Abbey online: Archive moves from paper to digital

 

ÉAMON DE Valera dominated Ireland’s political stage for decades, but it was another stage that first attracted him. A December 1905 playbill from the Abbey Theatre reveals the young Dev, then a 23-year-old mathematics graduate, trod the boards in a production of “A Christmas Hamper”.

The document is one of almost two million Abbey posters, prints, programmes and more currently undergoing digitisation by NUI Galway. The partnership, entitled “A Digital Journey Through Irish Theatre History”, was launched at the national theatre yesterday, with President Michael D Higgins in attendance.

When the complete collection goes online in about three years’ time, it will “undoubtedly be the biggest digital theatre archive in the world”, said Dr Patrick Lonergan, director of drama programmes at the university.

Initially staff, students and visiting scholars will get exclusive access to the database, but the university and theatre will also put on projects and exhibitions for the public.

Dr Lonergan, who said the resource will “revolutionise the study of Irish theatre”, expects it to receive considerable international attention.

The collection, which contains numerous prompt scripts complete with margin notes and amendments, will enable scholars to make discoveries not just about Irish theatre but also about Ireland, Dr Lonergan added. “One of the really fascinating things about this archive is it reveals things about Ireland’s everyday life.”

The advertisements in the show programmes, for example, tell thousands of stories, he said. A cursory glance at the items on display yesterday showed ads dating from the early 20th century for McCarthy and Co’s “Smart gowns for day and evening wear”, and a notice to housewives from the Irish Feather Co Limited seeking any feather beds they might be throwing out.

Aideen Howard, the Abbey’s literary director, said she hopes the numerous records and production notes will show how theatre is really “a broad and collaborative artform”. Ms Howard said the project also provides a way of preserving the records. She said the database will make available material necessary for scholars to write the story of the Abbey.

Historians, meanwhile, will wonder what course Ireland might have taken had Dev’s dramatic flirtations met with greater success.