Here’s another blog post I did in which I try to sum up some one hundred years of Irish history in 500 words. I mostly fail, I think the most telling part is when I stop to admit what I’ve been saying has little pertinence to the overall project, which can be found here. I also have a few inaccuracies and incorrectly used words, but I do slam de Valera, which is fun.
This blog post provides a historical context for the Queen’s Theatre by outlining Ireland’s political and economic situation in the first half of the twentieth century.Events such as the 1916 Rising and the ensuing Civil War cast a long shadow over Irish political discourse even today, as can be seen by the ongoing controversy as to how best to celebrate the 1916 Rising, or whether such an event should even be celebrated.
In 1914, the failures of constitutional parliamentarians such as John Redmond to both secure a definite deal on Home Rule with the British government and assuage the anxieties of Unionists in the North of Ireland led to a situation that more fringe minorities could take advantage of, as is demonstrated by the formation of both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force. In this environment, the Irish Republican Brotherhood became increasingly radicalised, as exemplified by Patrick Pearse’s inflammatory rhetoric at Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915: “Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring living nations.” A minority were determined to take advantage of the timing of the Great War. Others within the IRB, such as IRB’s chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill, were reluctant to adopt violence as a means to independence : “To my mind, those who feel impelled towards military action on any of the grounds that I have stated are really impelled by a sense of feebleness or dependency or fatalism, or byan instinct of satisfying their own emotions or escaping from a difficult…situation.”
Reactions to the Rising were multiple and varied. Many urban dwellers seized the opportunity in the immediate aftermath to loot a number of shops in the surrounding area. For some members of a younger generation, such as then-medical student and later IRA officer Ernie O’Malley, the occasion was stirring and brought about an increase in Volunteers. It was not until subsequent events relating to the Rising that public opinion began to soften with regards to the actions of the Volunteers. Among these events were J.C. Power-Colthurst’s shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington during the events of the Rising, the excessive measures of the British government against those responsible (fifteen executions) and Dublin Castle’s attempts to pin responsibility for the outbreak of violence on moderate parliamentarians.
In the Irish Free State created in the aftermath of the civil war, the maintenance of income from agriculture was regarded as crucial to further prosperity. An economic policy of protectionism was adopted, albeit an incoherent one. Tariffs on imported goods were established but with no attempt made to create a domestic industry of production. This policy, combined with a lack of funding for the development of employment schemes, led to widespread emigration. De Valera’s vision for rural Ireland as being made up of self-sustaining, frugal and anti-materialist family units ignored the metropolitan and anglicised lifestyle in urban centres such as Dublin, where 21.1% were employed in finance, 12% in administration, 13.7% personal services and 32.2% in agricultural production. Economic growth remained sluggish throughout ‘the Emergency,’ for the obvious reasons.
How the Queen’s theatre fits into a survey of Irish history of this kind can be difficult to quantify. Pearse’s uncompromising vision of an independent Ireland and ideologically driven economic mismanagement can seem to have little bearing on the function of the Queen’s Theatre as a venue for light entertainment. However, what is important to recall is that the Queen’s remained a site of cultural practice throughout many generations, and during one of the most tumultuous periods in Irish history until it closed in 1966. It furthermore remained a Dublin landmark until 1969. When The Plough and the Stars (1926) was staged in the Queen’s, its political contentiousness perhaps did not match that of the earlier productions in the Abbey when widows of victims of the Rising, including Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, disrupted the performance, but it was in a city that within living memory had been the site of a divisive conflict. When the Abbey Theatre Company took up residence in the Queen’s, the Irish Free State was only twenty-nine years old. For projects like this Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project, it is important that the space inhabited by the theatre-whether that space is physical or social-be reconstructed also.
Information on the history of the Abbey Theatre Company at the Queen’s can be found here.
Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002. London: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.
Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1970.London: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. England: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Morash, Christopher. A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.