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Coffins, Alan Rickman’s desk and Seán O’Casey’s pram: Inside the curious world of the Abbey Theatre’s props warehouse

The national theatre’s warehouse in north Dublin is bursting with stories. Eimer Murphy, Ireland’s only props master, takes us on a tour

Theatre is full of brilliant stories, but not all of them are told on stage. Walk around the Abbey’s props store, in north Dublin, and you’ll come across a gilded angel, a black-horned bull mask, an intriguing array of coffins and what seems like acres of chairs.

Eimer Murphy, the theatre’s property master, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of almost everything. Here’s the desk Alan Rickman used in a show, there’s the pram that has been in “pretty much every production of The Plough and the Stars” and over in a corner is the large metal chandelier Olwen Fouéré swung across the stage from, as Ariel in The Tempest. “You wouldn’t be allowed to do that now.”

Props can become the stuff of legends. Murphy tells me the one about King Henry VIII’s bed, which was used in a host of Pinewood Studios films about the Tudor monarch. It apparently turned out to be Henry VIII’s actual bed, she says. Back at the Abbey there were rumours that WB Yeats and Lady Gregory would occasionally borrow gold torcs from the national collection for their productions and that possibly not all were returned.

We stop at a Free State bicycle that’s now more than 100 years old. “They were army issue. There was a holster here that is rotting away. It was donated by a man from Toronto.” We pass a clutch of vacuum cleaners, many also donated, and a huge fake wedding cake that Murphy made. We pass an old Button A/Button B telephone, then pause to consider some hay bales that seem smaller than usual.


“They were made for the Ukrainian Translations we did in June,” says Murphy. “We got a list of things they needed, and they sent dimensions. I thought, that has to be wrong. But, no, that’s what a hay bale looks like in Ukraine.” The idea of using an Irish-sized bale never crossed the team’s mind. Accuracy is everything.

“Everything has to be right for the place and the period. Stephen had a background in antiques,” she says of Stephen Molloy, the Abbey’s legendary long-serving former props man. “So he could date something exactly. I’m self-taught, but as a prop master you end up with very specific knowledge of very bizarre, obscure things.”

Audiences, she says, will write or email at the merest hint of an anachronism. She recalls a production of the Chekhov play Three Sisters in which the director wanted Masha to be inconsolably cradling a teddy bear.

“He said he wanted her to be holding a toy that symbolised her lost youth,” says Murphy. “So I did all this research about Russian toys of the period, and he said, No, give me a teddy bear. Everyone knows teddy bears came from Teddy Roosevelt, much later, and that it’s American, so it was horrifyingly wrong.” The director prevailed – and, yes, there was a complaint. “It came from the president of the Irish historical teddy bear society. That’s why I tell students to always assume the expert will be in the audience.”

We stop at a long, bubble-wrapped table that has recently returned from a trip to Prague, where the Irish Society of Performance Designers, of which Murphy is a member, had hosted a series of discussions at the quadrennial event that brings together theatre designers from around the world. Previously it had been centre stage in Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner, but in the Czech capital it was the centre of conversations about issues facing theatre makers the world over. “That was the big eye-opener – that it’s universal,” says Murphy, referring to the long hours, job insecurity, low wages and burnout afflicting the theatre community.

Talk also extended to wishes and ideas for the future. It has been edited into a film, The Next Four Years, which was shown as part of Dublin Theatre Festival and has since been touring Ireland.

One of Murphy’s wishes was for a larger warehouse – and it would be useful, as the items at the Abbey props store really do earn their keep. Some are historic, some are remade or repurposed and some are created from scratch. Many are used time and again, and loaned to sister companies, so there’s a strong element of sustainability in this element of theatre. “A production-manager friend of mine used to call the Abbey prop stores ‘the invisible subsidy of Irish theatre’, which is the best description ever,” says Murphy proudly. Bentwood chairs are the most borrowed.

There are vogues in productions, and a current keenness for mid-century modern. Lighting changes things, too. “LED lighting makes everything so much brighter and crisper, so it’s almost like now we’re seeing everything in high definition on stage. And that affects everything.” Murphy points out a chair that has been repainted while out on loan for a film. “Film props are different, because they may only be seen from one angle. In theatre we have to assume every part could be on show.”

Props can wind up being reused out of sentiment. A chair that appeared in Thisispopbaby’s Alice in Funderland, which Wayne Jordan directed in 2012, has been back on stage for Jordan’s premiere of Somewhere Out There You, written by Nancy Harris, with sets designed by Maree Kearns. As well as being integral to the production, the chair was also be there to give Jordan a smile.

“Eimer and I have known each other for 20 years at least,” says Kearns. “We have a shared history and a shared knowledge. She knows things inside out: what’s there, what’s not; and she can suggest things to you which might steer you off in a different direction than you’d anticipated. One of the brilliant things about it is the ability to reinvent everything. Junk to you is treasure to me.” She describes working on a show set in 1920 that called for a barricade, “so I said to Eimer, can I have all your broken chairs and a broken piano?” Murphy said yes, of course.

Somewhere Out There You called for a swift succession of scene changes, which Kearns tackled by using key props as emblems. “You have to make minimal and strong choices. It’s a big, vibrant play, so it needs a big, vibrant setting. Everything is really bright, contemporary, and because the scenes shift really quickly, we’re trying to say a lot with one piece of furniture. One chair has got to tell about a character. Irish audiences are so clever,” she says. “They’re attuned to this sort of thing. One item can tell us about a whole room.”

Props are also important physically, as actors have to be comfortable. “They have to have a relationship with where they’re sitting, what they’re holding, as they’re out there with it on stage every night.” Low chairs and deep, soft sofas aren’t ideal, as they can be tricky to get out of. Circular tables are a joy. “There’s one that’s been used, like, a million times,” says Kearns, laughing. “And there’s an Aga out there, a replica Aga that Stephen made that’s been in every single show that’s needed an Aga.”

“There is no other full-time prop department in this country,” says Murphy, referring to a fact that also makes her Ireland’s only props master. She initially gleaned a great deal of her knowledge through working with Molloy, before taking over the role on his retirement, in 2019. “Without people having secure jobs, we’re losing that institutional memory,” she says. “I guess the reason I’m in this in the first place is because I happen to love old things. I have been obsessed with them since I was a child.”

She puts this down to having been born in the United States. “It was the 1970s, and we were living in very modern apartments. Everything was bright and shiny and plastic. And then, when they brought us home, I’d go to my grandparents’ houses and I’d see heavy, dark wood, things I’d never seen in my life. It made a large impression on me.”

A passionate protector, as well as custodian of the props in her care, Murphy says that many of the actors she works with share that love. They’ll recognise things from previous shows. “It connects,” says Murphy. She tells a story “which has more to do with costumes than props, but Aonghus Óg McAnally was doing something coming up to the 1916 commemoration, and he was getting fitted for the film, but they were using the Abbey costume hire.” Trying on various greatcoats, he slipped into one and said, “It’s like this was made for me.” “Then he looked at the name tag in the back, which read Ray McAnally.” The coat had been made for his grandfather.

“Some people see this store as a millstone,” she says, “but this is the material that is part of the Abbey history but also the story of Ireland. There are things from the big shows that are the canon, like The Plough and the Stars, and things that simply were of their time. They were common to start with, and now they’re as rare as hen’s teeth.” We pass by a collection of religious imagery near the front door. And a Proclamation. And a Russian icon. And a fabulous floral candelabra. All of it is a wonder to behold.

The Next Four Years is being screened at Galway Arts Centre on Wednesday, November 22nd; and at the Factory, Sligo, on Thursday, November 30th. Both screenings will be followed by a public conversation