THE story of Martin O’Meara VC – and what’s been described as “one man’s journey into hell” – comes to life in the award-winning production Under Any Old Gum Tree this May.
Written and directed by Noel O’Neill, the show is being staged at the Shenton Park Community Centre and includes songs and music written and dedicated to O’Meara, exploring his life as he came from Ireland to Western Australia and then from No Man’s Land to insanity during World War I.
The play picked up several gongs at the 2014 Dramafest, the annual state drama festival, including people’s choice, best actor and adjudicator’s awards, as well as an outstanding achievement award at the Milly Awards.
O’Neill was originally asked to by Fred Rae, publisher of The Irish Scene, to write Under Any Old Gum Tree.
“We both agreed it seemed such a tragedy and waste of life for a man who had fought in France, was wounded three times and received the Victoria Cross to spend 12 years in various asylums and mental hospitals,” he said.
“It was due to post-traumatic stress, which wasn’t diagnosed until the Vietnam War.
“O’Meara was badly treated because they really were not equipped in those days to treat the mental horrors of war
“The attitude was ‘if a little medication helps, then a little more must help even more’ – but it caused quite a lot of damage.
“I thought it best to allow the audience to imagine what it must have been like instead of the in-your-face approach theatres are filled with these days.”
The Irish-born O’Neill has won numerous awards for writing and directing and currently lectures for the Perth Actors’ Collective and WA Academy of Performing Arts.
He moved to New York in his late teens, studied acting with Lee Strasberg and appeared in many off-Broadway productions.
Arriving in Perth 14 years ago, O’Neill has worked as an actor, director and writer with the Irish Theatre Players, Graduate Dramatic Society and the Old Mill and KADS Theatres.
With Under Any Old Gum Tree, he said had to be very careful and true to the dates and historical times when writing the script.
“I don’t think I could truly capture what O’Meara went through during his army service and his time in the asylum,” O’Neill said.
“That all came from imagination, thinking what it must have been like.
“But I must say, during previous performances, the veteran soldiers were deeply moved so I felt I had touched something within them.”
Under Any Old Gum Tree plays at 7pm May 1 and 2 with a 2pm matinee May 3. Tickets are $25, $20 concession, $10 children, $60 family – book at http://www.trybooking.com/HEGN.
The Shenton Park Community Centre is at 240 Onslow Road (corner of Onslow and Herbert Roads), Shenton Park.
gum tree1: Kieran Garvey, right, plays Martin O’Meara VC in Under Any Old Gum Tree with Rex Gray as his asylum attendant.
martin o’meara: The real Martin O’Meara VC.
BACKGROUND: Who was Martin O’Meara?
Martin O’Meara (1885-1935), sleeper-cutter and soldier, was born on November 6, 1885, in the parish of Lorrha, Tipperary, Ireland, son of Michael O’Meara, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Connor. He arrived in Western Australia as a youth, having worked his passage as a stoker.
Giving his occupation as sleeper-hewer, he joined the Australian Imperial Force in Perth on August 19, 1915, and left Australia with the 12th Reinforcements for the 16th Battalion in December. After training in Egypt in early 1916, the battalion moved to the Western Front in France where it fought on the Somme. On August 9-12, the 16th mounted an attack on German positions at Mouquet Farm near Pozières. Devastating German artillery fire caused heavy casualties. An entry in the battalion war diary on August 12 laconically stated “the trench as a trench had ceased to exist”.
During this period O’Meara, then acting as a stretcher-bearer, behaved in a manner which led one officer to describe him as “the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen”. He was credited with having saved the lives of more than 25 wounded men by carrying them in from No Man’s Land “under conditions that are undescribable”. Even after the battalion was relieved of its commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel E. Drake-Brockman, O’Meara returned to the frontline through the bombardment to rescue two wounded comrades despite having “reached a position of comparative safety”. At other times he had, on his own initiative, brought up much-needed supplies of grenades, ammunition and food. For these actions, O’Meara was awarded the Victoria Cross.
O’Meara spent the rest of the war with the 16th Battalion; he was wounded three times and promoted to sergeant. In November 1918, he returned to Australia and was discharged from the AIF in Perth in November 1919. His war experiences caused a complete breakdown in his health… he spent the rest of his life in military hospitals, suffering from chronic mania. He was too ill to attend a special Armistice Day dinner in 1929 given by the governor of Western Australia for the State’s VC winners. He died in Claremont Mental Hospital, Perth, on December 20, 1935. His death certificate gave his occupation as “returned soldier”. He was buried with full military honours in Karrakatta Catholic cemetery by Fr John Fahey. The mourners included three VC winners: C. Sadlier, J. Woods and Thomas Axford. Senator Sir George Pearce was a pallbearer.
In 1917, O’Meara had revisited his native Ireland where money was raised as a testimonial to him from Lorrha and neighbouring parishes. He left it to the parish to restore the historic Lorrha Abbey. That task being beyond this sum, it was instead applied to repairs of the existing parish church. In 1986, his VC was donated to the West Australian Army Museum.
More about Martin O’Meara: http://martinomeara.weebly.com/