seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Denis Johnston, Writer & Playwright

Irish writer William Denis Johnston is born in Ballsbridge, Dublin on June 18, 1901. He primarily writes plays, but also works of literary criticism, a book-length biographical essay of Jonathan Swift, a memoir and an eccentric work on cosmology and philosophy.

Johnston is a protégé of William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, and has a stormy friendship with Seán O’Casey. He is a pioneer of television and war reporting. He works as a lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the BBC as a writer and producer, first in radio and then in the fledgling television service. His broadcast dramatic work include both original plays and adaptation of the work of many different writers.

Johnston’s first play, The Old Lady Says “No!”, helps establish the worldwide reputation of the Dublin Gate Theatre. His second, The Moon in the Yellow River, has been performed around the globe in numerous productions featuring such actors as Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Errol Flynn, although not all in the same production. He plays a role in the 1935 film version of John Millington Synge‘s Riders to the Sea.

During World War II Johnston serves as a BBC war correspondent, reporting from El Alamein to Buchenwald. For this he is awarded an OBE, a Mentioned in Despatches and the Yugoslav Partisans Medal. He then becomes Director of Programmes for the television service.

Johnston later moves to the United States and teaches at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and other universities. He keeps extensive diaries throughout his life, now deposited in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. These, together with his many articles and essays, give a distinctive picture of his times and the people he knows. Another archive of his work is held at the library of Ulster University at Coleraine. He receives honorary degrees from the Ulster University and Mount Holyoke College and is a member of Aosdána.

The Denis Johnston Playwriting Prize is awarded annually by Smith College Department of Theatre for the best play, screen play or musical written by an undergraduate at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Johnston’s war memoir Nine Rivers from Jordan reaches The New York Times Bestseller List and is cited in the World Book Encyclopedia‘s 1950s article on World War II under “Books to Read”, along with Churchill, Eisenhower et al. Joseph Ronsley cites an unnamed former CBS Vietnam correspondent who calls the book the “Bible”, carrying it with him constantly, “reading it over and over in the field during his tour of duty.”

Denis Johnston dies on August 8, 1984 in Ballybrack, Dublin. His daughter Jennifer Johnston is a respected novelist and playwright.


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Birth of John Millington Synge, Poetic Dramatist

John Millington Synge, a leading figure in the Irish Literary Revival, is born at Rathfarnham, near Dublin, on April 16, 1871. He is a poetic dramatist of great power who portrays the harsh rural conditions of the Aran Islands and the western Irish seaboard with sophisticated craftsmanship.

After studying at Trinity College and at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, Synge pursues further studies from 1893 to 1897 in Germany, Italy, and France. In 1894 he abandons his plan to become a musician and instead concentrates on languages and literature. He meets William Butler Yeats while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1896. Yeats inspires him with enthusiasm for the Irish renaissance and advises him to stop writing critical essays and instead to go to the Aran Islands and draw material from life. Already struggling against the progression of Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is untreatable at the time and eventually causes his death, Synge lives in the islands during part of each year between 1898 and 1902, observing the people and learning their language, recording his impressions in The Aran Islands (1907) and basing his one-act plays In the Shadow of the Glen and Riders to the Sea (1904) on islanders’ stories. In 1905 his first three-act play, The Well of the Saints, is produced.

Synge’s travels on the Irish west coast inspire his most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World (1907). This morbid comedy deals with the moment of glory of a peasant boy who becomes a hero in a strange village when he boasts of having just killed his father but who loses the villagers’ respect when his father turns up alive. In protest against the play’s unsentimental treatment of the Irishmen’s love for boasting and their tendency to glamorize ruffians, the audience riots at its opening at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Riots of Irish Americans accompany its opening in New York City in 1911, and there are further riots in Boston and Philadelphia. Synge remains associated with the Abbey Theatre, where his plays gradually win acceptance, until his death. His unfinished Deirdre of the Sorrows, a vigorous poetic dramatization of one of the great love stories of Celtic mythology, is performed there in 1910.

John Millington Synge dies at the Elpis Nursing Home in Dublin on March 24, 1909, at the age of 37, and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery and Crematorium, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

In the seven plays he writes during his comparatively short career as a dramatist, Synge records the colourful and outrageous sayings, flights of fancy, eloquent invective, bawdy witticisms, and earthy phrases of the peasantry from Kerry to Donegal. In the process he creates a new, musical dramatic idiom, spoken in English but vitalized by Irish syntax, ways of thought, and imagery.


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Opening Night of “The Playboy of the Western World”

playboy-of-the-western-worldThe Playboy of the Western World, a three-act play written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, is first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on January 26, 1907. The play is set in Michael James Flaherty’s public house in County Mayo during the early 1900s. It tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man running away from his farm, claiming he killed his father. The locals are more interested in vicariously enjoying his story than in condemning the immorality of his murderous deed, and in fact, Christy’s tale captures the romantic attention of the bar-maid Pegeen Mike, the daughter of Flaherty. The play is best known for its use of the poetic, evocative language of Hiberno-English, heavily influenced by the Irish language, as Synge celebrates the lyrical speech of the Irish.

The Playboy Riots occur during and following the opening performance of the play. The riots are stirred up by Irish nationalists who view the contents of the play as an offence to public morals and an insult against Ireland. The riots take place in Dublin, spreading out from the Abbey Theatre, and are finally quelled by the actions of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

The fact that the play is based on a story of apparent patricide also attracts a hostile public reaction. Egged on by nationalists, including Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith, who believe that the theatre is not sufficiently political and describes the play as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform,” and with the pretext of a perceived slight on the virtue of Irish womanhood in the line “a drift of females standing in their shifts” (a shift being a female undergarment), a significant portion of the crowd riots, causing the remainder of the play to be acted out in dumbshow. Nevertheless, press opinion soon turns against the rioters and the protests peter out.

Years later, William Butler Yeats declares to rioters against Seán O’Casey‘s pacifist drama The Plough and the Stars, in reference to the Playboy Riots, “You have disgraced yourself again. Is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”

In the 1965 film Young Cassidy, a riot occurs during a play by the fictitious playwright Cassidy, following which the character W.B. Yeats refers to Synge and speaks similar words, starting with “You have disgraced yourselves again.”

The production of Synge’s play meets with more disturbances in the United States in 1911. On opening night in New York City, hecklers boo, hiss and throw vegetables and stink bombs while men scuffle in the aisles. The company is later arrested in Philadelphia and charged with putting on an immoral performance. The charges are later dismissed.


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The Abbey Theatre Destroyed by Fire

abbey-theatre-fire-1951Fire destroys the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on July 17, 1951, with only the Peacock, a small experimental theatre in the ground floor of the main theatre surviving intact. The play earlier in the evening closes with soldiers on stage singing Keep the Home Fires Burning.

In February 1961, the ruins of the Abbey are demolished. The board has plans for rebuilding with a design by the Irish architect Michael Scott. On September 3, 1963, the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, lays the foundation stone for the new theatre. The Abbey reopens on July 18, 1966, at its new location at 26 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1.

The Abbey Theatre first opens its doors to the public on December 27, 1904. Despite the loss of the original building to the 1951 fire, it has remained active to the present day. The Abbey is the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world. From 1925 onwards it receives an annual subsidy from the Irish Free State.

In its early years, the theatre is closely associated with the writers of the Irish Literary Revival, many of whom are involved in its founding and most of whom have plays staged there. The Abbey serves as a nursery for many of the leading Irish playwrights and actors of the 20th century, including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, Seán O’Casey, and John Millington Synge. In addition, through its extensive programme of touring abroad and its high visibility to foreign, particularly American, audiences, it has become an important part of the Irish tourist industry.