The Ulster Literary Theatre and The Revival

How the ULT helped forge a Northern theatrical identity

‘Belfast – perhaps because of the religious atmosphere of the city, perhaps because of the interest taken by the inhabitants in money-making – has not given to the world many eminent poets, philosophers or scholars.’

George Birmingham, The Red Hand of Ulster (1912)

As the 20th century dawned, the rather depressing state of Belfast literary life was soon to turn into a flowering of literature as part of the Celtic Revival.

The Celtic Revival had been in full flower in the south of Ireland for many years, but the first creative expression of it in the north was the creation of the Ulster Literary Theatre in 1902, formed with the intention of performing the works of WB Yeats and Lady Gregory in Belfast.

Unfortunately the two men who travelled to visit Yeats – Bulmer Hobson and David Parkhill – found the Celtic Revival to be more interested in royalties than in creating a cultural outpost in the North. The perhaps apocryphal telling of this event has Hobson banging the arm of his railway seat and declaring: ‘Damn Yeats, we’ll write our own plays!’

And write they did. Led by Gerald MacNamara (the pen name of Harry Morrow), Sam Waddell, his sister Helen, and Joseph Campbell the poet and artist, and ably supported from the sidelines by Alice Milligan, the ULT created 50 original plays up to 1940, thereby laying down a template for drama in Belfast and Ulster.

Harry MorrowThe ULT, however, unlike its counterpart the Abbey Theatre, never received any state support.

With the honourable exception of Thomas Carnduff, most Belfast writers of this time were sons and daughters of the moneyed classes, with in some cases the wherewithal to support themselves whilst writing. Pictures of the ULT on tour show a well-fed lot, arrayed in smart suits and stylish dresses.

Much of the writing of the ULT, and particularly the prolific MacNamara, was centred on satire. The Mist That Does Be On The Bog, performed in 1907, was a skit on the ideals of the Celtic Revival still in bloom in Dublin and Castle Coole.

His most successful play, however, was Thompson in Tir-na-nOg which premiered in 1912 and was performed as recently as 2003.

An hilarious satire on the relationship between the reality of Belfast life and the ideals of the Revival, the play was possibly commissioned by the Gaelic League in order to show off the ancient deities on stage – a pageant of the Celtic gods.

MacNamara, however, decided to throw into the narrative a recently deceased shipyard worker, William Thompson, killed when a gun exploded in his hand at the 13th of July sham fight at Scarva. The play’s comedy comes from the clash of cultures, with the vernacular, ignorant man showing little inclination to remain in the Celtic Twilight.

Chuchulain: What part of Ulster have you come from?

Thompson: Scarva.

Chuchulain: Lies Scarva to the east or west?

Thompson: It’s on the Great Northern.

The clash of civilisations within the play was used by McNamara to prove his and the ULT’s point, that there were many versions of Irishness and all could be contained on their stage. It was all the more remarkable that this message was played out in 1912, at the height of the Home Rule crisis.

The first night at the Grand Opera House was a nervous affair, with many fearing violence, but the apparently mixed audience were won over by the humour of the piece.