Digital Theatre Archive Launches at Linen Hall Library

Ireland's oldest subscription library launches a fully searchable website 'aimed at both the serious researcher and the idly interested'

At the launch of the new Digital Theatre Archive at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, actor Ian McElhinney commented that when returning to work in late 1980s Northern Ireland after a long period spent in England, he began to discover the cultural heritage that had flourished unbeknownst to him. 'We just didn't know about any of this stuff.'

There was little surprise expressed by those huddled in the fading grandeur of the historic library. Cultural history in Northern Ireland has always been the poor second cousin to the political ‘excitement’ of our society. Culture was ephemera, something to pass a wet Wednesday evening, but nothing important, nothing meaningful.

Libraries had, however, always collected this material, if not in an organised, developmental way. Devotees of the performing arts donated their personal collections of programmes, which were promptly put away on dusty shelves and rarely seen or utilised.

When compared to the array of political material available at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Central Library or the Linen Hall, our cultural records were hidden and unusable.

Empire programme


In 1997, however, the pioneering librarians John Gray and John Killen at the Linen Hall were interested in developing new collections in the light of the success of the Northern Ireland Political Collection. With the financial assistance of the playwright John Boyd and the Community Relations Council, researcher Ophelia Byrne was brought in to survey the existing records and chart a way forward for any larger collection development.

Her publication The Stage in Ulster was the first publication on theatre in Northern Ireland since 1972, and marked the beginning of a decade of projects and collection development, which ultimately became the Northern Ireland Theatre and Performing Arts Archive.

The collection captured the imagination and commitment of the theatre community in Northern Ireland, and deposits were made by big institutions such as the Lyric Theatre and small theatre collectives such as the Belfast Actors Company.

Researchers could now read the unpublished scripts of Marie Jones, Lynn Doyle or Stewart Parker, look over the accounts of the late 19th century Theatre Royal (now a Starbucks in Cornmarket, for the record), and seriously investigate what our choices of cultural expression say about us.

With Derry~Londonderry now the first UK City of Culture, and indigenous music, poetry and theatre expected to play its part in luring unsuspecting cultural tourists with their shiny, shiny dollars and cents, culture has permeated Northern Irish society in a way that any observer in 1997 would have thought impossible.

The Great Levante


The investment in the physical infrastructure of the arts across the country has been impressive, but unfortunately investment in our cultural past has not kept pace with the bricks and mortar input, and the Theatre Archive has been in abeyance since 2007.

Thankfully, in 2012, the Ulster Bank – then celebrating their 150th anniversary – donated to the Linen Hall Library the means to create the new Digital Theatre Archive. Selected material from the archive is now available through a fully searchable website. The aim is to digitise all available material in the coming years.

Led by deputy librarian Monica Cash, the Linen Hall have created a site that is accessible, and is aimed at both the serious researcher and the idly interested. It includes everything from printed plays of the 18th century, such as The King and The Miller of Mansfield, to the programmes of the Northern Drama League of the 1920s and 30s.

You can look at a huge collection of programmes from the Lyric Theatre and Grand Opera House, for instance, should you wish to know who played Willie Lagan in The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogerty or when Jack Beckitt, the 'Novelty Ventriloquist', graced the Grand Opera House stage in 1958.

There is much to be added to the site in terms of material and context, but the librarians and archivists who worked hard to build up the collection will be happy to see their efforts available to the world again. As a society we should, as McElhinney stated, cherish our cultural past, use it, analyse it and build upon it.

In understanding our past and shaping our future, how we expressed ourselves on stage, in song or on the page is often as important as what political party we vote for. The Digital Theatre Archive is another excellent step forward in bringing our cultural heritage in to the light, and is especially impressive given that the Linen Hall Library this year celebrates it's 225th birthday. What a gift.

Ulster Group Theatre programme