Professor analyzes theater of Irish Revolution
Daniel O'Boyle | Thursday, September 11, 2014
Fearghal McGarry, a professor of Irish History at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, delivered a lecture Thursday titled “Lost Republic: The Abbey Theatre’s 1916 Rebels,” which focused on the role of seven leading members of W.B. Yeats’s famous Abbey Theatre during the Easter Rising.
McGarry also highlighted Ireland’s cultural revolution and its connection to the growth of revolutionary political movements, and how the goals of the Easter Rising differed from its legacy as the centennial anniversary of the event approaches.
McGarry challenged the concept that Yeats and the Abbey’s political productions inspired the Irish people to support a republican sentiment. Instead, he said the actions of many often-overlooked organizations that shared members with the Abbey, operated in both the political and cultural spheres, and were more notable causes for the violent uprising than Yeats’s relatively conservative theatre.
“Contrary to the myth of the Abbey as a breeding ground for Irish Republicanism, the theatre was often critical of the movement, and while some plays caused the Abbey to come into conflict with Dublin Castle, there were similar clashes with Irish Republicanism,” McGarry said.
McGarry said rather than the commonly-held view that a cultural revolution fueled a political movement and violent uprising there were in fact “many overlapping circles or culture and activism, and it is out of this that revolution began.”
McGarry said many other groups played a more important part in the Rising than the Abbey Theatre, including Inghinidhe na hÉireann, or the “Daughters of Ireland.” The Daughters of Ireland, like almost all Republican organizations of the time, contained its own theatre company, McGarry said.
“It is culture, rather than class, that allowed for the inclusion of those who would typically be excluded from these political movements, such as women and the working classes,” he said.
“The nature of drama appeals to the political because it requires actors to take part in the play, an audience to observe it and a space for the play to be performed in.”
McGarry also said these organizations were crucial to the Irish revolutionary movement because of their values and the importance of these values to the Rising. These values were gradually lost over time by what McGarry called the “Catholic-Nationalist narrative” of events. Specifically, McGarry said the feminist and socialist aspects of the Rising, which the Abbey’s revolutionary members supported, appeared to be forgotten in its legacy.
“In economic, political, cultural and gender terms, the revolution disappointed its members from the Abbey Theatre,” he said. “Revolutions usually end in failure, and for the Abbey Seven, there was the failure to transform society rather than just change the state.”