The Abbey Theatre's big move

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.”

The move to the docklands was proposed back in 2001 by the board of the Abbey and last year Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail stated his preference for this site over the GPO. The government has already spent €630,000 ($950,000) on consultancy fees and preparatory work for a move to the docklands but has now evidently changed its mind.

With the centenary of the Easter Rising due in 2016, the idea of marking it by a dramatic merger of the two icons of independence seems to be taking hold. At a “grim, sordid and dreary time” in Irish history, said Sen. Eoghan Harris in the parliament’s upper chamber last week, it would be good if members could leave behind two great monuments: “the Abbey Theatre in O’Connell Street and a cut in their pay to give leadership, as the men of 1916 did.”

What no one disputes is that the present Abbey Theater, opened in 1966 after the original building was destroyed by fire, is a disgrace. It is too small, has poor acoustics and the backstage facilities are notoriously cramped.

For the record the Yeats quotation about his words sending men out to be shot is from his 1938 poem "The Man and the Echo." The relevant lines are: “I lie awake night after night/ And never get the answers right. Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot? Did words of mine put too great strain/ On that woman's reeling brain?/ Could my spoken words have checked/ That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon responded half a century later: “If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead/ would certain men have stayed in bed?”