Irish theatre a delicate balancing act for Taibhdhearc’s new artistic director

As she takes the helm of the national theatre for the first language, Anne McCabe aims to preserve our heritage while being modern and inclusive


Spring and Anne McCabe work well together. The new artistic director of An Taibhdhearc, the national Irish-language theatre, has spent much of her career cultivating green shoots in RTÉ and TG4, including Ros na Rún .

“Yes, I do love start-ups,” she says, recalling how, as one of TG4’s first commissioning editors, she hosted workshops to create a pool of writers for the Irish-language soap. Now, 18 years later, she aims to woo such talent for stage drama with Aon Scéal, a new Irish-writing initiative planned as part of An Taibhdhearc’s 2014 programme.

Seven sagas of the Tuatha Dé Danann with the actor Diarmuid de Faoite, a ballet gala and an adaptation with Moonfish of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea for Galway Arts Festival are other highlights of the diverse programme, which will be published on Monday, with the blessing of An Taibhdhearc’s new patron, the playwright Tom Murphy.

Last summer McCabe directed a Macdara Ó Fátharta translation of Murphy’s The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant , entitled An Tí orá nach Drogallach , in the newly refurbished Taibhdhearc, which had been closed for several years after a fire. Using surtitles for non-Irish speakers, the production played to full houses.

In December she was offered the position of artistic director, and it felt a bit like returning home.

“All my life, since I was a student, I’ve been acting or directing or producing. Now it has all come together,” she says.

McCabe went to primary school at Scoil Lorcáin, in Blackrock, Co Dublin, and spoken Irish was “imprinted on the hard drive”. So although she didn’t continue at an all-Irish secondary school, or take the language at third level, she is at ease with the Erse and doesn’t lose too much sleep over grammar.

Inheriting the mantle
Yet she is also acutely aware of the mantle she has inherited at the national theatre for the first language, which opened in the Augustinian Hall in Galway in 1928 with Micheál MacLiammóir’s Diarmuid agus Gráinne . Mac Liammóir not only designed the set and costumes but also painted the golden peacocks on the stage curtains, which are still there. Later that year he and Hilton Edwards opened the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

Even as the capital was focusing on Irish playwrights, the Galway theatre broke new ground in its first decade by staging a number of translations of international writers, such as Gogol, Chekhov, Molière, Tolstoy and Henri Ghéon.

Its adventurous director was Proinsias Mac Diarmada, an Army corporal stationed with An Céad Cath at the Irish-speaking Renmore barracks, in Galway, who was transferred to Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin to learn production skills at the Gate, from Edwards and Mac Liammóir, and then sent back west to run An Taibhdhearc.

Walter Macken took on the post in 1939. He wrote, directed and translated plays, acted, and designed costumes and sets, before resigning, in 1947. Three years later the theatre would stage what some would say was one of its finest productions to date: San Siobhán , the Irish-language version of George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan , translated by Siobhán McKenna, who also played the title role.

As noted in the theatre’s 75th-anniversary history, published by the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway in 2003, the bishop of Galway at the time, Dr Michael Browne, declined an invitation. Browne wrote that he did “not think that attendance at a Shaw play would be a suitable means or occasion for one in his position”.

Many actors later associated with Druid, Macnas and other successful companies cut their teeth at An Taibhdhearc. Among them were the late Micheál Ó Maolallaí, better known as Mick Lally, and Seán and Máire Stafford, parents of Maelíosa Stafford. It is only natural, then, that McCabe should plan a heritage exhibition in the theatre foyer.

“The Gaeilge, the litríocht and the dramaíocht combined here make for a national treasure,” she says. “You take Macdara Ó Fátharta’s translation of Tom Murphy, and that’s a beautiful rich Irish, which preserves the language in amber and which is always in danger of being lost.”

“Dramaí Gaeilge . . . oscailt do chách” – “Irish drama . . . open to everyone” – is her new programme motto, and she believes that the theatre must reflect an association with a language that is about “more than fishermen conversing in geansaís”.

Bearna babes
She took on a similar challenge when TG4 started and when Dublin-based prejudices were dispelled by the appearance on national television screens of what she fondly calls the Bearna babes.

Finance comes directly through the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, but it covers just three full-time staff, including herself, along with a part-time accountant and part-time front-of-house staff. “So while our remit must reflect the 20-year strategy for the Irish language, we are funded akin to a local arts centre.”

Still, she is determined to stage a series of An Taibhdhearc’s own productions and some “hire-ins” over the next six months, and hopes to apply for funding for a literary editor or dramaturge.

One of the early productions she is very excited about is a series of sketches based on the oral Irish Leaving Cert exam, involving a number of Ros na Rún actors.

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