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Drama at NUI Galway
1900s – 1920s
Drama and Theatre have always been part of the life at University of Galway. The earliest recorded student production was in 1904, when Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes was staged at the Aula Maxima alongside a partial production of The Merchant of Venice. In the years that followed, concerns were raised that “it spoke ill for the talent and capability of UCG that our students should have lagged behind the times” by not having a Drama Society of their own. That oversight was addressed shortly before the First World War, when the Dramatic Society emerged. Its first production, Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, was considered very successful.
By 1916, roughly one-quarter of the 227 students on campus were women. Students were confined to separate male and female reading rooms on campus, but were mixed within the Dramatic Society. The inclusivity was achieved despite opposition from some male students – and also from a minority of women students. Yet others were firmly supportive of it. For example, Minnie Tennant played a lead part in the suffrage movement, and was also a central member of the Dramatic Society, playing the role of Viola in Twelfth Night.
From the earliest years, the Dramatic Society produced both European and Irish works. The impact of the First World War in Europe meant that its activities declined for a time, but in response some of the female students formed a new ‘Shakespearian Society’, established “for the purpose of establishing good taste in reading”.
1930s – 1950s
As Ireland entered the independent period, the Dramatic Society increased its membership and was championed by Professor Diarmaid Murphy. Professor Murphy was a personal friend of author J.R.R. Tolkkien and later hosted Tolkien at University College Galway (now University of Galway) in the 1950s. This coincided with increased connectivity with Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, the national Irish-language theatre, which hosted numerous UCG graduates and students from the late 1920s onwards.
In 1945, a student called Sean McGlory developed the idea for a University Drama Association of Ireland (today the Irish Student Drama Association). (insert image pic of letter – saved in dropbox). This still exists today as the Irish Student Drama Association Festival (ISDA). Further to this in 1948, Siobhan McKenna and Seán Mac Réamoinn founded An Cumann Drámaíochta, a student society for Drama in Irish that would ultimately grow to have over 600 members.
Under the stewardship of Donagh O’Donoghue a prominent group of students emerged within the Dramatic Society. This included Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, Ann Gallagher, Christopher Murray, Kieran Muldoon and staff such as Librarian Christy Townley and Professors Murphy and Tobin. The Dramatic Society had major successes at this time, including a production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, produced by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, which was said to have ‘aroused the student body from its apathy.’
1960s – 1970s
That period laid the foundation for the emergence from the 1970s of major companies, including Druid Theatre Company, the Galway Arts Festival, Macnas and other artistic success stories. Included were future Tony-award winners such as Marie Mullen, who made her debut as ‘Cass’ in Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire in May 1972. Fellow future Tony-award winner Garry Hynes, co-founder along with Mick Lally of Druid Theatre Company (1975), directed the play. (include image of Marie Mullen). In 1978 Thomas Kilroy, one of Ireland’s leading playwrights was appointed Professor of English at University College Galway.
1980s – present
By the late 1990s the commitment to Drama led to the opening of the Bank of Ireland Theatre. With seating for 80, the theatre was equipped to a professional standard, offering students the chance to push their skills into new areas. The space also played host to major professional productions by visiting Irish and international artists. The availability of that space in turn made possible the introduction of theatre practice into the curriculum. In 2000, the English Department introduced an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies. An undergraduate “BA Connect” degree in Theatre followed in 2007, and the university began offering Drama as a degree subject for the first time in 2012, when it launched a BA in Drama, Theatre and Performance.
This period of growth for Drama has been enhanced by the development of major archival holdings in theatre within the Hardiman Library at University of Galway. These include the archives of Thomas Kilroy, Druid Theatre, Galway Arts Festival, Macnas and Siobhan McKenna, John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, and the Abbey actor Arthur Shields and more. In 2012, University of Galway engaged in the digitisation of the Abbey Theatre archives and Dublin’s Gate Theatre, resulting in the world’s largest digital theatre archive.
Together with Druid Theatre, University of Galway has formed the Druid Academy, a programme that allows for University of Galway students to take workshops with Druid company members among a variety of other activities. It also works with Galway International Arts Festival on a programme called SELECTED, which allows University of Galway students to take part in an intensive internship that provides behind-the-scenes access to one of Europe’s most vibrant festivals.
At student level, Drama continues to thrive. DramSoc (formerly Dramatic Society) remains one of the University’s largest and most vibrant societies. An Cumann Dramaoíchta continues to stage new work in Irish, and there are also ongoing productions in German and other languages. A University musical society produces a major piece of musical theatre every year.