314 boxes and 35m of books — archive of Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden donated to NUI Galway

Margaretta D'Arcy and president of NUI Galway Jim Browne pore through some of the material at the handover last week. Pic: Aengus McMahon

Margaretta D'Arcy and president of NUI Galway Jim Browne pore through some of the material at the handover last week. Pic: Aengus McMahon

Margaretta D’Arcy has donated her papers and those of her late husband and playwright John Arden to NUI Galway. The archive throws new light on two pivotal but under-researched figures of 20th and 21st century Irish and British theatre and also features strongly the activism of both Arden and D’Arcy.

John Arden was one of the major dramatists of the twentieth century, with early plays such as Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance (1960 ) helping to inaugurate a new era of politically engaged theatre in Britain at theatres like London’s Royal Court. During a long career of writing and activism, he published several plays and essays, and his novel Silence Among the Weapons was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983.

Margaretta D’Arcy is a major writer and cultural activist who has long campaigned on issues related to global peace, civil liberties, and equality. She is a member of Aosdána. Arden and D’Arcy together also co-authored many plays, including the celebrated Non-Stop Connolly Show, and have been major figures in the development of community-based and politically-focussed arts.

Their papers are valuable not only from the perspective of theatre and literary studies, but in terms of Irish and British social, political and cultural history. This archive preserves not only the work of two eminent artists, but the history of a long-ranging and complex political and artistic collaboration. The political themes of their work in relationship to capitalism, industry, war and the legacies of colonialism remain timely and indeed urgent for scholars and theatre practitioners working today.

The international dimension of their work (whether through collaborations with Welsh and Scottish theatre companies among others, their trip to India or their globally minded activism ) further establishes NUI Galway and the West of Ireland as an international centre for the advancement of the study of theatre and drama.

The collection consists of 314 boxes of archival material, as well as 35 linear metres of books, and covers all aspects of their lives, including family background, education, their writings and their activism. Highlights include detailed drafts of The Non-Stop Connolly Show and the memoirs of Margaretta, including her protests at Armagh Jail, Greenham Common and Shannon Airport.

There is a wealth of material on community activism from the local to the international, including Radio Pirate Woman and Galway Women’s Entertainment, Aosdána, Northern Ireland, Global Women’s Strike, and many more campaigns. Unique among the University’s collections as a record of writing, theatre and activism, it will add greatly to its holdings of cultural and political collections, including the John McGahern Collection, the Lyric Theatre/O’Malley Collection, the Siobhán McKenna Collection and the Ruairí Ó Brádaigh Collection.

The University marked the bequest of the Arden and D’Arcy archive on Friday last in the O’Donoghue Centre for Theatre, Drama and Performance. Speakers at the launch of the archive will included Margaretta D’Arcy as well as Galway musician and cultural activist, Mary Coughlan. Finn Arden, son of Margaretta and John, will be among the attendees. A symposium titled Political Theatre in Britain and Ireland Since 1950: the Legacies of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy will be followed by a public interview with Margaretta D’Arcy.

Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies Patrick Lonergan warmly welcomed the donation of these papers to the university. “John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy’s archive will be of immense value for both teaching and research in this univeristy. Their achievements expose several blindspots in our understanding of the relationship between theatre and politics – especially relating to such issues as imperialism, community activism, socialism, and gender equality.

Their commitment to co-authorship and to the use of theatre to achieve social justice offers new models for understanding how theatre can be made and understood. And fundamentally this archive will allow us to do the work of redressing the major neglect of both Arden and D’Arcy. Exciting times lie ahead for our students and researchers.”

Dr Jim Browne reflecting on the legacy of Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden said that they had made an enormous contribution over many decades to Irish society, to international cultural discourse and to political theatre.

Theirs are “voices of conscience that have questioned the orthodoxies of our time. It is fitting that their archive will be based in NUI Galway. Universities have always been places where differing opinions can be discussed and challenged. This is important - perhaps never more so than today, when in an age of “fake news” universities need to remind themselves of the need for all valid and informed views to be heard. Dissenting voices are a way of stress-testing the truth and challenging received opinion. The lives and works of Margaretta Darcy and John Arden stand as inspiration to us in this regard.”

Margaretta D’Arcy said that a veritable feast awaits those who will be attending the handover to NUI Galway. It is hoped that the entire collection, including audio and video material will be eventually housed there.

John Cox, University Librarian, said that it is an honour to receive the papers of Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden and to add them to our growing collection of archives in theatre and drama.

“This is a very generous donation by Margaretta and I have no doubt that there will be great interest in the papers as a source of new insights into her cultural activism. They will be a great resource for academic staff and students at the University and we will also welcome visitors to use them.”

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