Tag Archives: Richard Johnson

Theatre at the Barricades

 “A national theatre’s place is the stage, not the barricades”, argues Mick Heaney in his article (Sunday Times, Culture, 14 Mar 2010) The barricades of which Heaney speaks are those which are currently heaving under the weight of angered and frustrated people who have felt the smothering hand of recession in Ireland the most.  The Irish air-waves and television screens are buzzing with outcry and disbelief directed at the constant surfacing of scandals to hit our banks, corporate boardrooms, clergy and churches. While many feel a saturation point has long been surpassed in relation to round-the-clock coverage to recession themed programming and chilling tales of abuse of power and innocence, a public without an expressed voice and opinion has little chance of beginning to rectify what has brought about these unprecedented times.

Since Fiach MacConaghail took over from Ben Barnes as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, he immediately sought to right what he and many others saw as the misdirection the Abbey had previously taken. Debts were rising and audiences flagging. MacConaghail believed that the national theatre should be pulsing at the same rate of the heart of the people. It is the people who make a country what it is. They are who live, study, work, rear families and, yes, also vote within a country. While there is scarcely an individual in Ireland who has not felt the pangs of economic readjustment, it is WE who elected and re-elected a government who rode the highest crest of an economic tidal wave but with seldom a thought to this wave turning into a thunderous tsunami and have it crash on our shores. Public opinion towards government during the Boom years was of indifference and of the laziest type of Laissez-Faire. Now, the national theatre has tried to reinvigorate public debate and opinion and the state of the nation and on our political, social and economic state.

The program of productions at the Abbey and indeed in Irish theatre for the last number of months have been dominated by political responsive works. Even earlier, in April 2009, Love and Money written by Dennis Kelly and produced at the Project Arts Centre foretold an eerily cautionary tale of consumerism based on a high credit-subsidised level that can and will lead to ruin of self, sanity and relationships. The work produced by Hatch theatre company received strong reviews, notably for the roles played by Kate Brennan and Barry Ward and acted as a warning light for what would arrive in the near future in our news headlines but also in our theatres.

Love and Money, image courtesy of Project Arts Centre

The stages of Irish theatres would soon be awash with political works and, counter to the argument made by Mick Heaney, most were extremely strong pieces of drama, extremely well written, produced and acted. Dublin-born playwright Conall Quinn has this year been awarded the Stewart Parker Trust Award, a prestigious recognition of new writing and writers. His play, The Death of Harry Leon performed in the fantastic Smock Alley theatre in January 2009 was a counter factual drama that portrayed an Ireland that had aligned itself with German Fascism in the 1930’s and 1940’s and also alluded to Irish political and military elements active at the time. Quinn asks tough questions about national identity, racial prejudice and distorted ideology that are as much present today as they are in the past. Fintan O’Toole described this work as “terrifically courageous. It does what political theatre should do, taking real risks in order to provoke new thoughts.” The Parker trust recognises Quinn as a writer of brave, thought rendering and powerful drama, which also happens to be political in its tone and resonance.

Conall Quinn at Smock Alley Theatre. Image Courtesy of Irish Times

Therein lies a critical distinction. The elements that make up a well written, well produced and well acted drama should not be diminished or treated as “other” simply because they are political in essence. Thought provoking work on the social, ethical, financial and legislative failures of our government and citizens should not be dismissed in favour of those which steer clear of civic significance. For too long a lack of public debate and discussion on the failures within Irish moral society and business have facilitated a culture of abuse on astounding levels. If theatre and the arts do not take up the mantle of removing the cloak cast upon many aspects of Irish society then there is a very real risk that actions can continue underneath it unabated. Business as usual.

On January 30th 1961, a new play The Evidence I Shall Give was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Written by a district court Judge, Richard Johnson, the play dealt with, quiet openly, the abuse and fear that prevailed in Irish institutional schools and Magdalene Laundries. Frustrated by the restraint in the Irish Judicial system in dealing with cases of abuse on young people within these state sanctioned homes and the indifference that was also evident among Irish families and parishes, Johnson honed his craft as a writer and used the powerful ally of the stage to create a public awareness and view of self accountability in the face of these systemic and moral failings.

The play had an initial run of 42 performances, quite a substantial run for any work on the Abbey stage by a debutant playwright. More startling was that the play received another 42 performances from 10 July 1961, a further 6 shows on 6 July 1961 and yet another run of 21, 9 and 6 performances on 1 August, 18 September and 9 October 1961 respectively. This run totals 126 performances. This equates to The Evidence I Shall Give being on the Abbey Stage for roughly one third of the calendar year. This was at a time when the Second Vatican Council was still meeting in re-evaluating its Catholic doctrine and role of its Bishops. Johnson’s belief in the power of theatre and ability to create and provoke sincere debate and thought was not lost on this play, but perhaps lost to some degree by an audience who left the performance behind in the theatre and did not question within themselves the themes of abuse raised by the play.

 Following on from this play, which is being revived currently by a reading at the Abbey as part of its Darkest Corner series, Tom Murphy’s play the Sanctuary Lamp, premiered in 1975 caused ructions and was met by outcry in an Ireland that was still heavily subscribed to a burdening fear of the Mitre. The Project Arts Centre at this time also acted as an outcrop and forum for public discourse and discussion in an otherwise indifferent Irish society to tackling social failures that were hitherto unspeakable.

I can understand Mick Heany’s worry at the Abbey or any theatre becoming merely a soapbox and an outlay to vent frustrations at a weak and floundering government. This does not benefit theatre and should not be its goal. However, for any theatre, be it the national theatre or otherwise, it must first come to terms and recognise the true character of the nation and people it is based in and those whom it represents. This means a thorough and comprehensive overhaul of the states many failures and to once again produce an audience that cares about its theatre, an audience that is strongly willed enough to take stock of their individual failures and create a public forum through powerful drama that can leave an audience thinking and reassessing its beliefs as no other medium can do.

Fiach McConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre. Image courtesy of University of Limerick


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Culture of Abuse in Irish Society

2009 is a year that will face scrutiny, study but will seldom be lamented. Following its New Years chimes and cheers it brought with it the greatest economic and social upheaval seen worldwide in generations. The collapse of banking systems, credit systems, building and construction were all felt on a global scale and with particular frenzy in Ireland, which hitherto had been the smug centre-fold of a booming society in pictorial.

Along with the collapse of its banks, building sites and high living Ceann Comhairles Ireland suffered a relapse of failure of a different kind – the collapse of its moral and ethical responsibility to its children and those which were most vulnerable in its society. The damming and blisteringly horrific reports of the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland and the Dublin Diocesan Report brought to the surface the rotten core of Ireland’s institutional schools and the suffering inflicted within. ‘A Culture of Abuse’ has become a phrase synonymous with public reaction to the evidence presented by the investigation committee. This culture has extra resonance when superimposed on the abuse of power, expenses and trust that radiated from Leinster House during the Boom years like a fog on a November night.

From the early twentieth century to its closing years those who suffered at the hands of the authorities of Ireland’s institutional schools were preyed upon by clergy that were protected within a society of containment and secrecy. Bruises were blindly ignored, deaf ears were turned to cries and complaints and shame and fear were used as weapons against the children who were “tempting and causing sin against them”. The Catholic Church was itself Arch Primate in Ireland in the early and mid twentieth century. Just behind and to its right hand was a state government who allowed this culture of abuse to permeate and breed. The abuse against children grew worse, more blatant and the secrecy grew likewise.

Those who entered Ireland’s industrial schools did so ‘voluntarily’, by family intervention and by intervention of Gardai and the courts. While a state and church allowed such abuse to continue by not investigating complaints and moving the guilty abusers to new stations, there still remained a self-imposed and maintained smoke screen by an Irish people who were drilled to bow to the mitre. It has been reported how communities and family members were aware to some extent of abuses carried out at Ireland’s Institutional schools and Laundries.

Now, in the immediate aftershock of publication of the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland report and the Dublin Diocesan Report and also the Ferns Diocesan report the evidence is startling but evidence it is. When one stares blankly and in disbelief at the front page of newspaper report or television documentary and asks “Why”, perhaps it would be better to ask “How”. The inmates of Ireland’s Institutional schools and Laundries had families, friends, neighbours and public representatives who did not act bravely enough, strongly enough or with any deliberate speed in response to this abuse. The initial response to these reports has been a blank expression that includes genuine anger, frustration and also disbelief that this happened ‘on their watch’. Well, it did. Reaction in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s did arrive in some shape and form into the mainstream consciousness, but this reaction was not always heard, viewed or adhered to in time or at all.

The artistic response to abuse in Ireland came when a people and nation were not fully able to comprehend what was ongoing and in their midst. Even still today, reaction to abuse does not always readily afford a tangible realisation of responsibility by public representatives, clergy, bishops or whoever did not intervene. Distance of time does not verify a distance of responsibility or lessen the heinousness of the act.  The memory of those abused in the home or in Institutional care has been explored through a myriad of cultural means. Through theatre, novels, short stories, visual arts, installations and television documentaries, abuse in Ireland was presented to the people to be claimed by their own responsibility, their lack of action but also thus allowing for future action.

Irish theatre is recognisable for being acutely aware of its social responsibility as a cultural and social barometer. It is a particularly visceral performer in informing the public and creating debate and response. On 30th January 1961, The Abbey Theatre produced a world premiere of The Evidence I Shall Give, a play written by Richard Johnson, a district court judge in Kerry, whose son, Richard Jnr, would later succeed to the position of President of the High Court in Ireland. The Evidence I Shall Give is a court room drama telling the story of a young girl who is committed to an Institutional residence as she is considered beyond family care. The play features a heavy-handed Mother Superior who tries to dominate the courtroom proceedings as she does the events within her convent. The constant battle between legal, moral and spiritual responsibility towards the young girl and the indifferent treatment by the Judge to the place of the case is frustratingly all too real in the wake of the recent Commission reports. The triviality with which the girl’s well being is dealt by the State, via the Judge, and by the Church, via the Mother Superior, is damming of the lack of forthright tackling of abuse and the legislation that defended a community to remand unruly children in ‘the protection’ of  Institutional schools.

This play secured an initial performance run of 42 performances; a considerable amount considering this was the first professionally produced play by Johnson at any theatre in Dublin. The play returned to the Abbey stage, interestingly by public demand, in July, August, September and October of 1961 with the total number of productions reaching 126 throughout the year. Basically, this means the play was on stage at the Abbey for a third of the calendar year. More interestingly, it would take nearly fifty years to the month, April 2010, for this play to be revived by the Abbey, a theatre which is not exactly opposed to reproducing works from its past repertoire.  The fact that this play was produced at the Abbey at all is worth consideration. It is, after all, the State theatre of Ireland. The fact that it chose to tackle the evidence of abuse in Ireland long before there was any evidence in the public domain did show a courageous step at a time when the Abbey was under the direction of Ernest Blythe.  The play highlighted the flaws of legislation that did not recognise the abuse permeating within Irish society that did not protect its children and forced those legislators such as Johnson who were aware but frustrated at these inadequacies to turn to cultural means to make the public aware of the evidence and what it could show.

It would be another ten years before another major work investigating abuse in Ireland would be produced on stage.  In August 1971, Journal of a Hole was produced at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin by the SLOT players. This group (St. Lawrence O’Toole’s – the parish of the group’s members) would include the emerging greats in Irish theatre and film such as Jim and Peter Sheridan and Neil Jordan. This play is centred on the abuse suffered by those children resident in Artane Industrial School in Dublin. The play name is a pun on the book Journal of a Soul, the autobiography of Pope John XXIII, who was pope from 1958-63, (covering the period in which Richard Johnson wrote and produced his play The Evidence I Shall Give) This play was a new production on a professional stage within a radical centre and departure within the Irish arts scene. The Project Arts Centre, founded in 1966 and originally only as a three-week project, would nurture and develop young Irish artists, allowing them an outlet and audience for their work they would seldom else get. In conversation with the plays director Peter Sheridan he describes the public reaction to Journal:

“We had a plant in the audience, a fella dressed as a brother who objected to the play at the finale. This as you can imagine caused a great discussion to evolve. Kane archer, the Irish Times critic made reference to the audience member, unaware that he was a plant”.

 The plot of the play would centre on the experience of a member of SLOT players at Artane School and the grim experiences he recounted. Sheridan would describe them vividly:

“I remember two scenes every well. One where he (Robert) crosses the white line the in the playground – it was divided in two between the junior boys and the senior boys – and it was strictly forbidden to cross the line. Robert chases after a ball and the brother catches him. He digs him on the nose and it starts to bleed. He sends him off to wash it at the yard tap. He comes back to show the brother. There is still a drop of blood on his face. He gets another dig for his trouble. That level of physical cruelty was endemic in Artane but it was also prevalent in national schools, too. Serious physical abuse was a daily thing and there was an extraordinary tolerance of this among the Irish population.

The real deal of Artane was being taken away from your parents. So it operated effectively as a prison for children. Robert was sent there for mitching. Others were sent for stealing or breaking the law. It housed a population of orphans too.

The other unforgettable scene was the punishment for bed wetting. The offenders were made to stand by their beds if they persisted in wetting. They were roused during the night. If wet, they were hauled from their beds and kept standing all night. Chronic offenders were then made to wear a nappy and they had to come in to class in the nappy. This must have been humiliating in the extreme”.

This play was an indication by a new generation of artists and theatre professionals that they were not following on in the shadow of their past generation by bowing to the smokescreen and culture of secrecy that had lain forcibly around abuse in Irish society. Further works by Sheridan such as No Entry premiered at the Project Arts Centre on 16 March 1976 and again tackled the prevailing violence perpetrated against young people in Ireland. The fact that the Project Arts Centre was staging these works is striking as just over ten years previously the state theatre, the Abbey theatre was staging works investigating institutional and clerical abuse. These ten years had also shown that these works had changed from being a an expose piece, i.e. highlighting for the first time a cultural depiction of abuse, to what would become in the early and mid 1970s a reactionary piece in taking to a new level what had previously briefly broken through the culture of containment.

A group of young, energetic and socially aware artists active in 1970’s and 1980’s were at times in conflict and contrast with the theme and tone of work produced and also at odds with the audience that attended their works. Mannix Flynn was an inmate at Artane Industrial School in Dublin. He later became an actor and artist and was part of the Project Arts Centre troupe and was a cast member of the Journal of a Hole production. Flynn would become an important artist whose work focused on his memory and experience of abuse and time spent in Artane Industrial School. His works include theatre, visual art, installations and writing and produce a body of work that is instinctive of the necessary cultural response to the gamut of containment and coercion in Irish society.

 In conversation with Flynn he speaks passionately, personally and openly about his work, his art and why he refuses to produce art simply ‘for art’s sake’ or to suit the style and ‘safe’ art often produced for commercial reasons. The challenge of his work, he says, is ‘how you reflect on something that is not cultural to begin with, by cultural means’?  He speaks of class divides and being recognised as not just an artist but as ‘the artist that was abused’. Flynn chooses to produce the work he does not in order to shock or grate. If this is a response from an audience member then that, he says, ‘is down to the individual comfort levels and own security’. In Artane, comfort levels did not exist. Extallations such as Remains Unknown and installations such as Padded Cell provoke a public discourse that has been remarkably silent regarding a cultural response to abuse.

Flynn also discusses how the reports published by the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse and Dublin Diocesan reports colloquially came to be called The Ryan Report and Murphy Report respectively. “This diminishes the impact of the reports considerably. The media have distorted the report titles leaving them with an attached personality of which it was not intended to have.” They are reports to investigate Abuse. Now they are simply ‘Ryan’ and ‘Murphy’, again hiding the word abuse from the mouths and eyes of Irish people. We are afraid to think and speak this word, acknowledging the role played by those in facilitating fear and containment in society.

Along with the artists and staff of Far Cry Productions Flynn has produced an extremely strong piece of performance entitled James X. This one man performance depicts the story of James O’Neill who now in his forties stands before the High Court to testify to the ill-treatment by agents of church and state. The interplay between the written accounts, archive documents and personal oral testimony from James presents not just the ordeal that children suffered within residential schools but also an indication of the failures and collective cruelties of the Irish church, state, people and government. James is presented with a file that tracks his entire life but this represents him as a number and not a child with rights and needs irrespective of class and entitlement. The file is representive of how the State views James, as a figure within a repressive system and not as soul that was mistreated and forgotten.

The Abbey Theatre has come forward with a Spring program entitled The Darkest Corner dealing specifically with abuse. Thomas Kilroy’s commissioned play Christ Deliver Us, a play inspired by German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 piece, Spring Awakening tackles the Irish society that in the 1950’s was often judged to be patrimonial and introvert in its familial duties.

Mary Raftery, the journalist who shattered so much of the silence and broke down so much of the secrecy regarding abuse with her documentary research including States of Fear and Suffer the Little Children, has produced a new piece called  No Escape. This program also includes the aforementioned works The Evidence I Shall Give and James X by Mannix Flynn.

David Scott, director and teacher, has produced a work with his own theatre group Company D, entitled Skinners which also presents a middle aged former inmate of an industrial school who stands before the Redress Board and recounts his experience. The play written by Michael Kennedy and Directed by Scott is cleverly produced using flash back sequences to truly deafening and bruising scenes of violence suffered by a young Michael Cleere. The devise of having the barrister and judge of the redress board take on the robes of Brothers and priests and with it a vengeful and insecure fury during the flashback scenes is extremely effective in signifying the ongoing frustration felt by those going before the courts and battling legislation.

In early 2010, commercial collapse and banking crises still lie entrenched on our media headlines. The Commissions to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland, The Dublin Diocesan Report, the Ferns Report, the Redress Board and the fact of a lack of official response regarding the equally horrific experience of Ireland’s Magdalenes, continues to highlight the dumb mouth with which abuse in Ireland is dealt with. However, there appears to be a glimmer of hope. There seems now a concentrated and relevent response and reaction to this abuse. Ireland’s artists, actors, writers and journalists are battling a formidable foe in the form of a culture of abuse that has ingrained itself in the Irish psyche. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ and ‘for the good of the State and people’ are ideas which have so obviously failed the children of Ireland.

Cultural and artistic means are a forceful way of informing, educating and provoking a discourse on change of action to prevent ever such a lack of care from happening again. If we are to take anything from the evidence presented from the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland and the Dublin Diocesan Report then it is to take responsibility for what has happened and remove the culture of abuse that was evident in parishes, courts, homes and schools throughout Ireland.

In the foreword to James X (1993) Mannix Flynn describes James, “standing firmly in the present, he re-enacts the past and, in the process, he learns to care about and love himself. This, he says, is his reclaiming mission. Its objective is ‘to thine own self be true’. The truth will set you free. “


Posted by on February 11, 2010 in Culture, Theatre, Uncategorized


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