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Modern Irish playwrights: A New Generation

Shane O'Reilly By Shane O'Reilly Published on August 24, 2017

A recent viewing of Kirsten Sheridan’s 2001 film Disco Pigs - which is both bewildering and oddly brilliant - got me reading Enda Walsh’s original play. There was a chaotic interplay between Runt and Pig that had me hooked. What else could there be out there? I know a bit about playwrights - Synge, Yeats, Friel, Beckett, O’Casey, Shaw, Keane, Behan - but what of the younger generation, who is really pushing modern Ireland on the stage?

Martin McDonagh

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Admittedly, I knew of McDonagh more so for his films (In Bruges, The Guard) than anything he’d written for the stage. He was raised in London by Irish parents before he relocated to Galway and his first six plays – 2 sets of trilogies – are all based in there (Leenane and the Aran Islands). McDonagh specialises in very blackened moods and themes, often running the gamut from melodrama to comedy and back again. For my money McDonagh’s 2003 play The Pillowman is as good a place to start as any. Set in a totalitarian state, a short story writer is brought in for questioning when the authorities see similarities between his gruesome prose and a series of real life crimes. What follows is a complex back and forth between the accused, his brother and two detectives playing good cop, bad cop. This is precision writing, unlike anything else out there.

Other notable works:

• Hangmen
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore
• The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Deirdre Kinahan

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As well as working as artistic director for the Tall Tales Theatre Company in Navan alongside fellow playwright Tracy Martin for 15 years until 2015, Kinahan has written a number of gritty plays. Unlike some of her earlier plays which trod similar bleak territory to McDonagh, Kinahan’s 2011 play Halcyon Days is by all means quite a lovely play (it won her an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Through the tender budding relationship of Sean and Patricia, two live-ins at the same nursing home, Halcyon Days subverts the usual anxieties of growing old into something positive, something to be celebrated.

Other notable works:


Mark O’Rowe

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If one was to look only at his screenwriting credentials, it would be a most impressive résumé: Intermission, Perriers Bounty, Boy A and Broken. But he’s also a talented playwright, often sparring with very fatalistic content that takes sudden violent twists and turns. With O’Rowe it’s all about the dialogue. He’s a master of it, with his characters often sparring back and forth with suitably realistic quickfire put downs and truths. 2014’s Our Few and Evil Days, a realist family fable full of surprises, is a perfect example of how he works; take a very typical scenario - the parents meeting their daughter’s boyfriend - and twist the tension with awkward exchanges. Have said boyfriend overstep the mark and push the drama into psychological warfare.

Other notable works:

Howie the Rookie
Terminus Dublin
Hedda Gabler

Marina Carr

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Hailing from County Offaly, Carr grew up in a very artistic household with a playwright for a father and a poet for a mother. After college, she would teach at Trinity College and Princeton and, of course; win awards with her numerous plays. Often revolving around bleak maternal/filial roles, Carr’s plays are really quite grim, interlaced with darkly seductive Irish humour and historical context. To see for yourself try By the Bog of Cats. Loosely based on Euripides’ Medea, this tale of a woman scorned is transported to the boglands of rural Ireland. There she grapples with an inner anguish, a multitude of interfering secondary characters and a deep seated desire for revenge.

Other notable works:

The Cordelia Dream
Woman and Scarecrow
On Raftery's Hill

Declan Hughes

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Hughes established the Rough Magic Theatre Company in 1984 and worked there in multiple roles until 1999. During this time he produced a number of award winning plays. His love of crime literature led to the production of his first play I Can’t Get Started about the great crime writer Dashiell Hammett. His successive plays would largely weigh in on the Irish/human element - feuds, families, alcohol, distrust and betrayal. There is a superb omnibus called Plays 1 that contains his works from 1991-1992, 4 stories in all, that cover all aforementioned themes; a disastrous college reunion (Digging For Fire), Elvis and camping (New Morning), a Halloween break for four couples goes horribly wrong (Halloween Night) and the miseries of being a playwright (a reworking of George Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle).

Other notable works:

The Wrong Kind of Blood
The Dying Breed
All the Dead Voices

Enda Walsh

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As mentioned in my introduction, Walsh’s 1997 play Disco Pigs is special. It’s all that dialogue. It’s so unusual, but at the same time, you can hear it and really imagine it. Walsh has received international acclaim with his work being performed all over the world. Wildly imaginative, his works often strip away the Ireland you know and replace it with an alternative reality. He often focuses long and hard on the small still details of a person or place cutting away everything else. Aside from Disco Pigs, his 2001 play Misterman is a brilliant piece of writing. Walsh has an uncanny knack for framing the outsider or the misfit and here he creeps into the head of yet another maligned character in his own inimitable style. Walsh plunges a rather determined priest on a mission into the relatively peaceful surroundings of Inishfree. Thomas Magill is going to set all wrongs right, whatever it takes and, well, things go slightly askew.

Other notable works:


Conor McPherson

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At only 46, McPherson has done it all. Known for his interest in the supernatural and spiritual, as a playwright and director, he has some 16 plays, 6 films and over a dozen awards to his name. His plays have crossed the seas countless times and have become West End and Broadway material. His 1997 play The Weir and 2013’s The Night Alive have been hugely successful, but for my money from an Irish point of view, and as a good entry point to get a feel of how McPherson writes, his 2006 play The Seafarer is a true masterpiece. On the night when Sharky’s friends come over for a game of cards and a drink, a mysterious guest reveals himself as a figure from Sharky’s past. Suddenly the game of cards takes on a whole new level of importance. It is riveting stuff with each tiny twist and every detail revealed slowly, bit by bit, to ratchet up the tension as the stakes get higher.

Other notable works: 

Shining City
Dublin Carol
Port Authority


Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More


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