New Book Explores the Potential of Ireland’s Theatre Archives

Lyric Foundation Stone, Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: NUI Galway Archives
Oct 22 2019 Posted: 11:20 IST

‘Navigating Ireland’s Theatre Archive: Theory, Practice, Performance’ examines how Irish theatre continues to capture our history in a political, social and cultural context

Navigating Ireland’s Theatre Archive: Theory, Practice, Performance, a new book by Dr Barry Houlihan, Archivist at NUI Galway, explores the processes of engaging with the documented and undocumented record of Irish theatre history and broadens the concept of evidential study of performance through increasingly diverse archives and digitally restored records.

The archive is a repository of evidence and material including annotated scripts, photographs, correspondence, administration, recordings and other remnants of the mechanics of producing theatre. Audience members depend on the liveness of theatre, to be within a moment of performance that is unique and present, one that defies capture.

Today, through digital means, it is possible to reconstruct and relive past moments from Ireland’s theatre past. It is possible to be within touching distance of the riotous moments at the emergence of a new National Theatre for Ireland over a century ago; to sense what is was like to see a new play by Lady Gregory, G.B. Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Marina Carr or Tom Murphy for the first time; to relive Druid Theatre bringing Synge’s works back to the Aran Islands, to witness great actors, powerful moments, deep silences, as well as the cheer of a standing ovation.

Dr Barry Houlihan, Archivist, James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway, says: “The archive of Irish theatre is a resource for the public, researchers, and artists to interrogate and challenge the past through its history and through its tangible evidence, stories, and personalities captured within the archive. Digital technology enables us to reanimate our theatrical heritage and witness it again as new audiences today. We are a country of theatre-goers, story-tellers, and performers, and our theatre’s heritage is a part of our culture and identity.

“The book argues for the potential of the archive, for the ongoing and digital recording and archiving of our theatrical heritage. In doing so, we document a powerful tool of our country’s culture: our theatre and our artists who reflect our society and imaginations. The digital archive enables us to witness and relive those moments as new audiences into the future.”

Individual chapters within the collection look at what defines the tradition of Irish theatre ‘British’ theatre, or ‘Northern Irish’ theatre, terms which are perhaps less straight-forward today. As we face the uncertainty of Brexit, the borders of our histories and archives will continue to grow digitally with instant global access to records of theatre a growing reality. In 2016, #WakingTheFeminists, a women-led movement of theatre-makers emerged to respond to a paucity of opportunity and engagement for women artists at the Abbey Theatre. It awoke, not just a reflection on employment and work practices across the Irish theatre section, but also about the status of the archive and repertoire itself – and where women theatre-makers are recorded in the archive. The book also covers theatre archives that address our difficult and dark past, right up to the present day in ‘The Asylum Archive’ of Direct Provision, oral history archives, the ‘Anglo Tapes’ and the 2008 financial crash, and to current debates around Repeal of the Eight Amendment in the Irish Constitution.

Within the book, personal memoirs and experiences are opened up, such as memories of the establishment of a new theatre, the Lyric, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1950s that blossomed from amateur to professional while soon being in the ominous shadow of the cloud of conflict during ‘The Troubles’. Founded by Mary O'Malley in 1954, the Lyric [Players] Theatre afforded communities in Northern Ireland an outlet from which to escape political and sectarian divide and be part of a cultural movement.

Archives preserved and digitised at the Hardiman Library in NUI Galway, include the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre digital archives; Druid Theatre Company archive; Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe archive; Lyric Theatre Belfast archive; Galway International Arts Festival archive; as well as papers of playwrights and actors such as Thomas Kilroy, Siobhán McKenna, Patricia Burke-Brogan and Arthur Shields, among others, creating a bilingual record of Irish and international theatre and performance in Ireland and abroad.

This book brings together key thinkers, scholars and theatre-makers who engage with the archive of Irish theatre and performance in terms of its creation, management as well as its artistic interpretation. New technological advances and mass-digitisation allows for new interventions with the repertoire and archive of Irish theatre and performance. This volume includes wide-ranging discourse, new critical thought and case studies from archivists, theatre scholars, historians and artists who each work to navigate Ireland’s theatre archive in order to uncover and reconstruct the past practice of performance through new digitally enhanced means.

Dr Barry Houlihan is an archivist at the James Hardiman Library in NUI Galway, and teaches Irish theatre history at the University’s O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance. He holds a PhD on Irish theatre and social engagement. His research interests include theatre historiography, political and social theatre, archival and cultural theory and digital humanities. He is also a project team member of the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre Digital Archive Projects.

Navigating Ireland's Theatre Archive: Theory, Practice, Performance is published and available from Peter Lang Press, Oxford (2019) and is part of the Series: Reimagining Ireland, see: will be launched on Thursday, 24 October by Dr Caitriona Crowe. A symposium discussing current research and practice in digital theatre, archival curation and the archival futures for performance will take place on the same day, see: or logon to and search for Performance and the Archive.

For NUI Galway’s Archive collection, visit:


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