acting as a way of understanding playwriting. He has combined the two crafts ever since.

He’s an acting teacher, too—Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender has called Courtney his mentor—and he’ll offer a master class, “Acting Irish,” that’s free and open to all. It will be held from noon to 4 p.m. at Sloan Studio in Todd Union on April 1.

The class will focus on Irish drama and the nature of Irish storytelling. “Irish theater has a different energy than English or American theater,” he says. “A lot of Irish theater isn’t action-based—it’s memory-based; it’s based on the telling of stories.”

Storytelling is how the Irish “kept our culture,” he says, “the oral passing down of stories. And that’s really where this play came from. I wanted it to be an oral version of the Monsignor’s story.”

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Category: The Arts