Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas, from NUI Galway Archives

We'd like to wish regular blog readers a very merry and safe Christmas, and a happy New Year. The blog will resume posting early in the first week of January - we look forward to seeing you then.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nollaig Shona!

Cover of Christmas Card from Eoghan and Caitlin McKenna to their daughter Siobhan McKenna and her family. Eoghan was a Professor at UCG and the card dates from the 1950s. This card is part of the collection of Siobhan McKenna papers currently being listed. On behalf of all the archives staff, have a happy and peaceful Christmas, and happy researching in the New Year! 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Famous Faces and the Lyric Theatre: Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson in The Plough and the Stars
Undoubtedly the most famous Northern Irish actor of recent years, Liam Neeson, started his acting career as part of the Lyric Players Theatre in the mid-1970s. He was hired by Mary O’Malley and quickly became an integral part of the acting company, participating in productions such as The Plough and the Stars (November 1977), The Colleen Bawn (December 1977) and most notably in Philadelphia, Here I Come! in 1976. His importance to the theatre was shown in Mary O’Malley’s decision to give to him one of the two Equity cards which she was able to obtain annually. He later moved to the Abbey in Dublin, and eventually then on to Hollywood. His career has gone from strength to strength since, and most of us will be familiar with his performances in Michael Collins, Schindler’s List, and Kinsey.

An item which has recently been discovered in the Lyric’s archives, though, shows that he was not always able to turn his hand to every type of acting! A memorandum written by the Lyric’s artistic director Edward Golden in December 1976 details how Neeson was not able to convincingly play the role of Hendrik in rehearsals for the musical A Little Night Music (please click the picture to see an enlarged version). Golden describes the ‘exquisite torture’ for Neeson, as ‘the more perfectionist the actor, the more dreadful the degree of torture it is to force him into some area where he knows he is not competent’, and bemoans that he allowed his original casting of Liam in the non-singing role of Frid to be changed by other people’s opinions.

Despite this brief hiccup, Neeson remains the most successful acting alumnus of the Lyric Theatre and one of its most vocal supporters. As the current patron of the theatre, he has overseen the incredible fundraising efforts made in the past few years for the rebuilding of the Ridgeway Street theatre. He explains the reasons behind his commitment to the Lyric as follows:
          'In the face of deep divisions that keep our communities apart, the Lyric serves as a powerful unifying force, providing a safe and neutral space in which people from different backgrounds come together to be empowered, inspired, engaged and entertained. I really believe in the power of theatre to break down barriers and heal in a very deep, fundamental, spiritual way. And Northern Ireland needs that. It needs the Lyric Theatre.'

Sarah Poutch

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

'Threshold' Contributors: John McGahern

Threshold emerged at an exciting time for Irish literature. As previously discussed, the magazine had contact with writers such as Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel at early stages in their careers. However, they were positively famous at that time compared to the next subject of this series of blog posts, John McGahern.

McGahern first wrote to Mary O’Malley in January 1959, and the form of the letter is recognisable to anyone who has tried to have an editor publish their work. He had not yet appeared in print, and mentions that his first novel is being considered by publishers at the moment. This novel, The Barracks, was in fact not published until 1963, but was met with universal acclaim. The book won the AE Memorial Award from the Arts Council, and led to McGahern being awarded the Macauley Fellowship. The Fellowship allowed him to take a year off from his teaching position, during which he travelled widely and completed his second novel, The Dark. This novel became notorious after falling foul of the Censorship Act and being banned due to its themes of parental and clerical child abuse. A second letter (from June 1962) discusses the possible publication of an excerpt from The Barracks in Threshold.

McGahern's other works include The Leavetaking (based on his own experiences during and after his sabbatical year), The Pornographer, and most famously, Amongst Women. Like Friel and Heaney, McGahern was a member of Aosdána, until his death in March 2006.

It is particularly appropriate that these documents are stored here in NUI Galway Archives. John McGahern’s personal papers are one of our major literary collections, having been presented by the author in 2003. Further deposits were made by his widow Madeline McGahern in 2006 and 2007. This collection is available now (by appointment – please see staff page for contact details), and we are delighted to be able to make the full descriptive list available online.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Druid and NUI Galway announce new partnership

NUI Galway BA Connect in Theatre and Performance students Emer McHugh and Kate Murray with actress and one of Druid’s founding members Maire Mullen performing an excerpt from Bailegangaire at the announcement today of a new and innovative partnership between Druid and NUI Galway.

The West of Ireland has always been renowned for the central role played by the creative arts and NUI Galway has provided a breeding ground for the development of artistic talent in successive generations of students. Now, in a groundbreaking initiative, NUI Galway and Druid are coming together to form a partnership that will be crucial in maintaining and developing the performance arts of the region into the future. In an exciting new collaboration, NUI Galway will contribute to the development of Druid’s next major theatre event (to be produced in 2012/13) while Druid, in turn, will develop a range of practice-led workshops and seminars including a series of Master classes for BA and MA students.

In addition, in a move that highlights the new initiative, a Druid Director-in-Residence will be appointed who will co-ordinate the joint Master classes and workshops and offer classes and mentoring in various aspects of directing and stagecraft to NUI Galway students. These contributions will enhance two successful NUI Galway academic programmes: the MA in Drama and Theatre Studies and BA Connect in Theatre and Performance.

The relationship between NUI Galway and Druid is a long and fruitful one. The company was founded on campus in 1975 by graduates Mick Lally, Marie Mullen and Garry Hynes. Through the years the two organisations have collaborated at various times including notably the housing of the Druid archive at the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway and the establishment of a playwriting award in memory of the late Jerome Hynes who was General Manager of Druid at a formative stage in the company’s development. The three founders, as well as being graduates, have all been awarded Honorary Degrees by the University.

Commenting on the new partnership, NUI Galway President James J. Browne said, “We are very excited by this new and innovative partnership with Druid, which, I believe, holds wonderful opportunities for both organisations. For the University it represents a new creative thrust for our academic programmes in theatre and drama, which will be enriched by the talent and experience of a world leading professional theatre company. In turn we are able to play a role in Druid’s ability to continue to present first class theatre for stages both here in Ireland and abroad.”

Garry Hynes commented that, “Back in 1975 NUI Galway helped Druid launch into the world with the provision of various facilities and continued to help us informally through the years. Now 35 years later we are at the beginning of a new and very exciting partnership. Without NUI Galway, and other partners, Druid simply would not be able to produce these major projects that have become such central events for our actors and our audience alike. Just as I - informally - took my first steps in the theatre in NUI Galway, I am now, through this programme looking forward to helping the emergence of the next generation of theatre makers from my alma mater.”

Druid would like to acknowledge the continued support of the Arts Council in funding the company’s work and also the support of Culture Ireland in funding its international touring programme.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Challenges of Audiovisual Archiving

The Lyric Theatre archive holds over two hundred audio reels as part of the collection. These are mainly recordings of productions from the 1950s until the 1970s. Also included are reels with music and sound effects for various plays, as well as some miscellaneous recordings of radio programmes and the like. These reels will become a very useful resource for researchers, being as they are enduring records of the end-product of all the hard work of the company from its earliest days right through to its peak. However, archiving audiovisual material is a very different beast than working with traditional paper-based archives, and requires special efforts to ensure the long-term preservation of the material.
The reels were mostly recorded on the Lyric’s own reel to reel player (see pictures). The reels themselves have been stored fairly securely in the intervening years, with many still being housed in their original cardboard sleeves and boxes. These reels are artefacts in and of themselves, and have to be preserved as such. However, archivists are also responsible for making the information contained therein accessible. This can be achieved through digitising the reels, which will be a major project in itself.

Digitisation of such material is time and labour intensive, but there is a strong case to be made for doing so. Most analogue formats are obsolete (or very close to being so), and it can be difficult even to source the necessary equipment to play them. From a preservation point of view, the longer they go without being digitised, the more the sound quality may have deteriorated. Analogue magnetic media (reel tape) has a life expectancy of just 30–50 years. Converting them to digital audio files makes them accessible to researchers and archivists quickly, conveniently and, if necessary, in a variety of formats. Finally, it also removes the need for physical handling of the reels – they can be stored safely in the archives while still being available for research.

It is hoped that the digitisation of the Lyric Players Theatre audio reels will begin in early 2011.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Selection of material from Druid theatre production archive

As the production files of the Druid Archive continue to be catalogued, the abundance of wonderful visual material is making the project a joy to work on. The early 1990's onwards sees a series of photgraphic files from many of Druid's best loved works. Working with photographers such as Amelia Stein the photgraphic files of Druid theatre archive present snapshots of performers and performances ftaken during rehersal and production. From Irish tours to international tours, here is a selection of some pieces from the Druid theatre archive. These documents and all mother material will be fully available to researchers at the Special Collections/Archives reading room at the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway early in 2011.

We would love to hear from you about these images or any other items from the archives. If you have seen any of these plays by Druid or Lyric and want to share any thoughts or memories please leave a comment under any post or else email an archivist directly here

'Threshold' Contributors: Brian Friel

Another writer with whom Mary O’Malley corresponded on contributing to Threshold is the renowned playwright Brian Friel. The Lyric Players Theatre in fact also staged his play The Enemy Within in 1963, which along with the earlier example of Seamus Heaney is another example of Mary O’Malley’s recognition of the achievements of young Irish writers. Friel went on to guest edit Threshold.

Friel shares another similarity with Heaney in that they started their careers as teachers, both training at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast. Friel though went on to teach for over ten years at schools in county Derry before eventually leaving in 1960 to write full-time. Heaney and Friel, as two of the most celebrated writers in modern Irish literature also share the distinction of being elected a Saoi of Aosdána, an Irish association of artists.

Friel’s play The Enemy Within premiered at the Abbey in Dublin in 1962, but ran for just nine performances. However, Mary O’Malley corresponded with Friel and negotiated a revival of the play by the Lyric in September 1963, which proved a great success and was broadcast on both the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service, and on Radio Éireann. Some of the items of interest in the Lyric Theatre archives in relation to this production are a heavily annotated script, a signed programme, and black and white photographs of the cast, as well as the aforementioned correspondence.

In later years the Lyric produced more of Friel’s plays, including The Gentle Island (1972), The Loves of Cass Maguire (1976), and Philadelphia, Here I Come! (starring a young Liam Neeson) amongst others. This has continued to the present day, with the most recent Lyric Theatre production of a Friel work being The Home Place during the 2008–09 season.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

‘Threshold’ Contributors: Seamus Heaney

The Lyric’s literary periodical Threshold sought to encourage submissions from local writers, and there is no more celebrated a Northern Irish writer than Seamus Heaney. Heaney contributed several poems to Threshold, and indeed went on to become editor of the magazine for a short term in the late 1960s.

After reading English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast, Heaney trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College and went on to work at St Thomas’ Secondary School in west Belfast. Having begun writing poetry while an undergraduate, Heaney now found a mentor in the headmaster of the school, the Monaghan writer Michael McLaverty. McLaverty proved to be a strong influence on Heaney, encouraging his writing and even becoming a foster father of sorts. With his support, Heaney began publishing his poetry in 1962 and continued to do so over the following decades with huge success.

Copy of Peter Street at Bankside, Lyric Archives, NUI Galway
His involvement with Threshold came about as Mary O'Malley sought to cultivate working relationships with Northern Irish writers, to encourage submissions both for the periodical and for the Lyric Theatre. As her time was increasingly demanded from the Lyric Players, guest editors were brought in  to oversee Threshold. These included people such as Roger McHugh, Brian Friel, and as mentioned earlier, Heaney himself. Heaney was also present at the foundation stone laying ceremony in 1965 when the company built their own theatre at Ridgeway Street, and recited a poem written especially for the occasion, Peter Street at Bankside.

Forty four years later, Heaney was again present at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the new Lyric Theatre home at the same site. A stanza from Peter Street at Bankside is engraved, fittingly, in the threshold stone which will mark the entrance of the new theatre, which is due to open next year.

Lyric Archives, NUI Galway
Heaney maintained his connection with the team behind Threshold, writing to thank Mary and Pearse O’Malley for their congratulations after his ‘Swedish bounty’ in 1995. His continued involvement with the Lyric Theatre is testament to Mary O'Malley's early recognition of his work, and to the inextricably intertwined relationship between author and audience.

Sarah Poutch

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Druid's collaboration with stage and screen

“My father and I have an unspoken rule that we don’t talk about acting” Katherine (Kate) O’Toole said in interview with Fred Johnston, regarding her eight-time Academy Award-nominated father Peter O’Toole.  Speaking here ahead of her debut with Druid Theatre Company in 1989, Kate O’Toole speaks honestly on her upbringing and early forays in acting with the Yale Reparatory theatre.
O Toole’s debut with Druid came with the production of A Little Like Drowning written by Anthony Minghella, following on from her film role in John Huston’s film The Dead. O‘Toole’s brother Tony was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his writing of the film script and adapting it from James Joyce’s novella The Dead. This film as also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
A Little Like Drowning was also the first collaboration production between Druid and Anthony Minghella.  The piece was originally Minhella first feature film as a director, which was made in 1978. Minghella 's work has secured him the highest accolades during his career, culminating in him being awarded the Academy Award for best Director for the 1996 film The English Patient.He was also nominated for an academy award for his scrrenplay for the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Playbill, photo, flyer and press cuttings from Druid archive
In the playbill notes from A Little Like Drowning, an article by Frank McGuinness states how ‘The drowning get three chances to rise out of the deep, but if life is only a little like drowning then we are given only one chance of love. Anthony Minghella splits his canvas into three: Italy, England and Ireland. In each location, one man, Alfredo Mare, travels through his life, his joys, his sorrows, always in the dark, for until his dying moments  he buries his secret fear, damnation. The Catholic faith of his generation found its home in Hell, with Dire consequences for that same generation, passed onto those that followed them.’ The play was very well received as is documented in the press files of the Druid archives. Numerous reports, reviews and interviews present the social reception of the play that was noted for being Druid’s most controversial and powerful for quite some time.
The production files feature the original playbill, flyers from the production at Druid lane theatre, Galway and also at Limerick’s Belltable theatre. A fantastic series of contact sheets and individual photographs provide a visual insight into the production and presentation of this work which is charged with Religious commentary and ideas on the depths of love, loyalty, faith and pain that is felt in one’s relationships.
Katherine O'Toole in "A Little Like Drowning"

While the Druid archive records and charts the beginning of Katherine O’Toole’s association with Druid and the continued association with the West of Ireland by both Katherine and her father Peter O’Toole, it is also poignant that this week the John Huston archive was officially handed over to the NUI Galway archives housed at the James Hardiman Library. The archive hold a substantial volume of records from the production of the award winning film The Dead based on Joyce’s story and directed by John Huston. Katherine O’Toole had a starring role in this film and was at NUI Galway this week to mark the occasion of the archive handover.
Speaking with Fred Johnston in March of 1989, O’Toole states how “I find it hard to imagine that anyone who wants to act harbours the illusion that it’s a glamorous life”. Be this the case or not, Druid association with the most talented and successful of Irish screen and stage talent cements its legacy within its archive of being one of the most successful and engaging of theatre companies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

News from NUI Galway Archives - John Huston film archive launch

John Huston

For so many Joyce scholars and the countless others who have read his book Dubliners, one key story stands out among the others, “The Dead”. This tale of Dublin, its people and fleeting glimpses of their lives, relationships, loves and losses was given a definitive adaptation on film by the late John Huston.
Today, the archives of NUI Galway and the James Hardiman library receive the archive of the late John Huston. Given the relationship Huston and his family had and still do with Galway and the West of Ireland, it is a fitting tribute to John Huston that his papers should reside in the university where the film school is named in his honour.
John’s Oscar-nominated son Tony and daughter Allegra will officially hand over the papers at a special event in NUI Galway this evening. The papers will be a tremendous addition to the archival collections of NUI Galway.

“Bringing this material into the public domain is an exciting development for those interested in John Huston’s work. It is at the intersection of American cinema and Irish culture,” Rod Stoneman, director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media,  said. 

For further coverage of this landmark collection for Irish archives and cultural research see: 

RTE Player: (at 43 minutes, 10 seconds)


With theatrical productions up and running on a regular basis, Mary and Pearse O’Malley’s attentions turned in 1957 to the possibility of establishing a literary magazine to run in tandem with the Lyric Players Theatre. They felt that the theatre’s achievements were receiving scant publicity from the mainstream press and wanted to rectify this. Attracting more publicity was seen as the key to alerting the writing community of the existence of the company, and encouraging new works from them to produce. As well as this, Mary O’Malley saw it as a chance to fill the vacuum of literary magazines in Northern Ireland.

Mary became editor of the fledgling magazine, adding this hat to those she already possessed as theatrical director, producer, and local politician. John Hewitt became Poetry Editor. Settling on the title Threshold after the W.B. Yeats play The King’s Threshold, the first issue was published later that year. It contained a short story by Mary Beckett, articles by John Jordan and Roger McHugh, and poems by Pearse Hutchinson and T.P. Flanagan, amongst other pieces.

Threshold was met with positive comments by many reviewers, including those of the Irish Press, the Observer, the Independent and the Irish Times. The editors aimed to publish the magazine quarterly, a goal which was not always met due to lack of funds. Mary paid tribute though to her husband Pearse, calling the magazine his ‘brainchild’ and recognising that the effort put into it was repaid by the fact that the project introduced the Lyric establishment to many contemporary Irish writers and critics. These included Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Moore, Kate O’Brien, Patrick Galvin and Tom McIntyre. Future contributors would even include politicians, with Seán Lemass contributing an article in 1958. The magazine would also have a future Nobel laureate as editor when Seamus Heaney undertook the role in the late 1960s.

Threshold finally ceased publication in 1990, but future posts will explore its impact and discuss some of the contributors to the magazine.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Signs of the Times

Advertisements are one of the seemingly inconsequential aspects of the historical material which archivists deal with. They are rarely the focus of attention, but personally speaking, they are one of my favourite aspects of archival work. Working with the Lyric Theatre’s programmes has drawn my attention to the history of advertising, and to the archival community’s efforts to preserve them as historical documents in their own right.

Pears Soap, 1900
Modern print advertising has its roots in the newspapers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when classified ads of sorts began to appear. These simple descriptions of products gave way in the nineteenth century to illustrations and colour advertisements as technology improved. An early example of a brand which utilised these new tools was Pears Soap. A manager of the company, Thomas J. Barratt, recognised the potential of advertising and exploited it to great effect, eventually becoming known as the father of modern advertising. Pears advertisements based on the painting Bubbles by Sir John Everett Millais were one of the first long-term ad campaigns, running for decades. Other companies strove to create the same level of brand awareness, but lacked the time or creativity to do so. This led to the emergence of ad agencies, which promised results while allowing the companies to devote their time to manufacturing.

Each subsequent decade has seen the rise in the influence of advertisements. In real terms, we are now bombarded by ads daily – the vast majority of which we do not even notice, having grown so used to them. Looking back on adverts through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries though can be illuminating, throwing light on attitudes and popular opinion of the decade in question (the earlier Pears Soap advertisement on the right is a good example, from around 1890).

There are several websites I would recommend to anyone interested in this area, or indeed in art and the media in general. Since the 1970s the archivists of the History of Advertising Trust, based in Norwich, have been collecting and preserving UK advertising, and their website is well worth a browse. A slightly different but equally interesting project is Ghostsigns, which aims to preserve hand-painted wall adverts. For American advertising archives, Duke University’s digital collections contain a wonderful searchable online archive with images dating from 1840 to 1929. Lastly, the excellent website Vintage Ad Browser has over one hundred thousand digitised adverts available to view by category and decade – don’t click through to this one unless you have time to spare, as you are guaranteed to lose track of it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Lyric Players Theatre’s First Season

Before Breakfast, 1952
After the triumph of the Christmas party productions, the O’Malleys and a small group of friends gathered at Ulsterville House, the O’Malley family home, in January 1951 to discuss the possibility of further projects. It was decided to put on one act plays initially, and the O’Malleys volunteered the use of their home – beginning a practice which was to continue until the move in 1968 to a purpose-built theatre. That was a long way off at this point however, with the first invited audience of just twenty five people attending the first production, Robert Farren’s Lost Light starring Frances McShane. The first season also saw productions of At the Hawk’s Well by W.B. Yeats and The Kiss by Austin Clarke.

Princely Fortune, 1952
Mary O’Malley originated the name of the Lyric Players Theatre. Her intention was to associate with, but be distinct from, Austin Clarke’s Lyric Theatre in Dublin. The success of the new theatre continued the following year, with productions of Before Breakfast by Eugene O’Neill, Princely Fortune (adapted from the Chinese) and A Swan Song by Anton Chekhov. It was very much a family endeavour, with Mary’s mother making costumes for these early productions and her brother Gerard assisting with props and set design.

In November 1952 the O’Malleys moved to a new home, Beechbank on Derryvolgie Avenue, Belfast. This house was to be the backdrop to dozens more productions and would see the transition of the Lyric Players Theatre from amateur group of enthusiasts to professional theatre company.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Druid Hits a Century

It took Druid theatre a mere seventeen years to make it to a century of productions. In the mid 1970’s when Druid was first established, it would go on to set a precedent for producing and promoting the work on new Irish writers and playwrights as well as producing relevant revivals of classic Irish and international works.
Straw mask as worn in the play
The piece chosen to be Druid’s 100th production in October of 1992 was At the Black Pig’s Dyke and was written by Vincent Woods. The play is a dark, terse and engaging piece that traces the experiences of a life marked by violence and with questions of identity along Ireland’s border between north and south.
'The Black Pig’s Dyke' is a fortified series of divisions and ramparts along the boundary of the historic province of Ulster in old Gaelic society. The people who inhabited this area are known as ‘mummers’ and are presented here at straw-masked tribal warriors. The play is teaming with folklore and stories native to the border region. These ‘mummars’ wander from village to town and entertain those who they meet with local songs and music, all the while dancing and providing a visual spectacle dressed in their towering straw masks, boots and straw skirts dotted with poppies – the first instance of blood imagery and lust for violence.
Original play poster
Quickly the play descends into fear and violence. The wedded union of a catholic girl to a Protestant man sets in motion the cyclical motion of revenge and killing. The sectarianism is a direct and unashamed commentary on the conflict and killing experienced by those in the North. The fact much of this story is based on inherited folklore highlights the sad connection that for many in the North and indeed the South, their inherited legacy was that of fear, distrust and killing. The fact the play is set at ‘the Black Pig’s Dyke’ along the border between north and south sets the play in a void between the sectarianism and where identity and connection with the self as a citizen is blurred.
This 100th production by Druid received headline reviews in national and regional press in the North and South and includes “A remarkable mix of passion and despair”, “The unmasking of brutal violence in stunning new play” and with comments such as “Masked men, eyes glittering fantastically through slitted hoods immediately herald horror. We had and have on our North/South border such disguised murdering avengers who hunt their prey under the cover of darkness”
The play is a supremely important commentary in Irish theatre on the despair, passion, killing and loss suffered for generations in Ireland’s North and its border regions. The play was produced at Druid Lane theatre, Galway and toured nationally to co, Galway, Armagh, Derry, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Antrim (Belfast) Meath, Mayo, Tipperary Clare, Offaly, Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Waterford and Kilkenny.
The Druid theatre archive contains original documents from the production including programmes, posters, photographs, sketches of costumes and masks, tour handbook for cast members and extensive press file of reviews, cuttings, articles and commentary.

For more information on this production and tour by Druid click here

Monday, November 8, 2010

Flann O’Brien and 'The Dead Spit of Kelly'

This week I discovered a copy of the Brian O’Nolan script The Dead Spit of Kelly amongst many others which were considered for production at the Lyric Theatre. The play, which is about a Dublin taxidermist who murders his employer and assumes his identity, was originally broadcast on RTE for whom O’Nolan wrote sporadically. He is of course more well-known for his fiction, written under the nom de plume Flann O’Brien, and for his bilingual column in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. 

O’Nolan was born in Strabane, county Tyrone in 1911. He studied at UCD, during which time he wrote widely. However, after graduating and moving into the civil service, he found himself constrained by the rules against civil servants publicly expressing political views. This prompted his use of pseudonyms which, while obeying official rules, meant little as his identity was an open secret amongst his colleagues. They found his writing sufficiently entertaining to merit their turning a blind eye.

As Flann O’Brien he wrote two novels famous now despite lukewarm receptions during O’Nolan’s lifetime. At Swim-Two Birds is considered his masterpiece, a complex metafictional work which incorporates existing characters from legend and fiction. The Third Policeman was withdrawn from circulation by the author after failing to find a publisher, only being made available posthumously. It has however found a new audience in recent years due to its inclusion in an episode of the American television drama Lost. Broadcast in February 2006, the episode sparked revived interest in O’Nolan’s work, with the novel selling 15,000 copies in the two days following the show. While O’Nolan has always had a cult following, it is gratifying that this unexpected limelight for The Third Policeman might bring new readers to his work.

For those interested in learning more on Brian O'Nolan's background, there is a three part radio interview with his brother (the artist Michéal O'Nolan) available here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Christmas 1950: Mary O’Malley’s First Production

MacNeice House, formerly Aquinas Hall
Pearse O’Malley, as well as being a consultant in the Mater Hospital, Belfast, also became President of the Newman Society of Queen’s University after the couple’s move north. Part of this role was to organise lectures and host the Society’s annual dance. As well as this, Pearse discovered that it was his duty to host a Christmas party at Aquinas Hall. He enlisted his wife’s help in making this a success.

Nativity, Christmas 1950
Mary, with her great interest in theatre, took the opportunity to seek like-minded individuals to put on theatrical entertainment for the party guests. She sought advice from her friend Lily Reid, and eventually made contact with several actors who would go on to become the earliest Lyric Players: Paddy Coyle, Frances McShane, Maureen Cremin, Nan McGuigan, Lucy Young, and Bob Haldane. All came onboard and Mary proceeded with her plan to stage two one act plays, The Dear Queen by Andrew Ganly and Nativity by Lady Gregory.

Script for The Dear Queen with Mary O'Malley's notes
The cast had just ten days, during a memorable snow storm, in which to rehearse and perfect their performances. Mary describes herself in her autobiography Never Shake Hands with the Devil as working ‘like a beaver’ taking rehearsals in the O’Malley family home on Ulsterville Road at this time. 

She thrived in the theatrical atmosphere, and the production was a great success. Max Freeland, Assistant Secretary of the university, wrote that ‘it was just wonderful to realize that in these benighted times that there was someone with the skill and initiative to do such a lovely thing’. This triumph sparked the possibility amongst the group of further productions: Mary O’Malley had found her creative outlet in Belfast.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Frank McGuinness's "Dracula" at Druid

Draft artwork from production of "Dracula"
While Halloween may just be passing and the season of Samhain and the month of the souls begins, it is hard to ignore the many films, books and plays designed to scare and thrill readers and viewers. The season of Trick or Treat and ghosts and ghouls is especially remembered in Ireland by those writers and playwrights who inspire to scare. From Sheridan La Fanu to Yeats’ occultism to more recent works by the likes of Conor McPherson have thrilled their audiences by exploring the dark realms of the undead and the unknown.
One piece in particular is by an Irishman who gave the world one of the greatest of horror stories. Bram Stoker’s Dracua has terrified young and old for generations. Druid tackled this work in 1986 and in doing so staged a version by the celebrated Frank McGuinness. Starring Sean McGinley, Jane Brennan, Maeliosa Stafford, Michael Ford, Maurice O’Donoghue, Brendan Conroy, Kate Hogan and directed and designed by Monica Frawley, the production explored the original 1897 reflection on the morality of late Victorian times. 
The production file in the Druid theatre archive contains the original play programme, flyers, a copy of the script, colour photographs of the set, invitation to the opening night’s performance, press reviews of the production and colour artworks and drawings that were used as draft ideas for the play poster and programme.  
In the programme a note by Frank McGuinness describes his thoughts on the evolution of the play: “The first monster s I met were made from celluloid; Frankenstein, Dacula, their brides and curse, daughters and revenge. . .What myth lies behind the powerful hold of Dracula on the European imagination? It is the poetry and power, not the period [of the story] that interests me, for Dracula belongs to a diseased universe, full of blood loss and bloodletting madness. He is not the source but a symptom of that universe, longing for its death.” McGuinness’s version is a powerful production and exploration of moral consequence, a failing human nature and lust for power. Through Frawley’s  hugely skilful design and direction it is a performance that was a success for Druid and not just owing to seasonal influences of Halloween: It was actually produced in April of 1986!

Programme cover from "Dracula" at Druid theatre.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mary O’Malley and the Origins of the Lyric Players Theatre

No discussion of the Lyric Players Theatre would be complete without mentioning Mary O’Malley, founder of the theatre and self-taught director of hundreds of plays. Mary was a devotee of W.B. Yeats, and modelled the Lyric on Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. She guided the Lyric through the early years of productions staged in her own home right through to its move to a purpose-built theatre on the banks of the River Lagan, on Ridgeway Street in Belfast.

Born in 1918 in Mallow, county Cork, the then Mary Hickey developed an early love of theatre after seeing a production of Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn at the age of six. Her brother Gerald, himself a successful set designer, brought her to the Abbey when she was thirteen, pointing out to her the famous playwrights Yeats and Lady Gregory. She remained fascinated with Yeats’ plays, staging all of them throughout the Lyric’s early years.

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After completing her education at Loreto Convent, Mary moved to Dublin with her mother. She immersed herself in Dublin’s theatrical scene, becoming a member of the New Theatre Group and the Irish Film Society, amongst others. These were exciting times in Dublin: the Second World War had driven many intellectuals and artists to Dublin from the continent, making for a vibrant cultural atmosphere in the city. It was at this time also that Mary’s political conscience began to assert itself, which will be explored in a future post.
Dr Pearse O'Malley
Mary met her future husband Pearse O’Malley, a neurologist, in Dublin and they married in September 1947. The marriage meant a move north, as Pearse was involved in the planning of a new Department of Neurology and Psychiatry in the Mater Hospital, Belfast. Northern Ireland’s capital was found lacking, culturally speaking, when compared to the O’Malleys’ experiences in Dublin. Mary however soon created an outlet for herself; the beginnings of the Lyric Players Theatre will be detailed in a forthcoming post.