In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Northern Irish Drama

  • Introduction

British and Irish Literature Northern Irish Drama
Eva Urban
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0084


Northern Irish drama is a productive laboratory of political theater practice that has made a significant contribution to the peace process and taken on an inspirational role internationally. The Ulster Literary Theatre, in Belfast, was founded in 1902 as a Northern version of the Abbey Theatre’s nationalist literary revival project in Dublin. At its inauguration the Ulster Literary Theatre sought cooperation with the founders of the Lyric Theatre. However, after this attempt at an alliance was rejected by the Dublin representatives of the Irish literary revival, the Ulster Literary Theatre began to foster its own playwrights, who started to develop distinct dramaturgical techniques. Gerald MacNamara, in particular, began to experiment with critical parodies of the plays and ideals of the revival in the south, and a genre of original, witty Northern satire was further developed by subsequent generations of Northern Irish dramatists. Already in its early years, the plays staged at the Ulster Literary Theatre were often critically concerned with both nationalist and unionist ideologies as well as with religious, sectarian, and class divisions. This tradition was briefly interrupted after the demise of the Ulster Literary Theatre, when, notoriously, in 1959, the landmark play Over the Bridge, by Sam Thompson, which attacks sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, was rejected by the Ulster Group Theatre (established in 1940 as the new major Northern Irish company) for apparently political reasons. The play was staged independently by the Empire Theatre in 1960, and subsequently many new theater companies began to emerge. The Lyric Players Theatre, initially founded by Mary O’Malley at her family’s home in Belfast, in 1951, grew into a professional theater and could be described as the North’s equivalent of the modern-day Abbey Theatre. However, it is worth noting that the Lyric Theatre has demonstrated, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, a stronger, more intensely critical political commitment, defying censorship and violent threats. Theatrical practice in Northern Ireland since the 1980s has evolved through many independent companies and community theater groups. Representative 20th-century Northern Irish playwrights include Gerald MacNamara, Lewis Purcell, St. John Ervine, Rutherford Mayne, Alice Milligan, Joseph Tomelty, George Shiels, Sam Thompson, John Boyd, Patrick Galvin, Graham Reid, Bill Morrison, Brian Friel, Stewart Parker, Martin Lynch, Christina Reid, Anne Devlin, Marie Jones, Frank McGuinness, Gary Mitchell, Lucy Caldwell, Owen McCafferty, Nicola McCartney, Dave Duggan, and Tim Loane, among many others. The main thematic strands include critical representations of the conflict as well as positive visions for the future and critical engagements with ongoing political and social issues before and during the peace process.


There exist in the early 21st century just a small number of general histories of Northern Irish drama and very few histories of the major theaters, such as the Ulster Literary Theatre and the Lyric Theatre.

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