This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

December 2004


27 December 1904:   Abbey Theatre founded in Dublin, Ireland.

What would become the oldest and perhaps most successful and influential national theater in the world was conceived on a rainy afternoon on Galway Bay in the summer of 1897.

William Butler Yeats, Isabella Augusta Gregory, and Edward Martyn gathered for afternoon tea at the estate of the Count de Basterot. All three were dedicated to Irish cultural nationalism: Yeats and Martyn as poets and playwrights, and Gregory as a collector of Gaelic folklore. Yeats, though, spoke of a longtime ambition of his, to found a national theater company that could nurture the creation of plays that would reflect and support the national culture of Ireland. Inspired by Yeats' vision, Lady Gregory took to her old Remington typewriter and dutifully began banging out appeal letters to as many people as she knew in cultural and literary circles, and to start the ball rolling she threw in 25 of her own money.

The letters drew responses from a variety of people who together in one room might otherwise have proven uncomfortable fellows. Among the venture's first supporters were the historian and MP W.H. Lecky, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond, and the veteran Fenian leader John O'Leary. Support also came in from Douglas Hyde of the Gaelic League, the poet Aubrey deVere, and the novelist Emily Lawless.

Though Dublin had long hosted a lively theatrical scene, most of the better quality productions were English imports, and what plays there were on native Irish historical themes tended to be mediocre or melodramatic. What Ireland needed was a theatrical organization willing to take the risks of producing the works of an emerging generation of nationalist writers.

The first step was the formation of an organization called the Irish Literary Theatre. In May 1899 its first productions were staged in Dublin's Antient Concert Rooms: Edward Martyn's The Heather Field and W.B. Yeats' The Countess Cathleen. The Abbey traditions of nationalism, theatrical innovation, and controversy were established that very opening night of 8 May, when Yeats brought some native Irish-speaking women from Galway onto the stage to raise an authentic caoine over the body of the Countess Cathleen. It was the first time native Irish speakers had raised the traditional high-pitched Gaelic lament on an Irish stage, and it drew jeers from the gallery as well as sharp disapproval from the writer George Moore. Also in the gallery that evening, though looking on in silence, was the aspiring writer James Joyce.

Despite this rocky start, and the often condemnatory reviews by an establishment press skittish about the nationalistic content of the dramas, the Irish Literary Theatre soon proved a success. Before long it was mounting productions in a variety of locations in Dublin and producing new plays by Yeats, Gregory, Douglas Hyde, J.M. Synge and Padraic Colum. After the professional producers William and Frank Fay came onboard, the company was reorganized in 1902 as the Irish National Theatre Company, and the following year an admirer of Yeats, Annie Horniman, offered to take on the costs of renovating Dublin's old Mechanic's Theatre to give the company a permanent home.

Horniman, who had previously contributed her talents as a costume designer, was an English heiress. Having said that “I can only afford to make a very little theatre and it must be quite simple,” she nevertheless came up with 1300 to cover the renovation costs, plus an annual salary of 70 to retain a full-time stage manager.

Taking its name from its address at 26 Lower Abbey Street, the revamped theater held a respectable 562 seats, and sported stained glass foyer windows by Sarah Purser, plus specially made copper decorations of Celtic design. It lacked an orchestra (and a bar) and its entrance through what had been the old Dublin City morgue drew some comment.

The opening night on 27 December 1904 featured a quadruple bill: Lady Gregory's Spreading the News, Yeats' On Baile's Strand and Kathleen ni Houlihan, plus J.M. Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen. But Dublin's theater reviewers were at best lukewarm to the historic opening, and gave better reviews to the rival Queen's Theatre's production of the historical melodrama Sarsfield.

But from that beginning the Abbey would continue on to play a key role in Ireland's national resurgence. It narrowly escaped being pounded to rubble by the English bombardment during the 1916 Easter Rising, and survived the riots and rowdiness that greeted Synge's The Playboy of the Western World and O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. The theater burned down in 1951, and for a while the company was forced to relocate in its erstwhile rival the Queen's Theatre. Meanwhile the Irish government, which had granted the company an annual subsidy in 1925, came through and rebuilt the Abbey, which reopened on the fifteenth anniversary of its burning on 18 July 1966.

The Abbey, along with its basement playhouse The Peacock, continues to thrive today. In its 100 years it has mounted nearly 1000 plays, of which over 700 have been original productions, and it remains a key element in the culture of Ireland.

For more information on Ireland, see the Irish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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