Digitised Abbey Theatre archive exhibition due to open at NUI Galway

Project billed as largest of its type in the world

Scrapbooks kept by Lady Gregory, hundreds of set and costume designs, and an original prompt script for Sean O'Casey's The Plough And The Stars are among over a million Abbey Theatre artefacts which are being digitised by NUI Galway (NUIG).

The project, billed as the largest digital theatre archive in the world, involves records of 1,500 plays, the work of 4,000 actors, the lines of 70,000 characters, a million pages of print and handwritten notes, and 133 years of history.

The first exhibition of the work will be viewed by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn this morning (thurs), when he opens NUIG’s new Hardiman Research Building for humanities and social sciences.

Outfits made by the theatre's costume department, including a silk two-piece with Indian overcoat worn by the character Sarah in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara and the extensive attire worn by Queen Elizabeth 1st in Tom McIntyre's Only an Apple, are on show.


Fitting the costumes to mannequins earlier this week, Abbey Theatre's head of costume Niamh Lunny explained that the undergarments were as much a part of the clothing and had to be displayed as such - corsets, "bum pads" and all.

The university acquired the Abbey’s archive two years ago and digitisation is expected to be completed next year.

Material was gathered from "all sorts of places" including the National Library of Ireland, according to the theatre's archivist Mairéad Delaney.

“We would never have had the equipment to digitise ourselves, and this has cut out some 20 years of work for us,” she explained.

“A lot of material was damaged in the theatre fire of 1951, but quite a bit also survived.”

One of the most rewarding finds was the prompt script for The Plough And The Stars which had been left open on the last page, even as the blaze broke out. Ironically, that last page had Sergeant Tilney and Corporal Stoddart joining in the chorus for "Keep the 'owme fires burning", Ms Delaney said.

Both Lady Gregory and WB Yeats were acutely aware of the need to retain material for posterity, she said, as Lady Gregory had kept scrapbooks herself for the first couple of years, and had bound master programmes of productions into volumes.

The original material will be returned to source, while the digitisation allows researchers to view items like the drinks menu for the former Pit Café, which offered The Whiteheaded Boy (lemon juice) and a Joxer (raspberry) at sixpence a glass.

NUIG professor of drama and theatre studies Prof Patrick Lonergan said the idea of the Abbey Theatre was conceived at Coole Park in south Galway, while so many writers, artists and musicians were inspired by the west coast. It was only fitting that the digitised archive should also come west, he said, "completing the circle".

From September, two postgraduate students with PhD fellowships will be working on the archive, while members of NUIG Dramsoc will be able to view videos of Abbey productions, research lighting and set designs, and consult stage manager notebooks, he said.

The archive was more than just a story of one arts institution, in that its minutes books and the advertisements in theatre programmes reflected the history of Ireland from 1894, Prof Lonergan said.

The Hardiman Research Building, located with the James Hardiman library, already houses papers of writersThomas Kilroy and John McGahern, and the archives of companies such as the Druid Theatre, Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe and the Lyric Players Theatre of Belfast.

Abbey Theatre director Senator Fiach Mac Conghail said that in its110th anniversary year, it was a “great occasion to showcase publicly the first digitised items”from the archive.

It would be a “major resource for Irish theatre and assist scholars and historians” when completed, he said, and would also “inspire the next generation of theatre makers”.

Mr Quinn is also due to open a new home for NUIG's school of psychology as part of a €23 million building project on campus. NUIG president Dr Jim Browne said the new landmark buildings were "testament to the breadth of the humanities and social sciences, from the creative arts to the complexity of the mind".

The Performing Ireland 1904-2014 exhibition is open to the public in the foyer of the NUIG Hardiman Research Building and will run until October.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times