Last week, I trekked to Parnell Square in the lashing rain to pick up a Christmas present for myself. The Sinn Fein shop was busier than you might expect on a wet Thursday lunchtime but the man wasn’t surprised when I told him what I’d ordered. ‘Plenty waiting,’ he said. He rummaged under the counter for a small package and then gave me a silent nod as I left, as if acknowledging the covert battle group I was joining.
My Cumann na mBan brooch glittered all day, particularly bright in the dull rain. I felt exhilarated, restored, as if I was ready again.
November, typically the dullest of months, has been astonishing. A Facebook comment from an old classmate, Lian Bell, acted like a lengthy fuse on a grenade, gathering light and force steadily until it exploded at a public meeting of #WakingTheFeminists in the National Theatre on November 12th. The aftershocks are ongoing.
I was in the Abbey that fateful Thursday, and it will go down as one of the highlights of my life. Many have asked will I blog about it, and I now have to admit I avoided answering because I couldn’t face the screen. Of all the emotions that this has brought up (and there have been many) the strongest one was this: I felt humbled. Utterly humbled.
Since 2009, I’ve been excavating the lives of women working in the National Theatre through the first half of the century. I’ve countless examples of their mistreatment in the theatre, and elsewhere. Stories that would shock and dismay you. I also have countless stories of the resilience, creativity and often brilliance of these women, who dedicated their lives to that theatre. Many of the stories are unknown.
But in the past few weeks I’ve felt the pain of women in the theatre right NOW, and it breaks my heart. Professional women immersed in the life of the theatre, despite all they’ve encountered and continued to encounter everyday. I’m stuck in the 1920s and 1930s while they’re living this NOW. They have my absolute and utter respect for simply turning up every day.
That said, for so long, I’ve been worn out. In 2009 I began my archival project, and I have fought for ‘my girls’ since in ways I never would have had the strength to fight for myself.
I fought for eighteen months for funding to research these women, who I was repeatedly told were ‘interesting, but…’ I had numerous conversations about research funding that ended with someone leaning over the desk to ask quietly, ‘and have you spoken to anyone in Women’s Studies?’
When I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from the College of Arts in NUI Galway, I submitted papers to conferences only to find that if I submitted a paper on Ria Mooney’s directorial vision, or Aideen O’Connor’s acting style, or female salaries at the National Theatre, I was consigned to ‘the women’s panel’. For non-academics, this is often where ‘little women’ are sent to discuss ‘girlie stuff’ while the men are elsewhere discussing ‘theatre’. (My topic isn’t gender – that’s a different field and I respect those who focus their work in that way. It’s just not what I do.)
I recently fought to have my thesis examined, because the lives of these women may not have sufficient scholarly value. And then I’ll fight for publication … which may or may not involve a pink cover and glitter. How many men’s biographies have these issues?
I’ve gotten so bloody tired. Tired of fighting for respect. Tired of dealing with people who preach feminism and respect, but in their daily lives treat the women around them with ignorance and rudeness. Tired of people who raise their eyebrows and back away when I use the term ‘mysoginist’ in talking about Irish theatre. We’re not hysterical; we’re calling it. In keeping with Grace Dyas’ pledge on the 12th November, I will be calling it a lot more so, guys, you better get used to it. No point getting hysterical every time I use the term.
Not all the women in the 1916 Rising fought at the front lines. Many did what they could, however they could, to further the cause. So, if you’ll have me, ladies, I’m going to take up this fight in my own way, in the work I know. I’m going to huncker down and roll up my sleeves in the Archives and Special Collections rooms.
If we don’t know and understand the history, we’re deemed to repeat it.
Last summer, I curated a series of readings of female playwrights at NUI Galway as part of the Performing the Archives conference. It was directed by Thomas Conway (Druid Director in Residence) and involved graduates and students. We staged an encounter with the archive: working with the records of Abbey women playwrights: Cummins and Day, Elizabeth Connor and Mary Rynne. (The audience did say they enjoyed it.)
In February, we’re going to take this project further and stage elements of Elizabeth Connor’s 1940 play Mount Prospect. An adaptation of her (banned) novel, it won first prize in a playwrighting competition at the Abbey, where Ria Mooney played the lead role.
Ours won’t be a full production of the play, but an exploration of the text, production history and personalities involved. It’s a fascinating play from a stellar writer, dealing with sex, gender and mental health. We were honoured to be asked to be involved in the #WakingTheFeministsWest programme next year, and are excited to be staging this work in the Town Hall Theatre studio in February.
So, if readers don’t mind, this blog is going to change direction. There may be a jaunt to Waterford, (Connor territory). If Ria is free from the Abbey School and the Experimental Theatre Group, I’ll bring her. There will probably be pictures of the view from the NLI Manuscript room.
This is a humble offering to a much bigger and dirtier fight, but I offer to do it with all my heart.
And wearing my badge.