Women are Being Kept Out of Irish Theatre and a Group of Artists Is Fighting Back

Comedian and writer Maeve Higgins had some strong words for her native Ireland during a recent symposium in New York: “[It’s] a wet little rock full of men telling us what we can and cannot do.” She was speaking at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in support of the Waking the Feminists movement, a collective of women and men protesting the exclusion of women from the Irish theatre scene.

Waking the Feminists movement was born last year when Dublin’s Abbey Theatre announced in October the theme for its 1916 commemorative program: “Waking the Nation.” The problem? Just one out of the 10 plays listed in the program was written by a woman, and just three had female directors. Outrage swiftly bubbled up on social media, with critics calling the gender balance in the national theatre’s representation of “the nation” inadequate. The community of women and men that came together online became the Waking the Feminists movement, a platform for frustrated artists and supporters to voice their struggles to be heard within the Irish theatre community.

The Abbey Theatre is not the only place in the Irish theatre world where gender bias has cropped up, but it has served as one of the most concrete and enduring examples of women’s underrepresentation. For instance, according to the Waking the Feminists website, prior to 2006 a mere 14 percent of the plays produced by the theatre were written by women. However, since 2006 that figure has actually declined—to 12.3 percent per year. The bigger problem here seems not only to be that a gender bias exists, but that it’s worsening. Why hasn’t progress been made in identifying women’s exclusion and creating more opportunities for women’s artistic expression? The goal of Waking the Feminists is to call attention to this bias and to the underrepresentation of women in Irish arts that is too often overlooked.

Playwright and chapter head of the movement in New York, Lisa Tierney-Keogh, spoke at the Fordham event about her own frustrations and struggle to find success in the male-dominated industry. “Because I was born a girl,” she said, “I [have] a less than 15 percent chance of having my plays produced in my own country’s national theatre.” A member of the audience asked her to pause and repeat that statement to appreciate its impact. Tierney-Keogh then said that Waking the Feminists has given her a platform for owning her voice, explaining that “[the] big mouth that I’ve always been proud of felt welcome.”

Comedian Higgins—who, like many other women artists, had to leave Ireland entirely to hone her voice in Irish comedy—said that one of the criticisms she receives most often is that people do not like her voice or the way that she speaks. To that, she offers this crisp reply: “People who have a problem with the way women speak have a problem with the fact that women are speaking at all.” Perhaps that’s one reason women have largely been kept out of the Irish theatre community, but the women and men of Waking the Feminists are committed to ensuring a cultural shift for Irish women of the future.

Those interested in learning more about Waking the Feminists can visit wakingthefeminists.org


Caroline B. Heafey is pursuing her M.A. at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House in Irish Literature. Her work focuses primarily on Irish women writers, modernism and trauma theory. She is a cofounder of Fordham University’s Irish Women Writers Symposium with Keri Walsh and Kate Nash. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.