Almost five years following a disastrous fire, Ireland’s unique Irish theatre An Taibhdhearc, situated in the very heart of the city, has opened its doors again. Perhaps the fire may have been a blessing in disguise. The theatre has reopened in a confident mood. Its distinctive new signage makes its mark, especially on dark winter evenings; and its facilities have been up-dated both for the audience and actors. Yet it has retained its remembered intimacy, and sense of Irishness. Micheál MacLiammóir’s golden Celtic peacocks, on the black fire-curtain, proudly remain as rampant as ever!
The five year break has also given its directors time for reflection on the theatre’s role in our increasingly heterogeneous city. Its budget will only allow three Irish productions a year; but for the rest of the time it will provide a beautiful space for a whole variety of performances, including dance, music, readings, recitals, and a venue for visiting groups. Under the impressive guidance of its new artistic director Anne McCabe, An Taibhdhearc will play its role in projecting the very high standard of the arts that has made Galway the envy of all other cities in Ireland.
I am particularly impressed by its ability to project English subtitles with its Irish productions. I am certain TG4 largely owes its success to its easy to read subtitles which allows its viewers to enjoy a sense of ownership and involvement. Most of us have a smattering of Irish. But an all-Irish production can alienate its audience; and many important programmes go unnoticed.
An English lesson
A bi-lingual approach was the guiding principal of Conrad na Gaeilge in the early years of the last century. Recently I wrote of Pádraig Pearse’s belief in a bi-lingual approach to the teaching of Irish, which was part and parcel of his St Enda’s and St Ita’s experimental schools.
Oddly enough the reverse was sometimes true here in the west, where Irish was, in many cases, the principal language. Emigration was commonplace at that time, and a knowledge of English was necessary.
I enjoy reading the writings of a Galway MP Stephen L Gwynn (1864-1950 ), who took a holiday in Connemara during the summer of 1907.* He describes leaving Galway on the Spiddal road. Looking back he sees the hills of Clare, and the white-washed cottages of Tawin island, a small Gaelic speaking community at the time. He calls into the Spiddal school to see his friend the teacher Dan Deeney. A geography class was in full swing. Stephen enjoyed listening to the children answering quickly and correctly. “ It was a lesson really in English, as well as geography,” he writes, “ for the questions were often put a second time in English.”
A day or two later Stephen was fishing at Inver. He told his boatman about the Spiddal school, and the man replied that the new way of teaching English was through Irish. It was better than teaching English only. “ Now,” he said, “ a boy at school would be able to read out every word that was on a letter coming from America. Now any that could read English could put Irish on what they read.”
Interesting Galway men
An Taibhdhearc grew out of a conversation between two interesting Galwaymen, Professor Liam Ó Briain, and Dr Séamus Ó Beirn, probably around 1920. Liam Ó Briain was a scholar of romance languages, and an Irish enthusiast. He caused a furore in November 1920 when he was dramatically arrested by the Black and Tans while dining with his colleagues at UCG. Ó Briain had been an agent for Michael Collins, and had travelled to France and Italy in search of arms. A Dubliner, he served under Michael Mallin of the Citizen’s Army both at St Stephen’s Green and the Royal College of Surgeons during the Rising. He had previously helped print the Proclamation of the Republic in Liberty Hall. He was imprisoned in Wandsworth for his pains. But he spent his working life teaching in Galway university, and was an immensely popular and entertaining conversationalist.
Dr Ó Beirn was a native of Tawin island, and a fluent Irish speaker. He studied medicine at UCG and practised in the Leenane area of Connemara. All his life he was particularly concerned with the spread of tuberculosis which had a deadly grip on the people. It was a terrible scourge. It was not only a fatal disease for most sufferers, but families who displayed symptoms were ostracised by the community.
Dr Ó Beirn knew that education was a vital tool. He began to hold public evenings lecturing on the human body, the origins of TB, and the need for home hygiene. He illustrated his talks with lantern slides, and they attracted great crowds. He succeeded in getting agreement to actually burn down cottages where he believed the deadly bacilli had ingrained itself.
He was incensed when doctors, who could only speak English, were appointed to Irish speaking areas. He cleverly wrote and produced a play, An Dochtúir, describing the predicament of just such a doctor in a Connemara clinic, which made his point better than any written article. Only medical staff with fluent Irish were appointed after that.
Undoubtedly Ó Beirn knew that a lively Irish language theatre in Galway would promote Irish in an imaginative way. By the new year of 1928 a committee of like minded people were got together. There was a modest grant available from the new struggling government, a premises was found, but no one was prepared to make the running of the new theatre a full-time commitment. By coincidence, the renowned Victorian Shakespearian actor-manager Anew Mc Master was in town presenting Shakespeare plays to an enraptured audience. One of his cast was Mícheál Mac Liammóir, probably the greatest ham actor ever, but a man with extraordinary charm. He was approached and asked if he would come to Galway, and set up the new theatre.
Apparently, the great man bowed very low...and said, in his slow, mellifluous voice, that he would be deeply honoured.
Next week Mícheál Mac Liammóir and his partner Hilton Edwards descend on Galway.
NOTES: * A Holiday in Connemara, published by Metheun and Co., 1909.
The word taibhdhearc is a derivation of two Irish words consisting of taibhse, meaning spectacle/ghost; and dearc, meaning behold!