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Never-before-seen Abbey Theatre papers show how it fought against censorship

The minute books have been digitised and transcripts made.

Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

WHEN THE ABBEY Theatre was founded in 1904, it was a pivotal moment for the Irish arts.

In its first 30 years, it was there to witness – and respond to – many changes in Irish society, and these are all reflected in its minute books.

But those minute books – which contain the thoughts of people like WB Yeats and Lady Gregory – had never been seen by the public, until now.

Thanks to NUI Galway, which has spent six months digitising and transcribing the minutes, we now know what went on inside the theatre from 1904 – 1939.

.Times past and present:Act Actress Geraldine Plunkett reminisces through pictures from the Abbey Theatre's archive ,Geraldine is with Fiach Mac Conghail, Director,Abbey Theatre and Dr. Patrick Lonergan,Director of Drama Studies, NUI Galway. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The work was completed as part of the larger work NUI Galway is doing in digitising the Abbey’s extensive archive.

Censorship

As NUI Galway Professor of Drama Patrick Lonergan explained, the minute books give a fascinating insight into how the Abbey fought against censorship in the early days of the Irish Free State.

A Committee on Evil Literature was set up by the State in 1926, and set about banning books that did not sit with Ireland’s deeply religious culture at the time.

One of the plays that almost fell foul of the censors was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which is about the 1916 Rising, but the Abbey’s minutes show that the theatre fought against any attempts at censorship.

There were protests on the night of the fourth performance of the play in 1926. During them, WB Yeats himself said to the audience:

You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?

Professor Lonergan said there are around 1,000 pages in the minutes, which feature leading figures from the Irish Literary Revival, like Yeats and Gregory, but also John Millington Synge, Frank O’Connor and Teresa Deevy.

“The Abbey was set up in 1904 and was very much involved in the movement towards Irish independence,” said Lonergan. “These minute books tell the stories of the theatre.”

In them, we see how the management decided how much to pay actors and what shows to put on – but also how to deal with the aforementioned censorship issue. This originally raised its head when the newly-formed government of the free State gave the Abbey a subsidy.

26/9/2012. Abbey Theatre To Move Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

It became the first theatre in the English-speaking world to be subsidised by the State, which showed how important it was. They were obviously worried about the threat of censorship from the government. One of the first decisions they had to make was whether to let the government pull the Plough and the Stars.

The Abbey stood up for the play, which had far-reaching results.

“We associate the first decade of the Free State with banning novels - one thing they never censored or banned was the theatre. The Abbey played a key role in standing up to the government. Every other country in the world had censorship [of the theatre],” said Lonergan.

Fumbling in greasy tills

We also learn through the minute books about Yeats and his relationship with money. His poem September 1913, with its line about ‘fumbling in greasy tills’ would have made some think he thought he was above money.

But Lonergan pointed out that the minute books show that Yeats discussed in detail how to fund the theatre.

He was very aware of the importance of money, and knew how to negotiate.

“Nearly everything was surprising as we had never seen it before,” said Lonergan. “What really struck me was the imp of Lady Gregory in running the theatre, really her importance as an artist and administrator.” The latter will no doubt be of interest to the newly-formed Waking the Feminists group.

Looking at the Abbey’s past is also a way of looking at Ireland’s past. “It’s like a microcosm of the State,” said Lonergan.

The archive is open for consultation in the library at NUI Galway, and these minute books are the first opportunity to make some of the digitised material available to the public. (Some items are copyrighted or sensitive material and so cannot be digitised). The minutes can be viewed here.

It is anticipated that the archive will be finished the digitisation process in late 1916.

Read: Fury, apologies, and calls for respect as feminists shake the Irish theatre world>

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