On Trial: the challenge of exploring on stage the lives of Irish Women

Author: Celia de Fréine

It is no secret that the number of plays by women staged in Ireland is few and far between. Factor into the mix the number of plays in Irish by women and the figure plummets. There are many reasons why this is the case: Irish theater has traditionally been dominated by men, and women have found it harder to break into it, not least because of the anti-social hours involved and the lack of support on the domestic front.


Before proceeding, it might be worth taking a brief glance at the history of theater in Ireland. During the second millennium there was no tradition of medieval miracle plays performed by craft guilds, as in England, nor had we Shakespeare and, though plays in English were written and performed from the mid-seventeenth century onwards to coincide with the Restoration in England, these were written for the English-speaking minority, and with an eye to the London stage. It was towards the end of the nineteenth century that plays in Irish and plays in English that had Irish subject matters, came to be written. Casadh an tSúgáin by Douglas Hyde, produced by the Irish Literary Theatre in 1901, is credited with being the first professional production of a play in Irish.


It is also interesting to note also that the word in Irish for theater, amharclann, means the place where we look. Hitherto, the majority of the Irish population was used to coming together to listen to stories, usually related by women. This oral storytelling tradition might well have been referred to as an éisteachtlann, the place where we listen. The strength of this tradition no doubt influenced the development of a theater which was word-based, relying on dialogue for its strength rather than visual effect. During the first half of the twentieth century many plays, written in both Irish and English, were located in the kitchen, and the kitchen set with its dresser of crockery, sink, and stove were a staple on the stages of most Irish theaters. However, few of these plays were written by women, the very people who spent the best part of their lives in this confined space, who understood how everything in it worked and who interacted with all comers, from cantankerous family members to nosey neighbors bearing gifts of gossip from the outside world. Their lack of involvement in telling the story of their daily lives on stage is directly related to the fact that so many women were tied to the sink both realistically and metaphorically. The societal mores they could have written about, had they had the time and the opportunity, are the very factors that curtailed their freedom and prevented their doing so.


What, if anything, has changed during the first two decades of the twenty first century? As a playwright, who writes in both Irish and English, I am having more plays staged than before. Why this should be, and the challenges I’ve encountered during the last thirty years are the subject of this essay, which is written in the light of the ongoing debate in Ireland on the dearth of plays by women, and of plays in Irish, being staged in major Irish theaters. In particular, I will discuss two of my most recent plays, Slán: Safe and Cathú: Temptation, both of which explore issues that concern women in today’s Irish society. I will explain what spurred me to write them, how they developed, their current status, and my plans for their future.


The world première of An Triail by Mairéad Ní Ghráda,[1] probably the most famous Irish language play and most often performed, took place on September 22, 1964 at An Damer, the Irish language theater in Dublin as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.[2] An Triail examines the case of Máire Ní Chathasaigh, a young single mother who, rejected by society, kills her child and then herself. Although Máire is the person on trial she cannot defend herself as she is already dead when the court is convened. However, as evidence is given, it becomes clear that it is in fact the society in which she lived that is on trial. This is successfully achieved through the use of the Brechtian aside which enables the audience to distance themselves from the action through comments made by the actor as s/he steps out of character to deliver her/his observations on what has occurred. Tomás Mac Anna who directed the first performance of An Triail had at the time recently returned from Berlin, where he had studied the Brechtian approach.


I wanted to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the première. As a woman playwright who has written many plays in Irish, I felt compelled to do so and, in so doing, to examine the lives of Irish women today and the changes that have occurred in them during this time. Although I had stated at the University of Notre Dame IRISH Seminar in 2012 that I didn’t intend to write anymore plays in Irish,[3] as the challenge in trying to have them produced would consume too much time and energy, my need to honor Ní Ghráda’s play forced a volte-face and the postponement of my “farewell to Irish.”


Many ideas presented themselves to me as I searched for an approach to my subject matter: I had lived during the years in question and experienced discrimination as a woman first hand. I felt, though, that a straightforward documentary-style play focused on historical events, with statistics and dates, such as 1973 when women were no longer required to resign their civil service jobs on marriage, or 1978 when contraception was legalized (for “bona fide” family planning purposes with a prescription), would be tedious. Stories of women who escape from captivity and which regularly make headline news have always interested me. In June 2013 I read a newspaper article on Mary Flanagan, a young Englishwoman of Irish descent who had disappeared in London in 1959.[4] Her case had been re-opened and Scotland Yard were asking had anyone seen or heard of her since. The article put forward several suggestions as to what might have happened to her, one of which was that she might still be alive. I began to speculate on that possibility: could she have managed to survive all that time in plain sight? Had she perhaps been held against her will? This was the idea that kick-started my play Slán, gave me the impetus to create my central character, Mary-Ann, and supplied me with a prism through which to explore my subject matter.


Shortly after I began writing Slán I was contacted by an Irish language theater and talks of a possible production ensued.[5] Nothing came of these talks but in the meantime I became one of the co-founders of Umbrella Theatre Company (UTC).[6] Although some Irish language speakers joined UTC, the emphasis was on presenting plays in English. I translated Slán to Safe and UTC decided to present a dramatized reading of it as part of our Autumn 2014 schedule.[7]


As I had begun the play in 2013, I decided that Mary-Ann would disappear fifty years earlier, in 1963. 1963 was a significant year for young Irish girls. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Ireland in June; the Beatles played at the Adelphi cinema in November and later the same month JFK was assassinated. Once I began work on the play many familiar motifs emerged. One of my earliest plays had been set in a charity shop;[8] this became one of the central locations in Safe. My love of the Brechtian approach and concern with social issues, particularly those which impact on women’s lives, went into the melting pot also, along with my passion for crime drama.


In Safe Mary-Ann’s story is paralleled by that of Stef, a freelance reporter and single mother in her early thirties who, while researching a report on missing persons, stumbles on a reference to Mary-Ann’s disappearance. Structurally, it resembles an episode in the television series Cold Case: a piece of evidence comes to light which triggers an investigation into an unsolved criminal case; as the detectives explore what happened, flashbacks are used to dramatize events as they unfolded at the time of the crime; after forty minutes the case is solved; lessons are learned by the detectives working the case and ghosts laid to rest.


As my play proceeds the circumstances of Mary-Ann’s disappearance are laid bare and society is found accountable as in An Triail. In the script, which was used in the dramatized reading, Stef does the research and unearths the story, with help from Tim, a detective who lives in the same apartment complex as she does. We discover that Mary-Ann has been held captive by Dr. Lillis, an obstetrician, then she becomes imprisoned in a mental asylum. Finally, she becomes a captive of her own conscience. During her captivity she is forced to work as an unpaid domestic servant, is repeatedly raped and gives birth to a child who is taken from her and whose birth certificate is falsified. When Mary-Ann’s story is exposed, Stef is faced with a further challenge: she must decide between her responsibility as a journalist and her conscience as a woman and mother.


Another of the main characters in Safe Ann, is a woman in her late sixties, who volunteers in the local charity shop. During the course of the play a friendship develops between Stef and Ann and the storylines of these two characters form the two strands of the plot as each in her own way drives the story forward, Stef in her quest to find Mary-Ann, and Ann, who feeds Stef interesting nuggets of information about life in sixties Ireland, and who changes from shy introverted pensioner to a woman who speaks her mind and stands up for her rights.


Early in their friendship Ann confides to Stef that she saw JFK during his visit to Dublin. Her sighting of him is one of the few “happy” events in her early adulthood. By sharing her experience with Stef, she is placing her trust in her.


STEF: Imagine what it must have been like when he was here.


ANN: I remember what it was like.


STEF: No way! You didn’t see him did you?


ANN: I went and stood in the crowd outside the GPO.


STEF: Wow! Tell me about him—is it true what they say? That he was drop-dead gorgeous—handsome and tanned with a thick mop of hair and great white teeth?


ANN: It isn’t his hair or his teeth or his skin that I most remember.


STEF: What is it then?


ANN: You’ll probably laugh.


STEF: I won’t. Go on: what is it that you most remember about him?


ANN: (Beat) It was his eyelashes. Even though I was standing a good ten yards from the car, I could see them. It was like they were made of gold. Little gold haloes around his eyes. And he was handsome. I’d only ever seen his like in the pictures. It was like Hollywood had come to Ireland.


There were thirteen characters and thirty­­­­-two scenes in the dramatized version of Safe presented in October 2014. However, when I rewrote the script for the preview performances in March 2015, I reduced the cast to six female characters and the number of scenes to twenty-three.[9] Scenes that had involved authority figures—for example, the doctor and the curate—were rewritten so that Mary-Ann, trapped under a spotlight, speaks as though in response to an interrogator. The character of the hospital psychiatrist, however, survived the cull as this character appears in the “present” also. Overall, it was felt that this approach didn’t work and, with encouragement from UTC, I revisited the script and developed the final version which premiered in the Maureen O’Hara Studio from November 17-21, 2015.


This script comprised nine characters, three of them male; there were seventeen scenes, ten in Act One, seven in Act Two. Apart from a few occasions during which the characters speak to themselves, all the asides have been removed from script and the information they contain worked into the dialogue. Asides form the bedrock of Brecht’s plays in that they force the actor to stand outside of the action and comment on what is going on in order to create the alienation effect, which causes the audience to think about what is happening more objectively rather than solely empathizing with the characters. One of the most fulfilling aspects of this production of Safe is that, in spite of the removal of the asides, it made the audience both feel for the characters and think about the situation they found themselves in, and that all post-performance discussions included debates on social issues and the sharing of personal stories about relatives who had fallen foul of the restrictive laws of the Irish church and state.


In An Triail Máire is ostracized by society because she has given birth to a child “out of wedlock.” In Safe Stef is a single working mother. Her circumstances are taken for granted by most: Ann, however, is surprised when she hears Stef has a daughter, a fact which adds to the awe in which she holds her as the dialogue between them drives the narrative. Stef’s other scenes are with Bróna who, in spite of herself, helps uncover Mary-Ann’s story


Bróna, in her late forties, is the owner of several apartments and concerned with mounting bills and negative equity. She is the daughter of Dr. Lillis and his wife, Cynthia, but during Stef’s investigation she discovers that (spoiler alert) Bróna is in fact the daughter of Mary-Ann, and has grown up in the image and likeness of her adoptive parents. She is not given to taking prisoners or tenants in receipt of social welfare payments.[10]


STEF: I came to you for accommodation once.


BRÓNA: I don’t remember.


STEF: My daughter was three weeks old.


BRÓNA: I didn’t know you had a child.


STEF: You showed me around a very nice apartment. All electric. All mod cons. Television. Washing machine. One bedroom. Just what I needed at the time.


BRÓNA: Why didn’t you take it?


STEF: I would have. (Beat.) It was you who wouldn’t take me.


BRÓNA: I’ve nothing against reporters.


STEF: We had nowhere to go. I needed that apartment but you didn’t want to accept rent allowance.


BRÓNA: I’ve nothing against rent allowance, per se, it’s the extra bureaucracy involved—all the form-filling.


STEF: Do you have anything against single mothers?


BRÓNA: Me? No.


STEF: Do you have children yourself?


BRÓNA: I’ve never been married.


As well as present day encounters in Safe we see, through flashbacks, what it was like in the Ireland of the sixties and seventies: how doctors often took liberties, how children were sometimes taken from their mothers without permission and given away, how An Garda Síochána were often complicit in wrongdoings, how the Catholic Church turned a blind eye, how psychiatric hospitals sometimes held perfectly sane people against their will.


One of the most powerful scenes in Safe happens towards the end of the play, when those responsible for Mary-Ann’s abduction and captivity, including her former colleague, Kathleen; Fr. Seán Murtagh; Garda Sergeant Timmins; Treasa, the psychiatrist looking after her case, along with Bróna, deny culpability in the style of An Triail. This scene underwent no changes during the development of the script apart from some “softening” of Bróna in order to encourage the audience to empathize with her. In both the preview performances and during the première run this scene was filmed beforehand and projected on a screen during the performance.


The part played by Kathleen was minor, in that her main role was to despatch Mary-Ann to the bar in the Montague Arms, the hotel in which they both worked, knowing that she would fall into the clutches of Dr. Lillis. However, Kathleen did subsequently visit Sergeant Timmins in the Garda Station and report Mary-Ann missing. Fr. Seán Murtagh, Garda Sergeant Timmins, and Treasa, the psychiatrist, represent the triumvirate of Church, Garda, and State Institution responsible for the incarceration of women and children since the founding of the state. Bróna’s behavior, on the other hand, differs from that of most adoptees in that, having discovered who her birth mother is, she wants nothing more to do with her.


KATHLEEN: Well, I’m glad all that has been settled and off my conscience. So what if she was held against her will—isn’t that what happened to us all? Weren’t we all chained to the kitchen sink? In thrall to our husbands?


FR. SEÁN: You say the girl was being abused. If that’s the case, it was wrong, I’ll grant you that. In any event, I was powerless to act. My hands were tied by the seal of the  confessional.


GARDA PRESS OFFICER: An Garda Síochána have no record of this girl’s disappearance. No missing person’s report was filed at the time. The Garda Missing Persons Bureau was established only in 1982. If you wish to provide details of the person in question, you must supply us with her name, age, height, build, hair colour, the date she was last seen, where she was last seen, what she was wearing, and a recent photograph.


TREASA: At the time in question very little research had been done into mental illness. Tests were less sophisticated. (Beat) Unfortunately, all hospital files, compiled prior to 1970, were lost in a fire. (Beat) I’m sure you’re aware I’m unable to comment on any ongoing cases.


BRÓNA: I can’t believe it. (Beat) I’ve had my suspicions, of course. Are you sure? (Beat) My life would be ruined if it got out I was the child of a maid. Could we not keep it between ourselves? (Beat) There’s my  standing in the community to consider. I couldn’t raise another iron in the golf club without people whispering behind my back. (Beat) Is that camera on?


This scene is probably the closest to An Triail when in Act 2, Scene 8, Máire’s mother, her brothers, Seán and Liam and other members of the community deny responsibility for what happened to Máire and her child. Mailí, the prostitute, is the only one who speaks in her favor.


In writing and producing Safe I have, together with my cast and crew, through their performance and commitment, and with the support of the co-founders of UTC, achieved what I set out to do—i.e, pay tribute to Mairéad Ní Ghráda. All three productions, the dramatized readings, the preview performances and the première run, were reasonably-well attended in that a respectable number, comprising the usual suspects of friends and family, along with a significant number of walk-ins supported each show. However, in all three productions, the main source of anxiety for me as a writer lay in attracting an audience—enough people to clear the overheads and have some revenue left over to pay the cast and crew.


During the fifties and sixties when An Damer was in its heyday, new plays were staged there regularly and were well supported by a regular audience. At the time there was an active Irish-speaking population in the city, many of whom were civil servants like myself. However, when many of these individuals married and the women were forcibly retired from their positions, these young couples tended to move to the suburbs where property was more affordable for the one-income family. Here their energy was channelled into the foundation of gaelscoileanna so that their children would receive an all-Irish education. Since the demise of An Damer no theater venue in Dublin has regularly staged Irish language plays over an extended period of time. The absence of such a theater means there is no continuity: Irish language plays find their way onto the stage in an ad hoc manner, added to which is the challenge of marketing new work.


In fact, UTC’s unique selling point—the staging of new work—can at times go against us in that members of the public tend to prefer to support productions of plays that have a track record. Newspapers rarely send critics to review work staged on non-mainstream stages. Without reviews, smaller companies and those involved in community theater have to work harder to round up punters. Thankfully, we have social media at our disposal. For a play to work well on stage an audience is needed: there can be no doubt that on the nights when the house is full performances are stunning; on nights when numbers are low the cast have to work harder. That said, Safe has had its first successful run and can be staged again at any time. Slán is still awaiting a producer.


One of the lessons I’ve learnt during the development of this play is to avoid issuing pronouncements as to which language I’m going to write in. The challenge is, as always, to continue writing in whichever language presents itself as the appropriate vehicle for the material I’m dealing with. Where women playwrights are concerned, we are still at the stage where we have to work harder to have our stories heard. A seminar on screenwriting, for instance, will explore the hero’s journey and the obstacles he has to overcome along the way in order to achieve his goal. The only woman getting a look in is Alice whom we all know fell down a rabbit hole—a story in which she enters another world but is brought there by a force outside herself. Stories by women about the lives of women, in which they drive the action, need to be told, but the challenge of finding a way into the world of theater must be overcome first.


Writing in the Sunday Times, Katy Hayes, a director with Glasshouse Productions, puts it succinctly: “I watched as my male peers got assistant jobs and training opportunities, and I simply could not find a way in. Maybe it was because I was a woman [...] but I had to face the fact I couldn’t make a living as a director.”[11] I can identify with this statement. In the late eighties, when I began to write plays, I couldn’t find a way in either, though I did come close to founding an Irish language theater. At the time it was possible for a group of individuals to come together, found an ad-hoc company, and apply for a grant from FÁS, the training authority whose remit was to train early school leavers and the unemployed. FÁS paid allowances to both those being trained and their supervisors. I founded the company Meitheal (Irish for “a working party,” often used to describe a group gathered together to help save the hay) which included others willing to back me. I also had access to a venue. My next step involved setting up talks with Bord na Gaeilge, precursor to Foras na Gaeilge, but was offered no support whatsoever by them. In the end, though my proposal came close to being accepted, FÁS didn’t fund the scheme. Had it gone ahead, major developments in Irish theater might have occurred; alternately, my project might have flopped. During my talks with Bord na Gaeilge, I regularly enquired as to the possible use of the stage equipment from An Damer, which at the time was thrown in a cupboard somewhere. I don’t know what happened to it. After years of gathering dust, it probably disintegrated, through neglect, in much the same manner as my vision.


Since then, I’ve held an ambivalent attitude to Irish language theater, being passionate about it one minute, feeling there is no point to it the next. Having announced that I would write no more plays in Irish, and then having backtracked and written Slán, I was faced with a dilemma in autumn, 2014, when a competition for a forty minute play in Irish was announced by An Taibhdhearc.[12] I decided to ignore the summons—I was too busy in any case. My friends, though, had other ideas and kept pressuring me. I was heading off to Sardinia for a week to spend time with my son and his family and had no wish to work on a project that might never see the light of day. However, after I had settled in, an idea arrived fully formed and I decided to spend a couple of hours each day during siesta time in developing it.


Having immersed myself in the lives of Irish women in the homage to Ní Ghráda project, I began work on a spin-off play entitled Cathú. Cathú takes place in an apartment in present day Galway city over the course of one night and charts the demise of the relationship between its two characters, Aisling and Brian.


As with Safe, the trigger was a news item: that of the case of Ms. Y, a teenage refugee, whose twenty-six-week foetus had been delivered by Caesarean section in August, 2014.[13] Ms. Y’s story made headlines in Ireland for several weeks. I began to think of the fall-out from a case such as hers, in particular, its impact on those involved in looking after the infant.


My character, Aisling, is a twenty-six-year-old nurse in a neo-natal unit caring for such an infant. I wanted to create a different agenda for her boyfriend. In creating Brian I decided against his being a reporter or detective as both these characters had already featured in Safe. I opted instead to make him an official in an organisation concerned with repatriating failed asylum-seekers.


The girl in Cathú is not Ms. Y. Her circumstances are different: she was raped while living in a direct provision unit and while awaiting deportation, a scenario which directly pits Aisling and Brian against each other. The situations and choices faced by Aisling and Brian would never have occurred during the lifetime of Ní Ghráda, however, though life in Ireland has changed during the past fifty years, in many ways, the more it changes the more it stays the same.


As before, my play didn’t find favor with An Taibhdhearc. It has since come first in this year’s Oireachtas one act play competition. I had hoped that it would be produced in time for Oireachtas 2016 in Killarney but have been informed that, although An tOireachtas would welcome a performance, not only would they not fund it, they would expect the production team to pay their own travel and accommodation costs. Their response is discouraging, to say the least. It seems that UTC may have to produce the play’s English translation Temptation when a suitable opening occurs in our schedule. Another work-in-progress, a one act play Luíse which examines the career of Louise Gavan Duffy, has been awarded a grant by Dublin City Council as part of its 2016 centenary programme, and will be produced by UTC in September as part of the Ranelagh Arts Festival. Although Louise spent Easter Week in the kitchen of the GPO, she made a major contribution to Irish language education in this country when she founded Scoil Bhríde in 1917, the country’s first gaelscoil since the demise of the hedge-schools. The driving force behind the writing of Luíse is to redress her lack of visibility in many of the TV programs funded to commemorate the 1916 Rising.


Two of my other Irish language plays have recently been produced by Aisteoirí Bulfin:[14] Cruachás[15] and my dramatization of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. Cruachás—one of the plays in the Lorg Merriman series, a contemporary aisling that explores the mores that would be up for discussion were the Midnight Court to be reconvened today—was presented at the Oireachtas in Killarney in November 2014. It was revived in Dublin in April 2015 and produced alongside Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, which went on to win two major awards at the Féile Náisiúnta Drámaíochta in Indreabhán in May 2015. My English language translation of Merriman’s classic has already had two runs, details of which are included in Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court.[16] For the Irish language production, however, I returned to the original script, reworked some of my earlier changes and, where appropriate, added additional lines. Fidelma Ní Ghallchobhair standardized the text and provided a glossary as to meaning and pronunciation of some of the more difficult words or those which have gone out of usage. This script will be published in 2017 by LeabhairCOMHAR.


I have always been interested in social issues and in the lives of women and girls. Both of these interests have come together in the plays, Safe and Temptation, which I have discussed in this essay. Safe is the only one produced so far. Its journey from page to stage has had to overcome many challenges that might have remained insurmountable were I not so determined to see it staged, and had I not the support of UTC. I can only speculate that were I a man, or had my subject matter dealt with any of the so-called male themes, my journey might have been more straightforward.


The Abbey Theatre’s 2016 launch of Waking the Nation, its program to commemorate 1916, provoked outrage among women, as it included only one play by a woman, and among Gaeilgeoirí, because no play in Irish had been included. In response to the former lack of representation, Lian Bell established the movement Waking the Feminists and Tanya Dean set up Fair Play for Women—Ireland.[17] I attended the first Waking the Feminists meeting in the Abbey in November, 2015, but felt removed from what was going on. Six hundred people, mostly women, were protesting the lack of representation of Irish women playwrights on the stages of Irish theaters, in particular the Abbey Theatre. I wasn’t protesting because my plays are being staged regularly.


In response to the omission of an Irish language play, the recently-formed Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge approached Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey, who agreed to meet a delegation of Irish language playwrights.


Considering I have a foot in both camps, I have some observations to make: yes, few plays by women reach the stages of mainstream Irish theaters. It would be simplistic to explain that the lack of women included in the Abbey’s 2016 program is because Mac Conghail is a man. It is true that during his tenure he has staged few plays by women, but Garry Hynes’s record during her tenure as director of the Abbey is worthy of scrutiny. During this time (1991–1994) a colleague, Phyl Herbert, and I organized a staged reading, over the course of one day in June, 1991, of the work of five women playwrights: Clairr O’Connor, Colette O’Connor, Ivy Bannister, Leland Bardwell and myself.[18] A venue was provided—the stage of the Peacock Theatre. Herbert and I secured funding of IR£2,000 under the Arts Council 1990 Theatre Projects Awards Scheme to cover our expenses. Needless to say, none of the plays in question premièred on the stage of the Abbey Theatre. Nor did any of the plays by Louise Hermana, Ivy Bannister, or Augusta Gregory which had been given rehearsed readings earlier the same week. Apart from these two initiatives, one of which was instigated by Herbert and me, Hynes did little to promote the work of women writers while at the Abbey.


In order that a play be staged a good script is essential and a good team necessary to produce it. Having written in most genres, I have found that the most challenging genre is that of drama. In a play all of the story has to be contained in the dialogue which must be dramatic, carry the burden of the past on its back and give an indication as to where it is headed. The playwright needs to see her script in rehearsal, or at least a dramatized reading of it, in order to identify its strengths, find its faults and set about correcting them, otherwise she will keep repeating the same mistakes.


A group of people—actors, a director, producer, designer—are needed to stage the play. It can be difficult for many women to locate such a group, or for women given to the production of plays by women within such a group to continue to function.


During the first meeting organized by Waking the Feminists at the Abbey Theatre in November, 2015, I experienced a range of emotions. I listened as many women shared their experiences of being side-lined or maltreated. Clearly, something is rotten in the state of theater-land. But how to improve matters? Tanya Dean has started a campaign whereby she has pledged to attend a play written or directed by a woman once a month. This is a good idea but is it enough? Six hundred people attended the Abbey event. If all, or even half, of them had supported Safe I’d have had a winner on my hands. And therein lies the rub.


In addition to lobbying to have plays by women produced in mainstream theaters, feminists need to wake up and support the plays by women that are being produced in small fringe theaters throughout the country. Such support would guarantee that these plays transfer to larger theaters. It happens in other countries—plays transfer from small obscure theaters to the West End and to Broadway.


As for Irish language theater, I was one of the four delegates from Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge who met Fiach MacConghail and Jessica Traynor, the Abbey Theatre’s literary manager, on December 4, 2015. We outlined our needs, i.e., that we wanted to see plays in Irish on the Abbey’s stage. Mac Conghail and Traynor outlined their modus operandi which includes the commissioning of scripts, the nurturing of talent, the building of relationships with playwrights and their commitment to the production of short plays. Traynor attended a general meeting of members of Aontas in An Taibhdhearc on January 16, 2016. In a recent email she told me that the Abbey is “currrently programmed up until the end of 2016. […] The new directors will be taking up their positions in July, and have let me know they won’t be making any programming decisions until they’ve had time to settle in….”[19] We can only speculate as to when that will be.


In her address to Aontas, Traynor kept referring to young playwrights as those whose talent the Abbey is interested in nurturing. In response to an objection from the floor, she explained that by “young” she meant writers who were “new” to playwriting. Her response did not, however, manage to dispel the feeling among those present of a certain age that, yes, our families are reared, we have retired from our day jobs and, just as we’re coming into our own, our national theater may regard us as too old to warrant engaging in meaningful dialogue.


It is disheartening to consider that ageism might be another obstacle for women to overcome in placing their work with mainstream Irish theaters. Placing work that explores social issues or what are perceived as “women’s themes” is already difficult during these days of gloom when audiences look forward to a night’s light entertainment. This is what I have been told by a spokeswoman for Aisling Ghéar, the Belfast-based Irish language theater.


The main challenge for me is the writing itself, to keep on producing work without pausing to consider the whys and wherefores of which play will appear on which stage. Inevitably, though, the journey from page to stage takes the form of an Imram as I discovered when bringing both Safe and Cathú to the point they are at now. As I mentioned in my article, “Is banscríbhneoir mé.”[20] I had thought that my days as warrior were over. It takes time to write and I grudge the time I have to spend promoting that writing, not to mention having to join in the fight for equal opportunities. Of one thing, though, I’m certain—I will no longer apologize for my work or marginalize myself by referring to myself as a “woman writer”; from now on I will boldly state: is Éireannach mé; is scríbhneoir mé.


[1] Mairéad Ní Ghráda, An Triail (Baile Atha Cliath: Rialtas na hÉireann, 1978; An Gúm, 1997).


[2] The part of Máire Ní Chathasaigh was first played by poet, actor, and activist Caitlín Maude; Caitlín had to pull out on health grounds and the part was taken over by Fionnuala Flanagan.


[3] Celia de Fréine, The IRISH Seminar, O’Connell House, the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre, Dublin, Ireland, June 26, 2012.


[4] Larissa Nolan, “The Curious Case of the Disappearance of Mary Flanagan,” Sunday Times, June 9, 2013.


[5] An Taibhdhearc.


[6] Umbrella Theatre company was formed in 2013 by playwrights and theater-makers Gerard Dalton, Michael O’Meara, Celia de Fréine and Michael Casey with the objective of presenting new writing and innovative drama. See www.facebook.com/umbrellatheatrecompany.

[7] Two dramatized readings of Safe took place in the Maureen O’Hara Studio, the Mill Theatre on October 14th and 15th of 2014.

[8] Celia de Fréine, “Hand-Me-Downs” in Literacy Language Role-play, ed. Celia de Fréine and Phyl Herbert (Dunboyne, Co. Meath: Sarsfield Publishers, 1990).

[9] Preview performances of Safe were presented in Theatre@36 Parnell Square on March 5, 6, and 7, 2015 to coincide with International Women’s Day.


[10] Social welfare recipients are entitled to a rent supplement but landlords are reluctant to lease to tenants in receipt of this allowance as it takes about eight weeks for payment to commence and, because of their circumstances, they are often thought to be less reliable tenants

[11] Katy Hayes, “The Culture: Playing Unfair,” The Sunday Times, November 22, 2015, 8-9.

[12] Gradam Walter Macken.

[13] Sunday Times, September 14, 2014, 1.

[15] Cruachás : Plight (Galway: Arlen House, 2012)


[16] Brian Merriman, The Midnight Court (Galway: Arlen House, 2012).


[17] For more on Waking the Feminists, see http://www.wakingthefeminists.org/.


[18] I have written in more detail about this venture in an essay. See Celia de Fréine, “Women Playwrights, Whither?” in Creation, Publishing, and Criticism: The Advance of Women’s Writing, ed. María Xesús Nogueira, Laura Lojo, and Manuela Palacios, vol. 2 of Galician Studies, ed. Kathleen March (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 189-198.


[19] Jessica Traynor, email message to author, February 23, 2016.