Maureen O’Connor
University College Cork, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2023
ISSUE 18 | Pages: 250-308 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2023 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.

When I started doing this book-review editing job in 2020, the serious health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic were understood, and care was being taken to curb its spread. Ironic might not be the precise word for it, but it was easier to follow international events in Irish Studies when protections against infection were still in place, and events were almost exclusively held virtually. Now that the world has decided that we are no longer in danger, even though the virus refuses to cooperate with this version of reality, nearly everything from plays to conferences to concerts was back to in-person attendance by the end of 2022. Some of the consequences of this change of policy could not be hidden. Folk-rock music group Clannad had to cancel their farewell tour of Ireland in March, due to the virus. In June, a much-anticipated appearance in Cork of The Chemical Brothers was cancelled (the English duo withdrew from the Glastonbury Festival as well). Also in June, ten performances of an Abbey Theatre production of Brian Friel’s Translations were cancelled, due to COVID-19, which also led to cancellations of Irish National Symphony Orchestra concerts in the same month and a screening of the 1961 film, Saoirse? which was to be accompanied by a live performance of the Seán Ó Riada score. In June 2022 there were reports of an outbreak amongst Joyce scholars who attended one of the many academic events in Dublin marking the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. The Cork Midsummer Festival had to completely cancel one of its main theatrical events, also due to COVID, The Wakefires, a Louise Lowe play about the long-unacknowledged violence experienced by Irish women during the revolutionary period.

The beginning of the year saw some varied online Irish culture, such as January’s live-streamed performance of an adaptation of Eimear McBride’s novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by the Irish Repertory Theatre of New York. The adaptation was by Annie Ryan, directed by Nicola Murphy. Also in January, the Royal Geographical society held a hybrid event, “Critical Geographies of Confinement in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere”, which they promoted as a “flipped format” event, comprising two elements: pre-recorded sessions, available online from January to June, and a one-day in-person gathering in February. Presentations were on topics ranging from settler colonialism and genocide to Ireland’s Direct Provision system. January 2022 was the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre, and to commemorate it, the Abbey Theatre presented a reading of Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, edited by journalist Richard Norton-Taylor. There was a one-day performance at the Peacock Theatre, open to the public, and a recording of the performance on 30 January was made available online for forty-eight hours.

And that brings us to February, the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar! The wonderful international virtual celebration of St Brigid, hosted by Irish embassies and consulates around the globe, continued to mark the contributions of Irish women in the arts and sciences. The virtual festival was attended by over thirty countries. According to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs website, there were contributions “from Washington to Warsaw, Sydney to Santiago, London to Lilongwe.” Because Brigid’s feast day of 1 February was due to be an official public holiday in 2023, the county associated with her, Kildare, elevated the annual celebrations in 2022. Beginning with St Brigid’s Cathedral and the Hill of Allen in Kildare, landmarks around the country were illuminated to mark not only St Brigid’s Day, but also Imbolc, the traditional first day of spring. Another kind of light shone in the dark first weeks of Celtic spring, when the World Champion Irish dancer, Elliot Kwelele, posted onto YouTube a video of himself, (traditional) dancing to the Dua Lipa song, “Levitating”: Douglass Week, which commemorates the formerly enslaved abolitionist’s visit to Ireland in 1845, was celebrated in February, largely via virtual performances and talks that linked the United States with Ireland. The Tyneside Irish Cultural Society and British Association of Irish Studies (in Newcastle-on-Tyne, UK), launched its series of online talks in February, in association with the British Association of Irish Studies. One of the speakers was Síofra Aiken, an author whose recent book is reviewed in this issue. The beginning of 2022 is also when events marking the centenary of Joyce’s Ulysses began to appear, such as the James Joyce Italian Foundations conference, “One, No One, and One Hundred (Thousand?) Ulysses”, held in Rome. (While in Italy, I will note that 2022 was the year that saw the launch of CISIRL, the first Italian Interdepartmental Centre for Irish Studies). Back in Ireland, exploiting the Joyce family’s Cork connections, the Crawford Gallery in Cork mounted an exhibit, “Odysseys”, curated by Flicka Small (a reviewer in this issue) and Michael Waldron, both PhD holders from University College Cork. The exhibit ran through June, which is of course, Joyce’s month. During this special centenary year for Joyceans, events online and in-person were organized around the country and around the world, including “Ulysses Journey 2022”, at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, which featured film screenings, musical performances, talks, and roundtable discussions. This journey brought the event to the Budapest Music Center, as well.

Spring and early summer are academic conference seasons. Despite my hopes that the experience of extended and inclusive participation necessitated by the early years of the pandemic might have a positive impact on the practice of conference organization, most Irish Studies conferences returned to fully in-person meetings. Very few conferences opted for the hybrid model that briefly held out hope for wider attendance among not only the public, but also under-resourced PhD students and ECRs, as well as those for whom mobility presents a challenge. There were two North American exceptions:  the national meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies was convened virtually (though most regional ACIS meetings were in-person), as was the Celtic Studies Association of North America Conference. The year 2022 also marked the last year of the Decade of Centenaries, and some Decade of Commemoration events in Ireland did continue to offer online options, such as The Dublin Festival of History that featured online talks on the Civil War. The Irish Civil War National Conference in University College Cork, held in June, was organized as part of the government’s programme of commemoration events. The proceedings were live-streamed and recorded in cooperation with RTÉ, Irish television.

The commemoration period culminated last year with the centenary of the Civil War (though there appear to be plans to extend the commemoration period for another year or two). Around the country there were too many exciting events to make note of, but some of the most interesting government initiatives include television documentaries, such as Forgotten Widows of the Revolution, continuing investment in Mná 100, which I discussed last year, and a “Poetry as Commemoration” project, which hosted poetry and creative writing projects around the country. The Irish Poetry Reading Archive in University College Dublin was the leader in that initiative (Lucy Collins, a reviewer in this issue, is a co-founder of the archive). Irish archives were really having their moment in 2022, even as it was announced that The Long Room and the Old Library in Trinity would be closed in late 2023 for restoration. In the meantime, Trinity Library have continued their “Virtual Library” project, most recently by releasing over a hundred images of Cuala Press prints, the press founded and run by the Yeats sisters, Lily and Lolly (Elizabeth). “Beyond 2020: Virtual Creating the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland”, an international, collaborative project, was launched in June. The intention of the project is to virtually reconstruct the Public Records Office destroyed in the Civil War. As the website explains: “Many millions of words from destroyed documents will be linked and reassembled from copies, transcripts and other records scattered among the collections of our archival partners. We will bring together this rich array of replacement items within an immersive 3-D reconstruction of the destroyed building”.

Autumn tends to be a lively season for the Irish stage. The Dublin Theatre Festival began in September. One of the main events was the return to the stage, after twenty years, of award-winning Irish choreographer, Michael Keegan-Dolan, with his show, How to be a Dancer in Seventy-Two Thousand Easy Lessons. The year was one in which a number of literary adaptations appeared onstage. I have already mentioned the adaptation of Eimear McBride’s novel, and in the autumn, there were also Irish productions of stage adaptations of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, and Frank O’Connor’s short story, “Guests of the Nation”. This is a place to deliver sad news to those who have not heard it: Corcadorca Theatre Company, which produced the all-female adaptation “Guests of the Nation” as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival in June, ceased operations in 2022, after thirty years of pioneering, experimental, memorable theatrical productions in Cork. Canonical stage plays were updated and adapted in 2022 as well. Frank McGuinness wrote a new version of the seventeenth-century classic Tartuffe for the Abbey Theatre, while, more controversially, the Abbey also mounted An Octoroon, promoted as “a radical reboot” of Dion Boucicault’s nineteenth-century play The Octoroon, re-written by black American playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Featuring black actors in white face, this subversive and entertaining reimagining of a problematic play set in a slave plantation received universally enthusiastic reviews. It was galling, then, when the Irish Times Theatre Awards were announced in 2023, and no black actors from the production were nominated, only white performers.

Another literary adaptation that appeared in 2023 was the film version of Emma Donoghue’s novel, The Wonder. Surprisingly, it did not seem to be successful, certainly not compared to the many other extremely successful Irish films that appeared in the same year. No one needs to be told about the phenomenon of The Banshees of Inisherin (itself another adaptation, in this instance of a play Martin McDonagh wrote in the 1990s), but other important cinematic work was produced in 2022, such as Aisha, a film about Direct Provision. Irish-language cinema has come into its own, with An Cailín Ciúin (another literary adaptation, this time of Claire Keegan’s novella, Foster), nominated for an Academy Award, and the award-less but delightful and popular Róise and Frank, in which a widow believes she has discovered her late husband in the form of a dog. All of Ireland will be glued to their televisions for the 2023 Oscars when an unprecedented fourteen nominees will be Irish, including Paul Mescal for Aftersun and An Irish Goodbye, a Northern Irish film, directed and written by Ross White and Tom Berkeley, nominated in the category of Best Live Action Short Film.

If there were awards for book reviewers, the reviewers in this issue would all have gold statuettes. The last year has been unprecedently stressful for us all, and I am enormously grateful to those who managed to write their insightful and graceful reviews and to put up patiently with me! The last two years I have concluded this piece with a report on the Newgrange winter solstice in December, but I would rather close this time with the most fascinating Irish Studies cultural exchange of the year, held in November – December of 2022: the German-Irish Vampire Festival, presented by the Irish Embassy in Germany. It culminated in Berlin with a screening of the silent film Nosferatu on its centenary, with an accompanying musical score by Irish and German musicians, Linda and Irene Buckley and Gudrun Gut. Rather than linger over the brief winter light and its promise of spring at the solstice, I will conclude by revelling in the sunny, whimsical gesture of “détente” between Ireland and Germany, with Ireland “forgiving” Germany for Nosferatu’s copyright infringement of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a century ago. Vampires are often read as figures for contagion and disease. How pleasant to be distracted by fictional threats that can be vanquished by sunshine and faith.