Thursday, April 26, 2018

Guest Post - Erin Grogan (Fulbright Scholar) - Mary Rynne, Lost Plays and Theatre Archives

Erin Grogan
From August to this past February, I was lucky enough to immerse myself fully in the archives with little other responsibility – a chance most researchers can only dream of. I received a Fulbright research grant that enabled me to leave West Texas for 6 months and focus solely on delving into my dissertation studies at the James Hardiman Library. My research focuses on women playwrights during the Free State years - how they were affected by and contributed to the ideas of Irish womanhood.

Part of applying for a Fulbright grant is being able to articulate why you need to go to this other country, what makes it imperative to your studies? I knew that NUIG housed the digital archives of both the Abbey theatre and the Gate theatre which would be immensely helpful to my work, and I made a decently good argument for why that mattered (I did get the grant, after all). But if I were to answer that same question now, having been with the archival materials in person and working alongside the archivists at NUIG, my answer would look something like this:

Archives are a treasure trove. Much like writing characters in plays, archives take on a life of their own and lead you down paths you never expected. Archivists themselves are muses who point you towards material you didn’t realize you needed but now can’t write without. Without these primary sources and first-hand reflections, my dissertation would be merely speculation.

This may have been too flowery for the application, but I stand by it. When I arrived at NUIG I met with Barry Houlihan, Archivist, and we immediately set out sourcing material of relevance for my research - names of women writers I hadn’t heard of before, plays to read, materials to sort through. Most excitingly, was discovering the personal archive of Mary Rynne that had just recently been donated. Rynne had only one production at the Abbey, Pilgrims in 1938, and it received mixed reviews. While not well known, and not particularly well produced, Rynne has become an important part of my dissertation.

Despite reviews and reflections on Rynne that made it seem as though she was content to have only written one play – her archives painted a clearly different picture. She wrote short stories and radio plays, many of which were published in magazines, and her notebooks were teeming with ideas and starts of many more. In sorting through her archives related to Pilgrims, I came across a full-length script of a stage play that had never been published or produced. With no title page, I began to refer to this script as Rynne’s “Lost Play” to those I’d talk about it with.
Mary Rynne

This “Lost Play” highlighted the limited roles women in the Free State faced and the ways women subverted these expectations or ultimately gave into them. The protagonist struggles between familial duties and her own needs and wants. This script was exciting to me because it was written around the same time as Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche and explores many of the same themes and issues. Deevy’s play is periodically revived and often lauded as a singular example of a women writing about Irish womanhood on the stage, but this play of Rynne’s proves that other women artists were also exploring the limitations of their own citizenship. The strong themes present in both plays, the relationships between women characters, and ultimately the lack of female support systems within these works highlighted a substantial issue within the wider Irish society of the time.

This archival find is just one example of the many exciting discoveries I had during my studies in Galway. Back in Texas now, I am still processing all that I was able to read and uncover. My time in the archives was invaluable and has allowed me to conduct more thorough, deep, and important research into this time period, these women, and their works. I am grateful to all the archivists at NUIG, as well as Fulbright, for allowing me the tools to write on this important subject. I know that as I continue on my academic and scholarly path, not only will I retain my relationship to this school and their special collections, but that my relationship to archives (both their existence and use) has also been changed for the better.