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The Abbey Theatre's big move

A new government proposal would move the storied theater to the historic General Post Office.

Could Dublin's historic General Post Office be the Abbey Theatre's new home? (Luke MacGregor /Reuters)

DUBLIN, Ireland — A government proposal to relocate a theater in a post office has ignited a lively debate in Ireland’s political and theatrical world.

It is of course not just any theater but the Abbey, the internationally celebrated Irish national theater which was associated with the struggle for independence in the early days of the 20th century.

And it is not any post office but the General Post Office in the center of Dublin, which served as the headquarters of the Easter Rising in 1916, leading to Ireland’s independence five years later.

Thus the Abbey and the "GPO," as it is universally known, are inextricably linked in Irish national history. Every Irish schoolchild knows the significance of the famous lines of the poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The play was "The Countess Kathleen," the first production of the Abbey Theatre in 1905 and a clear call for revolution, and the "certain men" were the leaders of the rising, including Padraig Pearse, who were subsequently executed by the British.

When the Irish government proposed this month that the Abbey Company should move to the GPO, a large classical building in Greek revival style on O’Connell Street that is still a working post office, it seemed a logical answer to the theater’s long-drawn-out search for new premises.

The proposal has the support of several of Ireland’s leading cultural figures, including playwright Brian Friel, former artistic director of the Abbey Patrick Mason and artistic director of the rival Gate Theater Michael Colgan. Its most passionate advocate, Sen. David Norris, has argued in the Senate and in newspapers that the sale of the current Abbey site could pay for the necessary renovations at the GPO, and there would be no acquisition cost as the three-acre GPO site is owned by the government. Moreover, Norris wrote recently, “the mystical combination of Yeats’s Abbey and Pearse’s GPO would lead to a positive queue of Irish American sponsors.”

But some influential voices have expressed opposition to the plan, including Martin Mansergh, the minister in charge of public works. Mansergh supports a long-standing plan to relocate the theater on the city's renovated docklands, though he acknowledged this week that his officials found the GPO idea “feasible.”