Politically, the island of Ireland (Irish: Éire, Ulster Scots: Airlann), located in Northern Europe, is divided between the Republic of Ireland (Irish: Poblacht na hÉireann), with Dublin as its capital, and Northern Island (Irish: Tuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann), with Belfast its capital; the latter portion of the island is a part of the United Kingdom (see Great Britain).
Puppets are thought to have existed in Ireland since the Middle Ages, but precise documentation does not exist. The first known marionette theatre is that of Randal Stretch, who occupied a booth in Dublin’s Dame Street around 1720 but by 1729 had his own permanent theatre in Capel Street. Stretch himself died in 1744, but the company continued for a further twenty years, and a playbill indicates that the puppets were still in existence in 1784. The repertoire included pieces by a variety of local writers including Charles Coffey and William Dunkin, and the main character of the theatre was Punch.
In December 1775, the amateur Patagonian Theatre opened. This theatre was noted for the careful attention to the scenery, probably influenced by the work of Philippe de Loutherbourg. Involving the scene-painter John Ellis and the writer Kane O’Hara, the Patagonian was active for about a year before moving to London where it abandoned its amateur status.
In the 19th century, Abbey Street was the centre of popular entertainment in Dublin and many puppet shows happened in the area and neighbouring arcades. In 1868, Lambert D’Arc (1824-1893) set up his waxworks show in Dublin and then added a marionette show to this. His marionette theatre occupied one of the Rotunda rooms (today’s Gate Theatre) and his repertoire included the theatrical successes of the day, such as The Colleen Bawn (1860) by Dion Boucicault, pantomimes and variety numbers (see D’Arc’s Marionettes).
Many Irish names crop up in the world of English puppetry of the Victorian period – Henry O’Brien, R.C. Donnelly, W.G. Cassidy, Harry Fanning. This indicates constant travelling between the two countries.
Most of the documentation of travelling marionette theatres of the 19th century relates to the towns of Belfast, Cork and Dublin. Companies often alternated or combined shows with live actors and performances with puppets. According to oral tradition, the McCormicks had been travelling entertainers since the 17th century and branches of the family continued to travel with their booths until the middle of the 1960s. The Cullen family, related to the McCormicks, today have fairground attractions but descend from a fairground puppet showman who arrived in Ireland in the 1830s and travelled mainly in rural areas (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers).
At the start of the 20th century, the drama of The Babes in the Wood was one of the last vestiges of a vast marionette (string puppet) repertoire. Showmen satisfied themselves increasingly with trick numbers and short pantomimes (see Metamorphoses, Trick and Transformation Puppets, Variety and Music Hall). Up to the 1940s many cinemas opened the programme with ciné-varieties and marionettes were often to be found there. McCormick’s often performed in this way at Dublin’s Queens Theatre.
With them the black-faced Christy Minstrels, which were in every marionette programme of the later 19th century, were adapted to this new format, being reduced to a banjo player accompanied by an accordionist and a dancer. A comic dialogue and a few dance steps were interrupted by the arrival of Basket Biddy, a woman carrying a basket on her back, out of which emerged a baby that danced for a moment before jumping in again. Next came four young women, the four Miss Adams (named after an early 19th-century dance act), who performed a quadrille, and the show ended with three popular classical numbers: the disjointing skeleton; the recalcitrant donkey; and the tightrope walker.
In the 1950s, an English couple, Herbert and Grace Chaney, opened a theatre in a Dublin cellar where they presented slightly more modern variety numbers in the style of the older fantoccini.
The last of the “traditional” performers was Harry McCormick who entertained at Butlin’s Holiday Camp until the 1970s and whose numbers included Gary Glitter and Elton John as well as older acts.
Modern puppetry was born in Ireland in 1942 when the architect Nelson Paine, together with a group of artists, writers and musicians, founded the Dublin Marionette Group. They staged Marlowe’s Faust with marionettes, but developed a preference for glove puppets and rod puppets. Their repertoire included the Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Claude Debussy’s The Toy Box, as well as dramatizations of popular ballads. The company was dissolved in 1950, but in 1954 Nelson Paine created the Puppet Opera Company which travelled throughout Ireland for three years performing Carmen, La Traviata, La Bohème and I Puritani to gramophone records. Paine regarded the glove puppet as a more expressive medium than the marionette and the puppets had arm extensions to provide a more realistic silhouette and to make operatic gestures.
From the 1970s Eugene Lambert initiated a renewal of puppetry for young audiences. With the setting up of the Lambert Puppet Theatre, puppets on television, and an arduous travelling programme the company reached the widest public possible and brought puppetry out of its minority status.
The Revival of the 1980s
Paradoxically, the recession and unemployment of the 1980s helped puppetry. For young people with the vocation, puppetry provided a way in which they could receive a minimum salary in the context of state programmes for the unemployed. For existing companies the possibility of engaging these new recruits offered some compensation for the absence of any subsidy of the sector itself.
Jean Regan and Bernard Dowd’s Theatre Omnibus was set up near Ennis in 1981 and alternated between small-scale productions presented in non-theatrical spaces and extremely large-scale ones. Johnny Patterson’s Circus (1989) told the story of a celebrated 19th-century folk singer. It was staged in a circus tent with 4-metre high puppets and required fifty performers. Theatre Omnibus collaborated with some of the foremost contemporary Irish dramatists, most notably with Michael Harding for The Burying of Brian Boru (1990). Much of their work, however, was with children in the form of workshops which sometimes evolved into productions presented in the context of the school. With the economic revival of the 1990s, the back-to-work schemes ceased and Regan and Dowd ended their activity in 1999.
Macnas of Galway, established in 1986, achieved a greater degree of recognition and success. Inspired by the work of British theatre company, Welfare State International, and Catalan street theatre company, Els Comediants, Macnas specializes in giant puppets and street parades for festive occasions. It has also been involved in performance art and the creation of large-scale happenings. One of the most impressive productions was a re-interpretation of the Irish epic, The Táin (1990), with giant puppets and the participation of the music group U2.
In the 1980s, the city of Galway in the West of Ireland became an important theatre centre and boasted a number of puppeteers. Padraig Bracken often presented shows in the Irish language. John Wilson, with his company Spring Onion, alternated between Ireland and Italy, and Tommy Baker (Your Man’s Puppets), who remains one of Ireland’s major puppeteers, established himself in the area. Other companies in the west of Ireland are Chris Wallis’s Dog and String in Ennis and Cilian Rogers with his giant street figures in Sligo.
In the 21st century, Irish puppetry is often distinguished by the importance allowed to the (improvised) spoken word. In the 1950s, Punch, with an Irish accent, addressed his audiences directly, usually without any fixed script. In the 1980s, the idea of the puppet as a presenter or in dialogue with the presenter became popular in television and the small screen became a resort of the tradition of verbal improvisation. The first stars were Zig and Zag who exchanged dialogue with the presenter and produced mordant satirical comments on society and politics. The puppeteers remained anonymous whilst the programme, initially intended for children, appealed to viewers of all ages. After a decade, Zig and Zag obtained a contract for British television. They were succeeded by a hideous and equally irrepressible turkey called Dustin whose popularity extended well beyond the programme for which he was created and who recorded CDs of his raucous songs and even managed to be selected as the Irish entry for the Eurovision song contest. Another immensely popular programme (often late at night) has been Rodge and Podge, two old men with equally unbridled improvised conversations.
Since the 1990s
The Punch and Judy tradition continues, but performers now receive engagements and do not have to collect contributions. Some of the great Punchmen (“Professors”) of the late 20th century include Harry Cullen, Neville Wiltshire and William Haslett (also a clergyman). Julie Rose McCormick travels widely through Ireland with both a Punch and Judy show, but also a repertoire of glove-puppet versions of well-known folk and fairy tales.
A significant company also set up in the 1990s is Niamh Lawlor’s Pucà, which often performs in Irish. One of the stock pieces of the company for a long time was Mary Mary, an intimate piece about a day in the life of an old woman. Their best production to date has been a haunting version of Coraline.
Another recent company of growing importance is Branar, an Irish-language company where great emphasis is placed on the use of live, specially composed music.
Various members of the Lambert family continue the tradition with their own companies. Conor gives a new flavour to Punch and Judy. Miriam has created a more experimental repertoire of solo pieces and now has an international reputation. Paula, whose career took off with a hugely popular television puppet, Bosco, travels with a lively repertoire of glove-puppet fairy tales. Noel and his wife Eva Lundin have extended their touring range to the Middle East where they now perform highly colourful shows with a strong contemporary element.
The Lambert Puppet Theatre is now continued by Liam Lambert. It has been associated with the International Puppet Festival, Ireland, since its inception in 1991.
- McCormick, John. The Victorian Marionette Theatre. Iowa City (IA): Iowa Univ. Press, Studies in Theatre History and Culture, 2004.
- Phillips, John. “D’Arc’s in Dublin”. Theatre Notebook. Vol. XLVIII, No. 1. London, 1994.
- Speaight, George. The History of the English Puppet Theatre. London: George Harrap, 1955; Illinois: Robert Hale/South Illinois University Press, 1990.