David Norris’s idea of relocating the Abbey Theatre to the GPO in Dublin is an exciting notion. But it is not a good one. It is, in fact, a rather depressing sign of the weakness of public discourse about the role of the national theatre and the arts in general that the only substantial reference to artistic matters in the renewed programme for government is a grandiose scheme that should not, and in all probability will not, be brought to fruition.
The first problem with the idea is that it is posited as being rooted in history but is in fact rooted in a misunderstanding of history. It proposes some sort of simple alignment between the 1916 Rising and the imagined foundation of the State on the one side and the Abbey on the other. Senator Norris wrote in The Irish Times that “the relationship between the Rising and the literary renaissance, between Pearse and Yeats, already exists. Recalling the audience response to his wonderfully stirring curtain line in The Countess Kathleen , Yeats wrote: Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”
There are a few obvious problems here. Firstly, Yeats was referring, not to the Countess Kathleen, but to Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Secondly, his lines were mere bluster. It wasn’t a play “of mine” – Lady Gregory wrote most of it.
And the answer to the rhetorical question is “no”. Or, as Paul Muldoon put it: “If Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed?” The Abbey is important for all sorts of reasons, but its influence on the 1916 Rising is not one of them.