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  • Reflecting Irishness, Mirroring Histories:Performing Commemoration in Irish Theater in 2015
  • Ciara L. Murphy

In 2015, Irish theater makers, along with Irish society as a whole, embarked on a journey of focused, facilitated, and notably, almost always state-led reflection. Upon entering the third year of the “Decade of Centenaries” that began in 2013, it was clear that the focus on historical commemoration and historical reflection would continue to inform much of the artistic output of this year—in part due to the lack of funding in artistic structures for work that lay outside of this theme.

The year was characterized by reflection, some of it dramatic, some of it less so. RTÉ hosted a weekend of cultural, educational, and theatrical events titled The Road to the Rising on O’ Connell Street, specifically to build momentum for the upcoming 1916 commemorations. This event, and events like it, were commonplace across Ireland in 2015 and set the tone for cultural and artistic offerings going forward. These moments of commemoration encouraged critical reflection and debate among scholars, artists, and the media. Many artists chose to avoid simplistic nostalgia and instead to reflect on Ireland’s darker histories, often obscured by grander (and predominantly patriarchal) narratives. Indeed, much of the year’s new writing rejected the theme of commemoration entirely, instead choosing to focus on contemporary issues. New work reflecting the Irelands of the present and various prominent canonical works were re-imagined in order to problematize the consideration of what it means to be Irish in 2015.

The absence of an Irish City of Culture, and the increased focus on major Dublin venues and companies touring regionally, showed in the less vigorous offerings in regional theater in 2015. However, the “Three Sisters” of Kilkenny, Waterford, and Wexford competed with Galway and Limerick for the European City of Culture bid for 2020 (Galway was selected in July of this year), and cultural leaders in these communities and cities made every effort to highlight their artistic output. This is most apparent in Galway, where the annual International Arts Festival brings audiences away from Dublin each year and creates a focus on the artistic offerings in the West of Ireland. Collaborative relationships between [End Page 112] theater practitioners in the North and South of Ireland also flourished in 2015. This is evidenced by an increase in northern Irish plays being staged in Dublin and a sharing of resources between the Abbey Theatre, the Gaiety Theatre, the Dublin Theatre Festival, and the Lyric Theatre.

The appropriation of funding for arts projects favoring commemoration has been the major catalyst in determining the output of the Irish artistic community: in effect, the theme of commemoration has been foisted on Irish artists. Commemoration in this context is thus state-led, and pursues a predominately state-led agenda. Of course, many artists challenge this and choose to explore the darker corners of Irish history, and in doing so, also challenge the state bodies responsible for these unpalatable moments in Ireland’s past.

In October, the Abbey Theatre released the details of its centenary “Waking the Nation” program for 2016, funded by the Department of the Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht to a total of €500,000.1 This commemorative program intended to mark a hundred years of Irish history by staging ten plays that explore and commemorate a century of Irish identity. A glaring omission was immediately clear: only one of these productions, Me, Mollser, was written by a female playwright (Ali White), and only three of these productions had a female director (Cyprus Avenue, directed by Vicky Featherstone; The Wake, directed by Annabelle Comyn, and Me, Mollser, directed by Sarah Fitzgibbon). As soon as this program went live many women—both inside and outside of the theatrical community—expressed their disdain. As this narrative became more prominent on social media, utilizing the hash tag #WakingtheFeminists, the Irish (and international) media began to cover the controversy, leading to a general outcry. Hordes of concerned artists and public figures took to national, local, and social media denigrating the Abbey’s outgoing Artistic Director Fiach Mac Conghail’s choices for 2016, declaring them more fit for an Ireland of the past rather...


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