By: Ben Knollman
One of the more positive impacts that the Irish Diaspora had on society was the global spread of Irish heritage and culture. With over 34 million Americans currently claiming Irish ancestry, the effects of Irish emigration remain clear to be seen. Looking at a dispersion of this magnitude, it is interesting to look at not only the spread of people with Irish heritage, but also the spread of Irish culture, ideals, and art throughout the world. One of the forms of Irish art that has gained some popularity in the United States over the past few decades is theater. The works of famous Irish playwrights such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, and Brian Friel are being performed more frequently in Irish-American theaters. Visual and performing arts have always been a method of identifying and conveying one’s culture. Irish-American theaters seek to continue this tradition by bringing the culture of Ireland onto American stages. An article posted by the American Planning Association suggests that “Arts and culture strategies help to reveal and enhance the underlying identity — the unique meaning, value, and character — of the physical and social form of a community.” The impact that art and culture have on a community of Irish-Americans become more apparent as they gain popularity.
One of the ways that Irish-American culture is becoming more noticeable and popular is through theater. Three examples of such theaters are the Irish American Theater Company in Cincinnati, the Shapeshifters Theatre in Chicago, and the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. The Cincinnati and Chicago theaters are located within their city’s Irish heritage center, while the New York theater is its own entity. These organizations have similar histories, past productions, and missions. Taken from the website of the Irish Repertory Theatre, this quote seems to entail the purpose of each of these theatrical groups, “The Irish Repertory Theatre provides a context for understanding the contemporary Irish-American experience through evocative works of theater, music, and dance.” The primary mission of these groups is to provide the American public with a better understanding of what it means to respect and celebrate their Irish roots. The way each of these three theaters goes about this goal is a bit different, depending on the culture and makeup of their respective city.
With about 9 percent of the city’s population claiming Irish-American heritage, Cincinnati is one of the most prominent cities for Irish culture and heritage. The Irish Heritage Center in Cincinnati was founded to promote Irish culture in many ways, such as theater. The Irish American Theater Company is run within the heritage center to bring Irish works into the light. This company has also hosted events such as the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival which showcased multiple Irish plays.
The Shapeshifters Theatre began in 1987 and is located within the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago. This volunteer-run group has performed at many different Irish cultural festivals in their area, such as the Chicago Celtic Fest, Milwaukee Irish Fest, and Gaelic Park Irish fest. Started by Mary O’Reilly and Kay and Michael Shevlin, the company has been “bringing Irish history, folklore, and much loved writings to the stage”.
Opened in 1988 by Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York is currently the only theater company in the city that performs Irish and Irish-American works year-round. The company’s first production was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, a well-known play set during the time of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. New York City has an Irish-American population of 5.3 percent, which is rather large given the sheer size of the city.
These theater companies were put in place to encourage Americans in these large cities with significant Irish populations to take pride in their heritage. The communal gathering at theatrical cultural events is important to a city’s character. Citizens with Irish ancestry feel a stronger sense of their heritage when events like this take place.