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Our forgotten writer who put society on trial in the 1960s


Máiréad Ní Ghráda

Máiréad Ní Ghráda

Máiréad Ní Ghráda

In 1966, a BBC television play called Cathy Come Home caused uproar in the UK. It tells the story of a young family that falls into homelessness, the children taken into care.

Directed by Ken Loach, it is still considered one of the most influential programmes ever on British television. But the previous year, RTÉ had broadcast a television play that made Cathy Come Home look tame.

It told the story of a teenage, single mother who, spurned by the father and abandoned by society, kills herself and her child. If Cathy Come Home was radical, then this play was revolutionary. And yet it appears to have been largely forgotten. Why? It was in Irish.

An Triail (The Trial) by Máiréad Ní Ghráda is known today chiefly due to being on the Irish syllabus for the Leaving Cert. The educational theatre company Fíbín is touring it in a double-bill with an hour-long version of Othello (playing two shows daily at the Axis, Ballymun, till November 21, and then Cork and Carlow; see www.fibin.com).

Irish-language theatre, now unknown on our main stages, was a staple of the Abbey in the 1960s, where the director, Ernest Blythe, conducted business as Gaeilge. Often seen as a deadweight on Irish theatre (he rejected John B Keane's Sive and Tom Murphy's A Whistle in the Dark), Blythe was less conservative in Irish than in English.

Tomás MacAnna, later to be artistic director, was responsible for the Irish-language output. "So long as I made sure the Irish spoken by the actors was correct," MacAnna said later, "I could do as I wished." They ran an annual Christmas panto; MacAnna recalled it as "a frenzy of anarchical fervour that left us all in a sort of technicoloured haze over Christmas."

MacAnna staged modern European drama in translation, free of the naturalistic shackles that bound English-language plays under Blythe. This created the context for the Brechtian style of Ní Ghráda's An Triail, which would have been alien amidst the kitchen-sink naturalism of the Abbey's English-language work.

The Abbey had, just a few years earlier, ventured into the controversial territory of the State's treatment of vulnerable children. A Kerry judge, Richard Johnson, wrote a play based on his experience of dealing in court with children mistreated in the religious-run institutions, The Evidence I Shall Give.

Johnson's play was cited in the Ryan Report as evidence that there was a receptive audience for his critique of the residential school system, though that critique was blunted somewhat by Blythe's insistence on imposing a happy ending on the play.

No such compromises were forced on Ní Ghráda; the bleakness of her play is quite extraordinary. It was a hit at the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival (where it was produced by the Abbey at the Damer Hall) and RTÉ sent the television version to the Berlin TV festival.

An English-language production subsequently had a successful run in Dublin. That success makes it quite clear that knowledge of the plight of unmarried mothers and so-called "illegitimate" children was widespread in 1960s Ireland.

In a short discussion of the play on their website, Fíbín portray Ireland as being firmly under the control of the Catholic Church, which "influenced every aspect of everyone's lives". This is simplistic. Going back to the War of Independence, Irish political figures had defied the Church hierarchy when it suited them. But, in a State that was broke and deeply conservative (irrespective of religion), it didn't suit them to look too closely at the country's residential institutions (some run by religious, others by the State).

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Ní Ghráda's play was inspired by a young woman from the town she grew up in, in Co Clare, who had disappeared one day, pregnant, while the man responsible lived on locally as before. She was in her late 60s when she wrote it; by then, she was able to see through the cant of the society around her, and was unafraid to lay it bare on stage.

That it took another 30 years for the consequences of that cant to begin to be properly investigated wasn't due to any formal power of the church, but due to things more insidious: laziness; cowardice; ignorance; self interest.

An English-language edition of Ní Ghráda's plays is long overdue; the Abbey, or some enterprising smaller company, should do a staged reading, at least, of The Trial. RTE should investigate whether the film survives and make it available (at the very least) on its archives website. In the meantime, Fíbín are to be congratulated for reviving it.

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