A theatre of memory: performing modern Ireland

A look at social change in Ireland, as portrayed through theatre

Speaking in Chicago in October 1963 at a dinner in his honour, taoiseach Seán Lemass addressed business, political and civic leaders about the changed landscape, both physically and psychologically, of modern Ireland:

“At home, Ireland has changed and is at present changing faster than ever before and the change is far reaching. The Ireland of the mists on the bog is gone forever. The bogs have been drained and the mists have been replaced by power plants which produce electricity from the peat … the land of the jaunting car is today manufacturing automobiles. The spirit of the rising generation of Ireland … is exerting a new and powerful impact on our psychological climate.”

Lemass’s depiction of Ireland as a nation already transitioned into industrial and economic prominence was in itself a performance of modernity. This development was reflected in two major supporting facets: the modernisation of the Irish landscape from a passive to an industrially productive asset, and the emergence of a prosperous and educated middle-class. But was this “performance” of nation a farce? How did the Irish State live up to the postcard-vision of Ireland espoused by Lemass to his US audience?

When we examine the period through the history (and marginalised histories) of the Irish stage, we gain a new vantage point – a lens through which to see modern Ireland being held up to scrutiny in front of itself, an examination of the State in real time through its positions on class, gender, justice, and equality. We can find a historical record of new Irish plays that looked beyond “the mists on the bog” and opened the door into the modern Irish home and family itself, the structure upon which the State’s new vision for itself was built.


New plays which sought to examine the family within the State (along lines of class, gender, and the law) include The Millstone (1951) by Carolyn Swift, An Triail (The Trial) by Máiréad Ní Ghráda (1964, and in English in 1973), and A Pagan Place by Edna O’Brien (1977), adapted by the author from her novel of the same name.

The plays uniformly deal with the dramatisation of a liberalising national attitude towards sexuality but which also reflected the encompassing attitude of shame, victimisation and stigma placed upon women in Ireland in instances such as pregnancy outside of marriage, resulting in the subsequent enforced adoption of children within and through largely Catholic institutions. These works depict a changing Ireland where liberalising attitudes towards the body, sexuality, and personal independence signalled a shift in dramatic form and theme within Irish drama.

The initial Pike Theatre production, The Millstone, was written by Swift and produced by her husband, Alan Simpson. First performed at the Town Hall in Dún Laoghaire on September 3rd, 1951, The Millstone presented a critique on the status of legal adoption in Ireland as well as about the status of the adopted child and the rights of the birth-mother on access to their child. Swift criticised the lack of regulation or transparency regarding the forced adoption of infants from predominantly unmarried mothers in Ireland during the early 1950s.

The Millstone was billed on its programme as “a topical play”. The proposed Legal Adoption Bill was passed in the Dáil in 1952, confirming the play’s “topical” theme. The Millstone featured Swift in the role of the teenage girl, Bridget, and was set in then present-day Ireland within the middle-class home of a Dublin suburban family, before its climax where Bridget’s mother returns to “claim” her daughter as a means of cheap domestic labour.

The critical reception at the time was uniformly misogynistic, with reviews dismissing the play as “a tear jerker for women”. Yet, the play is hugely significant for many reasons. It is the first (and neglected) Pike Theatre production, a theatre club that would within a decade arguably change Irish drama, if not also international drama, through its first English-language staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and for giving Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow its first outing (a play that Swift worked on and shaped extensively). Beyond the Pike, Swift was a successful author of children’s novels, worked for many years for RTÉ and wrote, adapted, or produced many of its early television series, from Tolka Row to Wanderly Wagon, as well as being the dance critic of this paper for many years.

Abbey Theatre

In December 1971, Lelia Doolan took up her position as artistic director at the Abbey Theatre. In an interview with RTÉ News, Doolan outlined her plans for developing a “creative fusion of actor, audience and author”. A three-year plan was to open with a year of classics, foregrounding the heritage and tradition of Irish drama. Doolan’s ambitious plans were rooted in a vision for the development of the artist as well as in the work and audience. None could develop without the other. However, lack of support from the Abbey Board, as well as budgetary constraints, contributed to Doolan’s tenure being forcibly cut short, despite such successes as the first Abbey production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (directed by Doolan at the Peacock theatre) and of Sean O’Casey’s famously and previously rejected play, The Silver Tassie, directed by Hugh Hunt, both produced in 1972. In clarifying her intent to bring “theatre to the people”, Doolan outlined that “we feel as a national company it is our duty to get out as much as we can”. Such intent would not be lost on any theatre director today.

The decline and loss of Ireland’s natural heritage as well as traditional values is also an explored theme of new plays of the period, from Brian Friel’s The Mundy Scheme (1969) to Hugh Leonard’s Summer (1974). The novelist Aidan Higgins, writing from London in a letter to playwright Thomas Kilroy in October 1974, described the downfall of Irish heritage and destruction of the landscape in the name of modernisation:

“[I] rarely pass over to Ireland but when last there I was struck by the curious ugliness of progress, Irish style, single domestic dwellings planted like sores here and there, stand on Killiney Hill and marvel at the slurb marching into Co. Wicklow.”

A ‘Pagan Place’

Edna O’Brien’s 1977 play, A Pagan Place, tells of the story of Creena, a teenage girl who lives in a claustrophobic rural Co Clare village, and under the threat of violence from her father, reminded by his wife in the play to be “monarch of all you survey. The nettles and the briars”. The “pagan place” that O’Brien creates is modern Ireland, where its Christianity is so lacking in any sense of Christian compassion, where rape is an overhanging threat and where abortion is demonised. In writing to Tomas Mac Anna of the Abbey Theatre about staging the play, O’Brien warned the artistic director to, “Brace Yourself! It might be a most alarming thing”.

In writing a new book about the history of modern Irish drama and the state, I found myself immersed in the stories of Irish society, of its people, and also of marginalised voices, as told and retold through Ireland’s theatres. Records of how Irish drama responded to and spoke out about the public and private experiences of a society forges a distinct cultural record as part of our national memory. Such stories have now come to the surface once more through archival labour of appraisal, cataloguing, digitisation, and access.

What also cannot be forgotten from such studies is how the history of Irish theatre (and of its present) is a record of those who create it. The artistic labour, from the work of actors to set and costume designers, from technicians to directors, and from playwrights to managers, is what lies unseen by audiences but what forms the core of the archive.

Central to this book on theatre and social change is the idea of archive and memory: both experienced and performed, the simultaneously present and absent. The theatre archive is a national archive. It comprises a social history of modern Ireland. The theatre enables us to witness traumatic truths or be enriched by story-telling. Within its liveness we can choose to reflect on our complicit silence or give voice to what we may wish to change. Today, within the records of such theatrical histories, these memory spaces take on the form of performances in their own right – as part of our theatre of memory.

Theatre and Archival Memory: Irish Drama and Marginalised Histories 1951-1977 by Dr Barry Houlihan is published by Palgrave MacMillan