I have been to Dublin five times in all, and the first occasion was on a day trip from Northern Ireland in 1965 when I was 14 years old. My parents and I were having a week’s holiday sponsored by the Maryport (West Cumbrian) Cooperative, in the lush and attractive coastal resort of Whitehead, Co Antrim. The single memory I have of the Dublin of 54 years ago, was our inexplicably wandering round a huge store full of Roman Catholic religious art and devotional sculpture, intended no doubt for both the pious home and the august church. We ourselves were token Low Church of England so it was an extremely foreign world to us, and the connected association is of a testy woman of around 50 with a severely lined face shouting at and then clouting the small boy she was in charge of in the same shop. The next visit was in 1987, when my late wife Annie and I stayed with a friend of hers whose brother, the epitome of shy modesty, is an acclaimed Irish poet. We were also there to celebrate my 50th in 2000, then with teenage daughter Ione in a week close to Christmas in both 2004 and 2005, until fast forwarding exactly 14 years, Marta and I found ourselves renting a top floor flat for the weekend, near St Stephen’s Green.

In the early 2000s, central Dublin and especially O’ Connell Street was notable for its many cheap food stalls, selling the likes of tasty spiced potatoes and beef and vegetable chili. Those stalls have sadly disappeared, as have the odd little barricaded booze shops up the sidestreets where you and the assistant were separated by reinforced security glass, hence communicated via microphone and had to shout, rather than genteelly utter, those delectable words Malbec and Merlot. Gone too is the excellent Korean restaurant where in 2004 you ate your succulent prawns on revolving metal plates, and where everyone but myself, Annie and Ione were Korean. Now, as in many UK cities, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai are the star cuisines, and these eateries vary from Eat As Much As You Like for 8.99, to beautifully designed palaces where the prices are usually 50% more than in central London.

One thing that doesn’t change, thank God, is the Abbey Theatre, brainchild of the Irish Revival whose leading lights were the poet WB Yeats (1865-1939) and Lady Gregory (1852-1932) the latter despite her off-putting name also being a fine dramatist, specialising in the retelling of Irish myths, as with The Dragon, Shanwalla and Hanrahan’s Ghost. She and Yeats courageously courted scandal when in 1907 they put on The Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge (1871-1909) and all that week there was rioting by the outraged audience, so much so that some of the play had to be carried on as mimed dumb show. The spectators weren’t so much offended by the fact that boastful Christy Mahon who appears in a Mayo village, is hailed as a hero after claiming he’d killed his Dad with an axe (I riz im wit a loy!). Instead they were enraged by the single utterance of the word ‘shift’, in the incendiary sense of a woman’s night attire. This was denounced as the last word in rank obscenity, a vile insult to Irish womanhood and it took 500 Dublin police at one performance to calm the rioters down.

Marta and I went to the Abbey on Saturday to see the satirical farce Drama at Inish by Lennox Robinson (1886-1958) directed by the virtuoso Cal McCrystal. Robinson, though the son of a Protestant clergyman, was an Irish patriot and at one stage also a manager of the Abbey, conducting it on tours around the USA and elsewhere. At this point, I need  to explain that I have seen Irish dramas performed in the UK, as opposed to Ireland, on two occasions. One was the mordantly funny if heart-breaking Juno and the Paycock (1924) by Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) which I watched with my parents at the Oxford Playhouse in 1971, and the other was a dramatic adaptation of that very dark comic novel The Third Policeman written around 1939 by Flann O’ Brien (1910-1966). The latter I attended with Annie in a club theatre in York in 1979, and though both performances were excellent, at the risk of spelling out the obvious, I would emphasise that watching an atmospheric Irish play in an atmospheric Ireland really is a horse of another colour. For a start the Inish audience as witnessed gathering in the handsomely furnished bar before and during the interval, seemed far more relaxed and less self-conscious than most London theatregoers. More to the point, whenever you see an Irish play performed in Ireland you feel a sense of collective identity and memory, often allied to the national cohesion which comes about after centuries of political oppression at the hands of the Brits. English folk watching an English play in England, rarely feel anything akin to this identification, if only because they have experienced nothing like that historical tyranny. In the case of Inish, there is a delightful double inversion, as the 1933 play is about the sophisticated outside world entering a sleepy coastal town in Co Cork, and turning everything upside down as it confuses and pollutes things with its radical notions. Such novel and daring ideas can at times be accurately described as lethal. The whirlwind in question appears in the seemingly innocuous guise of the De La Mare Travelling Theatre Company, whose owner Hector de la Mare (Nick Dunning) is a gentleman with an English accent and an august delivery. Meanwhile as a kind of publicity stunt and to enhance his own standing in Inis, the local hotelier John Twohig (played with a fine trumpeting bonhomie by Mark O’ Regan) hosts the travelling actors for free, and although he has a supportive wife Annie (Helen Norton) John also has a moping son Eddie (Tommy Harris) who spends his time asking for the hand of a woman who apparently will never say yes. As it happens, de la Mare’s favourite repertoire is the highbrow drama of Ibsen and Chekov, and fittingly the impresario is bearded, behatted, wears a cape, his standard conversational mode being that of decorous ham acting. He brings along with him his co-manager and possible consort, Constance Constantia (Marion O’ Dwyer), a billowy lady of late middle age with another theatrical delivery, she who is also fond of jiggling her sizeable breasts to indicate emotional in the sense of dramatic power. Constance is a genteel boozer who when offered whiskey from the decanter and told to say when, only says it when her glass is brimming over. O’ Dwyer plays her farcical role with expert timing and a baritone boom, and the audience inevitably applauded her throughout.

The running gag is of course that Ibsen and Chekov are full of endless debates about the possible futility of life, so that some of the Inis townsfolk, who flock to the performances in droves, suddenly start to exhibit Ibsenesque and Chekovian behaviour. Formerly carefree provincials are observed to walk around looking inscrutably pained by life; stable and contented marriages begin to break up; people like pork butchers commence to contemplate, what is it they call it? mutters incredulous John Twohig, ‘suicide pacts’! What we have then with Inis is a seemingly guileless farce, with its ironic counterpart of intellectual pessimism, or perhaps another way to put it is we see simple Irish religiosity juxtaposed with Continental atheism and nihilism. The play is thus both very light and very deep, but believe me the most remarkable thing of all was that when it finished, instead of its cast doing a brief encore, every one of them from goateed De La Mare to the gormless policeman with his tiny part, commenced a wild and exhilarating but tightly structured ceilidh. To roaring traditional music, in expert sequence they jigged and leapt and waltzed, and even chucked in a bit of line dancing for good measure. Predictably, they had the audience helplessly clapping the timing, in a remarkable and moving orchestration of that artistic rarity I would characterise as Reciprocal or Mutual Joy. Which is to say that joy is and was the word in the Abbey that night…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 2nd January