Arts: Mining our past to look towards the future
'The Irish have repeatedly mined the past to meet the needs of our present. We have done so, not as sentimentalists but as modernisers. Contrary to the caricature often drawn of us, we are among the greatest of modernisers -- innovative and adaptive to a rare degree. This is an insight which is perhaps better preserved among the Irish diaspora than in Ireland itself.
"What remembering and imagining have in common is myth-making: the one, remembering, is often initiated so as to achieve a healing; find a rationalisation; construe an event in such a way as to be both a warm cloak for the self and a dagger for the threatening other; the other imagining, needs myth to retain belief, not merely as assurance or reassurance, but as a mechanism for the retention of hope in the unrealised possibilities of being human, truly free, in emancipatory, celebratory, joyous co-existence with, and through, others on this vulnerable planet on which we share life."
So said President Michael D Higgins in a speech to the American Irish Historical Society, in New York, in 2012. And it was this speech that started the Abbey Theatre's director Fiach Mac Conghail thinking about the challenges of commemorating and the need to form strategies.
"The president gave this amazing speech where he spoke about the ideas of new myth-making, looking at both the ethics of memory and the courage of imagination," says Mac Conghail.
"We have very significant centenaries coming up, we the national theatre can either ignore them or engage with them, and either our action or inaction would be making a statement. The fact that the Abbey existed over a hundred years ago and was a part of these centenaries, I knew it was important that we came up with solid approaches to addressing our past."
Responding to this, the Abbey Theatre is hosting a three-day Theatre of Memory Symposium from January 16 as leading scholars, artists, historians, academics, journalists and theatre practitioners imagine how they will remember the past.
The programme will explore the role and responsibility of our national theatre in interrogating contemporary and historical events.
It will also include a series of offsite events in the Abbey Yard.
"In the evenings, we will be presenting rehearsed readings of Colin Murphy's Guaranteed, about the banking crisis, and Mary Raftery's No Escape about the Ryan Report. It is not intended to be an academic symposium, it is aimed at our audiences and our theatre-makers.
"And we have invited the Central Statistics Offices to give a presentation about the Ireland of today, to explore what the actual statistics and data around immigration and emigration are, who comprises this new Ireland and the new Irish," says Mac Conghail.
Highlights include keynote addresses by President Higgins, Professor Richard Kearney and Professor Declan Kiberd. Writers involved include Frank McGuinness, Roddy Doyle, Thomas Kilroy and Stacey Gregg, and theatre directors participating include Louise Lowe, Wayne Jordan and Jimmy Fay, whose production of The Risen People is currently being presented on the main Abbey stage.
This will be the first of three planned symposia. They will be on annually until 2016 and each will have a different theme.
"This is not trying to set an agenda about what we should do, how we should think about this, but rather to have an open discussion," says Mac Conghail.
"There has been a theatre here since 1830 and the Abbey has been here on this site since 1904. The Abbey was a part of all the history but also now has a responsibility to examine that history, to ask where is the line in terms of history and legacy for contemporary theatre. This symposium is a way to find out the best artistic strategies to dealing with memory, which can be so incredibly tangled and personal.
"We Irish are obsessed with the past, particularly our past, historical fact entirely intertwined with historical fiction. Theatre needs to find a method to remember, a method that maintains a crucial critical eye. This symposium is an opportunity to engage, for us the audience to have a voice in how our history is remembered. We should echo these sentiments of our president."
Sophie Gorman is Arts Editor of the Irish Independent.