Maureen O’Connor
University College Cork, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2022 | Views:
ISSUE 17 | Pages: 195-265 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2022-10767

Creative Commons 4.0 2022 by Maureen O’Connor | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

We had such high hopes for 2021. There was a time in the summer when those hopes seemed about to be fulfilled, but for much of the year we were back to where we were the year before. Because of the unrelenting pandemic, some 2021 cultural and academic events relevant to Irish Studies remained virtual, some were held using a blended format, and some events took place in person. Most of the major Irish Studies conferences remained online, such as the British Association for Irish Studies (BAIS), which, ever-innovative, held another month-long conference in May, this time on the subject of the Irish diaspora. This event followed the association’s research day, held on 17 March, which functioned as a wonderful kind of clearing house, a place to learn about all sorts of Irish Studies projects around the world. The event’s Twitter hashtag, #BAISDay2021, continues to be a valuable resource. In May, the French Society for Irish Studies (SOFEIR), held its annual conference virtually, on the topic, “Strange Country, Ireland in Politics and Culture, 1998-2121.” The June 2021 American Conference for Irish Studies conference (ACIS), “Heritage, Healing, and Home,” hosted by Ulster University, at the Magee campus, Derry City Centre, and addressed by (among others) the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, showcased the impressive IT skills of the university, some of which can yet be seen on the conference YouTube channel: https://tinyurl.com/4u6b97vr. Also online and in June, hosted by University College Cork, was the 2021 Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland conference, on the subject of “Dwelling(s) in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.” The 2021 European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies Conference (EFACIS), “Interfaces and Dialogues,” hosted by the Centre for Irish Studies in Charles University, Prague, was held virtually in September. The Irish Women’s Writing Network, https://irishwomenswritingnetwork.com, held its first virtual symposium in September, while another new event, conducted both online and in-person, was Ireland’s first Working-Class Studies conference, held in November. Some sessions happened over Zoom and some were in person at Liberty Hall in Dublin, a building of historical significance in the labour movement. It was the site of a soup kitchen, organised by Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz, for workers affected by the 1913 Lock-out and the headquarters for several newspapers: The Irish Worker and The Worker (both shut down by the British authorities), as well as The Worker’s Republic, edited by James Connolly until the 1916 Easter Rising. Irish labour was also the subject of a series of talks hosted by the Irish Labour History Society in February and March. All of the usual sources for academic talks in Irish Studies continued to host events online in 2021, including Trinity Long Hub, Glucksman Ireland House, New York, the Moore Institute at the National University of Ireland, Galway, Irish Studies at St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. Many of the events hosted by these centres are yet available online.

There are a number of exciting events to report from the last year, and it might be easiest to proceed through the calendar. In Ireland, the year got off to a joyous bang, with RTÉ’s New Year’s celebration, the highlight of which was a cover of the Saw Doctors song “N17” by up-and-coming Nigerian-Irish superstar, Tolü Makay, who sang with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, a performance that has been downloaded from YouTube over a million times (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6sD1i3M0qY). On 14 January, Queens University Belfast hosted the East Side Arts / Northern Ireland Writing Showcase, with a keynote from Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, “‘This Must Be the Place’: Mapping Contemporary Women’s Writing from Northern Ireland.” As mentioned, one of the benefits of the new virtual world, is that so many talks are available online, like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di4bZCT7H0M. A long-anticipated January event was the brilliant production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, live-streamed from the Olympia Theatre on 30 January, starring Siobhán McSweeney, whom you might know as Sister Michael from Derry Girls (which by the way, completed shooting its third and final season in December). Perhaps it is not surprising that 2021 was the year for Beckett’s Happy Days: an Irish-language, Company SJ site-specific production, based on Inis Oírr, one of the Aran Islands, was part of both Galway’s International Arts Festival as well as the Dublin Theatre Festival. Late January was also when Seamus Scanlon of City College New York hosted an online Japan-Ireland project, “Echoes of Calling,” a Japanese dance production by Japanese choreographer and dancer Akiko Kitamura that incorporates Irish traditional music.

The first day of spring in the Celtic calendar, 1 February, which is known as Imbolg and St. Brigid’s Day, symbolising hope and renewal in both the pagan and Christian traditions, saw a number of events that got the cultural year off to an energetic start. I am cheating a little by using Brigid’s Day to introduce you to a podcast that actually launched in December of 2020, from Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster: “The Bad Bridget Project: Criminal and Deviant Irish Women in North America, 1838-1918.” Siobhán McSweeney is one of the hosts of the inaugural episode. But to get back to 2021, the National Library of Ireland hosted an online talk on 1 February that explored all the crafts and legends associated with the date, which will be celebrated as an official national holiday next year. A number of events marked the day internationally, hosted online by several Irish embassies through the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs fourth global St Brigid’s Day, which featured talks by authors such as Emilie Pine and Emma Donoghue, politicians and activists like Máiréad McGuinness, Monica McWilliams, and Ailbhe Smyth, and also focused on women and science, as well as in music and the visual arts. The virtual celebrations happened in thirty cities, including Madrid, Chicago, Vancouver, Shanghai, Sydney, Washington DC, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and London.

This year and next are the most challenging as we reach the end of the Decade of Commemoration, beginning with the partition of the island in 1921, which ignited the Civil War that ended with the establishment of the Free State in 1922. Under the darkening shadow of Brexit and continuing debate about the future of the Northern Ireland protocol, the partition centenary has been the occasion for multiple events around Ireland, north and south, many of them highly controversial, such as a commemorative church service in Armagh in October, an invitation to which was declined by president Michael D. Higgins. In February, Queens University Belfast announced a series of public talks, “The Partition of Ireland: Causes and Consequences,” that began in April. In June, a documentary, Partition, 1921, aired on RTÉ. Whether the attempt to present a balanced, objective discussion was successful may be debatable. In May, Dr Linda Connolly of Maynooth University presented a talk in Áras an Uachtaráin (the Irish president’s residence), presenting a largely neglected aspect of the period under consideration: “Ethical Commemoration, Women and the Irish Revolution 1919-23,” the text of which is available here:  https://president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/linda-connolly-ethical-commemoration-women-and-the-irish-revolution-1919-23. A related project is “Outrage,” by visual artist Louise Lowe, Markievicz Award winner, in collaboration with Dr Kelly Fitzgerald, UCD, which explores outrages perpetrated against women during Civil War period. May is also when the Irish Department for Tourism, Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media launched “Mná 100” as part of the government-sponsored series of Decade of Commemoration events. “Mná” is the Irish for “women,” the focus here being on women’s activities in the period 1921-1923. The Century Ireland website, sponsored by the department, https://www.decadeofcentenaries.com, is an invaluable resource for centenary-related material, including the year-long Hedge School Series and details of the recently launched exhibition, “Studio and State: The Laverys and the Anglo-Irish Treaty,” which consists of artworks, talks, performances, and online tours, and will run into early 2022. Dublin Castle has placed the original Anglo-Irish Treaty on display for the first time. The Oxford seminar series in Irish History included numerous presentations on partition, the peace process, and the Northern Irish protocol. The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, addressed an October conference on the topic held in University College Cork, “Negotiating the Negotiations: New Perspectives and Appraisals of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921-2021,” and even Irish Studies in New Zealand, specifically at the University of Otaga, has launched a series of public lectures on the subject.

March is the month of Ireland’s patron saint. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations continued to be subdued in Ireland this year, with no official parades. An aerial light display over Dublin used drones instead of fireworks to create its elaborate effects, and RTÉ broadcast a virtual parade, featuring videos from around the globe. While in nearly-COVID-free New Zealand traditional Paddy’s parades were able to go ahead, a number of American cities and towns conducted drive-through or “reverse” parades: floats were parked and performances were held in large public spaces to be viewed by passing cars. A less celebratory, more critical approach to understanding Irish identity was the St Patrick’s Day premier of Home, an Abbey Theatre production about the Magdalene laundries. Filmed over the course of seven days in February, it comprised a series of readings of testimonies of survivors as well as official reports of investigations into these institutions. Directed by Graham LcLaren and Neil Murray, the performance piece was available for free on YouTube for four months after its initial release. The 2020/2021 Women’s History Association of Ireland conference, also held online in March, was on a related topic: “Besieged Bodies: Gendered Violence, Sexualities, and Motherhood.” March was the month of the Chicago Irish Film Festival, just of one of many Irish film festivals held annually around the world, as well as Culture Ireland’s Seoda Festival, an international online festival (via YouTube) of Irish culture, including the performance of “Notes from a Quiet Land,” curated by Sinéad Gleeson. The last March event to include here is the launch of a webinar series, “The Jews of Ireland and Irish-Jewish Encounters,” from Cambridge University’s Woolf Institute.

Ireland’s popular president, Michael D. Higgins, turned 80 in April, and among the celebratory observations of the day was the broadcast of Ómós – Michael D @ 80 on TG4, the Irish-language television station. Singers and poets from around the world contributed to the programme, including the award-winning Zambian-Irish rapper and poet, Denise Chaila, and Tolü Makay, two young women who were everywhere on the Irish cultural scene in 2021. Around the same time, in mid-April, the Global Irish Network, hosted by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, held a webinar, a series of talks on “Post-Covid: A New Irish Studies?,” a panel of talks from scholars in the USA, the UK, and Ireland. Another online event from April was the Franco-Irish literary festival, which focused on ecological and environmental approaches to literature. The 2021 Cork International Poetry Festival was also run online this year, in May, which is when the Global Irish Diaspora Congress online initiative was launched. The inaugural event was titled “The Global Future of Irish Studies” and featured members of EFACIS, the organisation that has continued their essential and diverse “The Irish Itinerary” podcast.

Bloomsday was once again curtailed by concerns about the coronavirus, with some events in Dublin held in person and some online, as was the case in many venues around the world. RTÉ radio re-ran the famous thirty-hour Bloomsday Ulysses marathon recording/ performance from 1982, while the Irish Embassy in France gave away 500 copies of Joyce’s novel (one could also choose the short-story collection, Dubliners). The Cork Midsummer festival was held both online and in-person in June, while the Galway International Arts Festival, originally scheduled for July, postponed some of its planned events until the autumn and some until summer 2022. Large summer festivals struggled, but the autumn calendar promised (and delivered) innovative and diverse work as well as a return to beloved classics.  The first play by an Irish Traveller to appear on the Abbey stage, Walls and Windows, by Rosaleen McDonagh, directed by Jason Byrne, was livestreamed in September. McDonagh is also the author of the memoir Unsettled, published in 2021. The “Queen of Ireland,” drag artist Panti Bliss, hosted the Mother Summer Block Party in September at Collins Barracks in Dublin, which included a performance by Denise Chaila.

 October’s Dublin Theatre Festival held some events online and some in-person, including Mark O’Halloran’s Conversations after Sex. The Wexford Spiegeltent Festival featured an in-person line-up, including Tomfoolery, a comedy revue by Tommy Tiernan. Also in October, the Irish Rep Company in New York staged a production of Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal, a live performance that was also made available to livestream. Another live October performance made available to livestream and on-demand (fully captioned) was produced by the Peacock Theatre, What I (Don’t) Know about Autism, by Jody O’Neill. Not only did the play address the complexities of autism and feature both autistic and non-autistic performers, but the performance space was also designed for a neuro-mixed audience, encouraging attendees to respond and move about as they please. The arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID in late November caused problems for Irish theatre, as new restrictions on attendance were brought in and many performances had to refund tickets, affecting anticipated events, like Paul Sheridan’s new play, Philo and Me, and the Abbey theatre production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, starring Aidan Gillen, who was also one of the stars of the new crime-family drama on RTÉ that debuted in September, Kin. While Faith Healer has proven a hit and will run through January 2022, Kin, like many things in 2021, was something of a disappointment.

October is Ireland’s Black History month, and an international series of commemorations in the autumn were organised around the 175th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland, a good year to launch the “Black and Irish Gala” in December, an awards ceremony highlighting achievements in the fields of culture and business. The Embassy of Ireland in the United States provided information on many of the events in Chicago, at Princeton, and in University College Cork, as well as a short film, Black Abolitionists in Ireland, created by the African American Irish Diaspora Network:  https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/usa/news-and-events/news-archive/frederick-douglass-in-ireland—175th-anniversary-commemorations.html. New York University published a report on their “Black, Brown, and Green Voices” project and held an online conference, “Where Do We Go from Here? Revisiting Black Irish Relations and Responding to a Transnational Moment.” A momentous event in more recent Irish social history was the 2018 referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, and in November, University College Dublin launched a website on women’s reproductive rights in Ireland, “Archiving the 8th”: https://archivingthe8th.ucd.ie/.

Despite an exceptionally challenging year for academics who have had to teach, administrate, research, and write under impossible conditions, I have managed, with help and cooperation, to increase the number of reviews for this current issue, although not by as much as I had hoped. Everyone is still under unprecedented pressure, and I am most grateful to those reviewers who came through and produced stellar work despite difficulties. Last year I concluded by noting that the winter solstice sunrise was livestreamed from within the chamber of the Neolithic passage tomb in Newgrange. The same happened in December of 2021, though this year there were some in-person attendees as well. As I wrap this up, I find myself regretfully thinking of Yeats’s phrase, “another emblem there,” when I recall that the skies were too dark and overcast to illuminate the chamber in 2021. This YouTube video of this year’s occasion had to resort to photographs taken the previous year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecjqezW0ggI. Let us hope the light returns in 2022.