| 17.3°C Dublin

Close

Premium

How Ireland led the way in giving theatre a helping hand

State support has paid dividends in developing our writing and acting talent, writes Katy Hayes

Close

Subvention: the Gate Theatre provided a home for talents like playwright Brian Friel. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Subvention: the Gate Theatre provided a home for talents like playwright Brian Friel. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Subvention: the Gate Theatre provided a home for talents like playwright Brian Friel. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Given the financial problems caused to theatre by the pandemic, it is generally acknowledged globally that the industry could suffer a fatal wound unless there are significant moves by governments to further support it. Even the normally robust and self-sufficient commercial sector is on its knees. The entire eco-system for performing art is under threat.

Ireland, despite its small size and colonised history, has led the way in this area. The Abbey Theatre was the first state-subsidised theatre in the English speaking world when it received an £850 subvention in 1925, rising to £1,000 the following year. This was a bold move by the fledgling Free State administration. Some powerful members of the Executive Council, including Minister for Education Eoin MacNeill and Minister for External Affairs Desmond FitzGerald, were keen Abbey patrons; WB Yeats winning the Nobel prize in 1922 would have underpinned government confidence in the importance of the aesthetic in nation-building. But the position of theatre-enthusiast (and later Abbey managing director) Ernest Blythe as Minister for Finance was crucial.

The National Theatre grant had incalculable advantages, including funding the establishment of the smaller, experimental Peacock stage, which opened in 1927. The money relieved the Abbey, somewhat, of its dependence on box-office, but also on philanthropy. This dependence had caused serious problems in its early years as the directors steered diplomatically around patron Annie Horniman's royalist sympathies. Horniman was much aggrieved when the Abbey didn't close as a mark of respect on the death of King Edward VII in 1910; the letter seeking instructions about the matter from the theatre's manager Lennox Robinson arrived too late to Lady Gregory in Gort, Co Galway, because the telegram boy stopped off to round up some stray cows; Horniman, affronted, withdrew her subsidy.