Digital Humanities Internship Blog Post #1 – Historical, Literary Context & Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer as a Resource

This blog post is the first to document progress on ‘The Lost Theatres of Dublin’ internship as part of the Digital Humanities and Culture MPhil. This first post will be dealing primarily with Joseph Holloway himself and his unpublished manuscript Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer 1895-1944 in order to provide a context for the resource and its accompanying challenges.

Joseph Holloway was born on 21 March 1861. He was an architect and designed the Abbey Theatre when it was converted from the Mechanic’s Institute into a building fit for the Irish Theatre Society in 1904. His architectural career ended in 1912. He did however, continue his work on amassing an enormous collection of theatrical ephemera, including playbills, newspaper cuttings and an accompanying diary of performances that he attended from 1895 until his death in March 1944. Holloway attended a vast number of plays in a number of different theatre venues around Dublin during his lifetime, including the Abbey Theatre, the Antient Concert rooms and the Gaiety Theatre.

Holloway provides in his manuscript, a contents page for each year that the diary covers. Each venue appears as a heading, followed by the production that Holloway saw there, next to the page number on which they appear in the diary. Holloway also occasionally provides the name of the theatre company performing that particular night. This system of pagination and indexing was carried out by Holloway himself. This resource does not however, provide us with a full concordance or index as modern print versions of texts such as these generally do. From the size of the corpus and how active Holloway was in Dublin theatrical and literary life at the time, it is reasonable to assume that there are many points at which Holloway mentions the Queen’s Theatre, which are not necessarily grouped under a ‘Queen’s Theatre,’ contents heading because of the rudimentary nature of his contents system. This is demonstrated by passing references to the Queen’s under the heading of different productions in the selections from the Impressions published by the Proscenium Press in 1970. Rather than documenting every instance that Holloway mentions the Queen’s, an impossible task in the time allowed to this project due to the size of the corpus, it was decided that this project would be limited to instances when a Queen’s performance is mentioned and a page number has been provided. Navigating the corpus without this means of signposting would have been too time-consuming a task otherwise.

The Impressions have been microfilmed for use by the National Library of Ireland’s users so that they can be examined without damage coming to the manuscripts and the theatrical ephemera and newspaper clippings that they contain. However, the work is incomplete. While the manuscripts continue until 1944, the microfilm runs out at December 1924. Why this is the case is uncertain, but as the Impressions appear in the microfilm directory under the collection title Manuscripts of the Irish Literary Renaissance (Parts One and Two) it is probable that this was part of an ongoing project to provide more resources for those seeking to understand the ‘Celtic Revival’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which Holloway would have been a key observer. Maria Edgeworth’s and William Butler Yeats’ papers are listed in the same collection and appear next to Holloway’s Impressions in the directory of microfilms. The prevailing notion about Ireland in the early to mid twentieth century that persists to some extent until today is that following the Celtic Revival, the Irish literary scene went through a dormant phase. This reputation extends to the Irish theatrical scene, due to mismanagement of the Abbey under Ernest Blythe. It could be argued that under Blythe’s tenure, there was a movement away from the sort of drama that helped to cement the Abbey Theatre’s reputation as a platform for the staging of bold and emergent Irish dramatists. This belief has had the effect of undermining the work of playwrights such as Teresa Deevy, Paul Vincent Carroll and George Shiels. It is only recently that critics have drawn attention to the work of these marginalised authors and insisted upon their importance.

The Impressions are consistent in some respects and maintain a number of key features in the entirety of the corpus. However, they are in many ways also quite a dynamic resource and constantly undergo changes as Holloway’s methods of journal-keeping change. Firstly, they get longer as time goes on. It was decided at the start of the project that every play indexed as being staged at the Queens would be fully transcribed and marked up in TEI. However, as was said above, if particular years came without a contents page, they would be ignored and left for future undertakings of this kind. Even with this reduced scope, the transcription of every available year 1895-1924 remained somewhat over-ambitious. While this would perhaps have been feasible if the resource stayed within the length of the manuscript in 1895 of five hundred or so pages, by 1900, each manuscript volume is at least one thousand five hundred pages, sometimes one thousand seven hundred.

There are a number of reasons for this inflation of the resource. Initially, Holloway kept his reviews or summaries of the performances quite succinct. He provides the names of actors, the names of the characters that they portrayed, a word or two on how their performance was and how the audience reacted to it. This would typically take up no more than a page of the manuscript. However at around 1900 he begins to make much more extensive notes. Descriptions of a production typically run to about three full pages, sometimes five. He also takes up a lot of extra manuscript pages with caricatures of actors, people he has spoken to or seen around Dublin, newspaper clippings, correspondences, deaths, conversations he has had and a number of other articles under the contents heading of ‘Miscellaneous.’ This is all material that makes it increasingly difficult to ‘scan through’ the microfilm, at least in such a way that does not result in the waste of huge amounts of time.

This is why the decision was reached to transcribe every five years of the microfilm, 1895, 1900, 1905, 1910, 1915 and 1920. This would firstly provide a deliverable of six years of history of the Queen’s Theatre and would also be a representative sample, as it would be spread out throughout the chronology of Holloway’s lifetime and the political and social milieu of Dublin society during a number of very turbulent years in its history.

However, from 1914 onwards, Holloway fails to provide an index or contents page as he does in every other year from 1895. This led to the exclusion of a number of years from the process of transcription as the size of the corpus precludes intensive examination as has been stated many times already. As such, it was decided that an extra year would be transcribed in order to compensate for the loss of 1915 and 1920. The productions from the year 1896 were transcribed in their place.

However, in the 1913 manuscript, Holloway’s index becomes incomplete or incorrect. This is problematic as it is the means that has been used to navigate the resource until now. Instead of providing contents at the start of the manuscript, they appear at the end. Furthermore, Holloway’s index at the end creates a new indexing scheme and provides dates rather than pages numbers. This would not appear to be problematic at first, but these dates often contradict those given in the actual manuscript. It is in this year that Holloway first abandons pagination as a navigation device. Sometimes the index disappears altogether. He occasionally returns to use this method of date navigation, but these will still contradict one another occasionally. A wholly speculative reason for this could be that he wrote the diary entry on a different day to the actual production and that the date given in the index is the real date, whereas dates given in the entry themselves is the date that wrote the actual entry on the productions that he has seen in the past few days.

The primary argument of this first blog post that provides a context and introduces some of the resource’s procedural difficulties is that the indexing of the resource is inconsistent and unreliable. While it was anticipated that they would at least provide a reliable means of locating information pertinent to the Queen’s Theatre, they did not. It is speculative to advance the possibility that a more dependable contents page exists somewhere in the Impressions manuscripts that have not been microfilmed, or were possibly missed in the microfilming process. It is nevertheless recommended for future projects of this kind that transcription should be carried out in tandem with the manuscript, if only to perhaps find a more efficient means of traversing this protean resource.


One response to “Digital Humanities Internship Blog Post #1 – Historical, Literary Context & Impressions of a Dublin Playgoer as a Resource

  1. Hello, and thank you for a very strong post. I hold a Ph.D. in English, and I did my dissertation on Irish Drama, and I was wondering if I could contact you by email.


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