Performing a Place of Ireland’s Past: Reflections on an ANU performance

This is the second of a series of posts written by Geography postgraduates who participated in creative workshops run by performance and visual artists as part of the MA in Geography. This first set of blogs includes student responses to PALS – The Irish at Gallipoli, a performance by the place-based theatre group ANU, which ran from 3 February – 30 April 2015. Their critically acclaimed production will run again from 4th August to 6th September due to popular demand (click here for ticket information). ANU is directed by Louise Lowe, and the actors in PALS included John Cronin, Liam Heslin, Laura Murray, Kevin Olohan, and Thomas Reilly.

Performing a Place of Ireland’s Past: Reflections on an ANU performance

By Dean Phelan

This past semester I was fortunate to take part in the GY627: Places, Landscapes and Mappings taught by Dr. Karen E. Till. The class involved a mix of half-day workshops at Maynooth University, student engagement with key geographical texts, and three field excursions in Dublin with artists who engaged with particular places as part of their creative practice. A number of common theoretical and conceptual threads bound each experience together for me: the role of the human body in the construction of place; the importance of being emotionally aware and reflective when engaging with places; and the often under-valued merits of spatial artistic practices when attempting to understand and represent places.


Figure 1: Maynooth Geography workshop with ANU director Louise Lowe at Collins Barracks, March 2015 (Photo: K. Till).

For the purposes of this blog, I re-visited my reflective memos and fieldnotes taken before, during and after our class trip to ANU’s performance of PALS: the Irish in Gallipoli at Collins’ Barracks and post-performance workshop with Louise Lowe, director of ANU, in March 2015 (Figure 1). While reading over the notes, jottings and sketches etched onto the pages of my field diary, several key themes repeatedly emerged: discipline and surveillance, gender roles, and the confluence of memory and place. Not only were these themes undeniably the most prominent and recurrent for ANU’s performance, but also for my entire experience of Collins Barracks that day.


Figure 2. Collins Barracks interior courtyard, west side. Photo by ‪Jnestorius‪, 2006, available on wikipedia commons.

Discipline and Surveillance
On the morning of the performance I arrived at Collins Barracks earlier than the rest of the class. As I sat under an arch on the rim of the barracks’ central square, I tried to compile a list of descriptive words that I felt best summarised the physicality of the space (Figure 2). Words such as “cold,” “structured,” “dominating,” “intimidating,” “uneasy feeling,” “commanding,” “hard space,” and, perhaps most appropriate for these reflective notes, “disciplining” and “surveilled,” were scribbled into my note-book. I also wrote that: “I was very conscious of the many windows from which I could be viewed.” These windows appeared opaque from my viewpoint, adding further to the sense of scrutiny, which was, at that time, not so much a feeling of actually being surveilled but more of an awareness of the possibility of being observed, a feeling of unease at the potentiality of being watched by an unknown entity.

The building’s impressive architecture and sheer size conveyed a sense of grandeur, which, combined with my awareness of potential surveillance and the “stage like” exposure of the square, publicly communicated that this was a disciplinary institution (Foucault, 1975). The disciplining effect of the barracks was not intended solely for the internal square’s occupants, as its dominating hill-top position overlooked the once-tenemented areas of Dublin (see Yeats’ 2012 maps). If we are to consider the contexts within which the Pals group would have occupied this space –the role of Collins Barracks as the British Army’s Irish base; a disgruntled and impoverished Dublin tenement population post-1913 lockout; and Britain’s ongoing colonisation of Ireland and the existing tensions over Ireland’s growing independence movement – it is plausible to assume that these themes of surveillance and discipline would have been even more prominent during their time.

Not only would these men have been aware of the place’s disciplining nature, but as Karen rightly pointed out during the pre-performance class discussion on the central square, the drills which the men were made to practice were a form of disciplining that worked by replacing the men’s natural routines and reactions with new ones – similar to geographer Nuala Johnson’s (2003: 4) assertion that the making of new memories unavoidably involves the forgetting of older ones. Therefore, these men were not just aware of this place’s disciplining nature, but they experienced and knew it through their lived bodies, a point that brings phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on the “lived-body” into mind (discussed in Casey, 1998: 233; see also Backhaus, 2009: 140). As Merleau-Ponty asserted, it is primarily through our lived bodies that we come to know the places that we inhabit, and without such embodiement, we could not possibly know place (cited in Casey, 1998: 223, 229). Thus, “we cannot be implaced without being embodied” and subsequently, “to be embodied is to be capable of implacement” (Casey, 1998: 233).

Interestingly, this embodied knowledge of being disciplined was an important aspect of the research that the ANU artistic team incorporated into the material settings and movement choreography for the PALS production. Director Louise Lowe arranged for the ANU cast to be put through weeks of rigorous physical training in preparation for the performance, including learning army drills from the WW1-era and practicing classical rugby movements. These learned movements and embodied actions would become extremely important in the final performance, as was evident during the numerous battle scenes that morphed into playful rugby matches.

During the performance, the theme of disciplining bodies was not confined to the actors alone. In keeping with ANU’s audience-centered focus, the embodied experiences of Collins Barracks became knowable, if only briefly, after Mrs. Brady was physically escorted from the barracks by a soldier (Jasper Brett, played by Liam Heslin), who then ordered another soldier Paddy (played by Kevin Olohan) to “clear the square”. At this point audience members were also instructed by this soldier to exit the square through a door: “Hurry up!” and “Stand against a wall!” When inside, we were told to “Move in” and “Make room”, while being reminded to stand “up against the wall.” We were then commanded to walk up the stairs and to “stick to the left.” By being ordered to carry out these movements the audience were made to carry out the actions of soldiers, or possibly new recruits. As such, it was by way of my own lived-body (Casey, 1998: 223), and of its subjectivity that I was capable of experiencing this particular place at that time, experiencing Collins Barracks in a way similarly known by the Pals themselves.

This particular scene also demonstrates another important aspect of human engagement with space: the role of emotions in shaping both our understandings and experiences of the world around us. As Bondi, Davidson and Smith (2007) have shown, emotions play a central part in shaping our understandings of the world in which we live. Less than one hour before I was part of this particular scene, I had walked through the same ground-floor hallway while visiting the museum’s exhibitions. When I first encountered this space, I was admittedly quite worried and anxious about not having enough time to see the displays before the group were scheduled to meet in the museum lobby. So I hurried through the hallways between the 1916 exhibition room and the World War 1 exhibition rooms, not noticing or engaging with the physicality of the building. At that time, the exhibition was simply a middle ground between the place I had been (the square) and the place that I wanted to be (the performance), or to use philosopher Martin Heidegger’s term a “leeway” (Spielraum) (cited in Casey, 1998: 247), literally translated as a playspace. However, upon revisiting the building as part of the performance, I was filled with emotions, including excitement and curiosity as I was ordered to stand “up against the wall” and “move along”. Through my heightened emotional awareness, I became far more aware of the place that I was part of, its “given” textures, and the “closeness” of objects and the people who shared the space with me, an experience reminding me also of Heidegger’s discussion of the “ready-to-hand” qualities of space and place (in Casey, 1998: 247-249).


Figure 3: ANU’s performance PALS at Collins Barracks, March 2015. Charlie (Thomas Reilly) and Hamilton (John Cronin) standing at attention, while audience members look on (Photo: K. Till).

Gender Roles
As mentioned above, I took some time before the ANU performance began to briefly – and hurriedly – walk around the 1916 and WW1 exhibitions. While in the 1916 exhibition room, I took note of the physical space given to each person whose involvement in 1916 was deemed to be worthy of a display. Aside from my initial curiosities as to whether or not the memory of individual soldiers from WW1 would be afforded the same space in the WW1 exhibition, I was struck by the indisputable gender imbalance on display. With the exception of a few individual women and Cumann na mBan, the vast majority of display boards were dedicated to the remembrance of the Rising’s male actors. By failing to present a more gender-balanced representation of this past, the role of women was limited in this exhibited version of the past – a fact that struck a personal cord with me as I had only discovered a few weeks previous that my great-grandmother acted as a message carrier for the Irish Republican Brotherhood during this time.

Not only was the 1916 exhibition gendered in its depiction of this politically turbulent era of Irish history, the WW1 exhibition represented an almost exclusively male version of history. Although women were not allowed to enlist in the armed forces at those times, they were undeniably involved in the war. As Pettman (1996) has argued, women have always been involved in wars despite pervading beliefs that it is a male only activity. In the case of WW1, the involvement of Irish women was diverse and it included, but was by no means limited to, having familial ties with soldiers on the front-line, nursing the wounded, enlisting as voluntary aid detachments in military hospitals (Lecane, 2004), working in ammunition factories (Yeats, 2012), and so on. Yet, the WW1 exhibition, from what I saw, seemed to only represent women as either the beneficiaries of the war, by receiving separation allowances, or as the recipients of letters from loved ones, as is the case with Paddy Tobin’s letter to his mother on exhibit.

This underrepresentation and failure to remember the war’s female voices and pasts was hinted at by ANU’s choice to cast Laura Murray as a female figure-head, rather than as a specific, named woman. Although the characters Laura performed were in fact largely based on real women – including Mrs. Lizzie Brady, Mrs. Tobin and Jasper Brett’s sister – and their complex relationship to the Pals were evident in the scenes that they featured in, none of the women are named directly throughout the performance or in the accompanying educational Pals Resource Pack (Enrichment Programme ANU Productions, 2015), with the exception of Lizzie (who features briefly on page 14). By not naming the women characters during the performance, the audience comes to know them as “simply women,” mirroring the seemingly unknown women in Ireland’s recollection of WW1, or as representing all Irish women.

There is a symbolic (and seemingly contradictory) dualism at play in ANU’s decision to represent these women through the single figure of one female performer. By not specifying these women’s identities, Laura Murray comes to embody all the Irish women who lived, endured, and experienced this tragic past. This personification of all Irish women is powerfully enacted, I believe, in another dramatic scene. As the men switch from an energetic battle scene to a far more subdued yet emotive one, Laura silently walks to the middle of an otherwise darkened room and stands directly under an overhead light holding a stack of letters. Her posture is stiff as she mechanically and slowly turns and throws letters, one at a time, away from her towards the audience members sitting around the room. As she throws the letters she states the names of the men who have died, names which were also signed on the envelopes; her voice moves from being strong and loud to a quiet whispered mumble. Her expression remains cold and rigid, completely juxtaposed to Hamilton (John Cronin), who at that time was tearfully asking audience members emotive questions, such as “What would you do?” and “Is Ireland proud of you?” If we are to consider Laura’s role as a representation of all Irish women (or perhaps even an embodiment of Mother Ireland) and her blank, emotionless expression as she lists the Pals’ war-dead, the tragic answer to the latter of Hamilton’s profound questions is clear. No. Ireland was not proud, a sad reality that many returning Irish soldiers would face in a post-1916 Ireland.

The choice to include such a poignant question of pride with its accompanying harsh reality of shame is made all the more interesting and symbolically important if we reflect on the use of gender roles that pervaded enlistment propaganda at that time. Men were either encouraged to go to war to protect Irish women (or Mother Ireland) or to gain their pride (Enrichment Programme ANU Productions, 2015: 6; Figures 4-6). Ann Rigney (2008: 91) writes about the role of memory in the formation of the nation-state and the use of shared memories in the construction of imagined communities, an interesting point if we consider that the men whose pasts are being represented in the National Museum of Ireland’s 1916 exhibition are the same men whose actions are believed to have set the precipice for the founding of an independent Irish State. A question must be asked then about the editorial choices made in the selection of pasts deemed relevant and important to a modern Irish State.


Figure 4: “Have you no women folk worth fighting for?” Source – (2015a).


Figure 5: “Will you go or must I?” Source – (2015b).


Figure 6: “Now is the time.” Source – (2015c).

Memory and Place: The Confluence of Spatial and Temporal Boundaries 
Making the audience aware of confluence of the present and the past(s) through the durational qualities of place is something ANU actively tried to achieve throughout their portrayal of the Pals group and these men’s pasts. The genius of ANU’s performance, I believe, was in their ability to absorb the audience “into” the performance by figuratively transporting us to times and places that have long passed, yet that remain persistently part of our present-day realities. Rather than representing the Pals experiences of war in chronological order or as one-hundred years past, or as being confined to one particular setting, ANU’s portrayal of scenes, events, times and places transported the audience both temporally and spatially. The transition between these scenarios was intentionally sudden; they dramatically encapsulated, I believe, the unpredictable nature of war and the uncertainty that those involved faced constantly.

Before I went to ANU’s performance, I had visited Collins Barracks only once. During this initial visit to the barracks, my knowledge of it was limited to the assumption that it had once been an operational military barracks and was at that time housing an exhibition from the Natural History Museum. I knew nothing about this space, its history or its previous occupants, and as such, I didn’t take the time to appreciate the place that I was in. In preparation for this assignment, we were asked to read a number of historical texts about Dublin during the WW1 era, the Collins Barracks, and online archival stories written by its inhabitants or family members whose relatives once stayed there. Although these readings in themselves did not help me imagine the past in the present (other than the fact that I was reading about certain pasts in the present), the historical knowledge I learned about the barracks’ past affected the intensity of my personal experiences while there. As I walked with another PhD student and friend of mine, Rachel, towards the main archway into the courtyard, I remembered a photograph of the same arch filled with rows of young men as they marched to war and at this point I felt a saddening feeling, knowing that many of them would not return (Figure 7). This arch is what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1979) describes as a “public symbol,” due to its high imageability and my recognition (as an “outsider”) of its significance as a national place of historical significance. While walking through this symbolic space and into the central courtyard my mind became occupied with images of young Irish soldiers in their British Army uniforms performing drills; I wondered about their thoughts as they prepared to go to war.


Figure 7: “Irish Soldiers in the British Army in WW1.” Source – (2015).

At the beginning of ANU’s performance, as we stood in the courtyard with the tour guide, waiting for the performance “to begin”, we could already hear the noise of men performing military drills. At first this noise was very faint, coming from a distant place but it gradually got louder as the men neared. Although I recognised the noise as men performing military drills, I did not regard it as unusual at first (in fact I found it quite “reassuring” and “comforting”), assuming that it was just background noise – similar to the noise of distant traffic or Museum visitors chatting. It was only when I saw that our group had turned around to face the two men, who were now directly behind us, that I realised that this was in fact part of the performance. When I first read over my notes of this moment it struck me as odd that I was so slow to register this event as being part of the performance. But after some reflection I realised that my delayed response to this noise was because of my personal familiarity with it. The noise of soldiers drilling was a frequently heard noise throughout my childhood, as both my school and aunt’s home were situated near, or on, the Irish Army Barracks on the Curragh in County Kildare. By experiencing ANU’s portrayal of this particular past at Collins Barracks (in the present day), I was momentarily transported to both familiar places and times of my personal, lived past.

My experiences of PALS remind me of Johnson’s (2003) comment that “to remember the past is to remember it now” (p. 2). Through the performance or even by looking at the historical 1916 display, I was engaging in the dialectic between history and memory that, according to Johnson, is in constant dialogue with how we understand the past in the present. Thus, during the performance the convergence of past and present occurred as I experienced an envelope with Paddy’s name being thrown at me, remembered a personal memory from my childhood, ‘remembered’ a memory that I read about, and quietly responded to Hamilton’s questions. Some of the ‘memories’ I drew upon during the performance were not entirely mine per se, but I am believed to have some ownership of them due to my Irish nationality. It is with great skill that ANU manage to not only draw their audiences ‘into’ their performances, but also into and through select spaces and times, as they perform not just scenes of Ireland’s past, but also perform historically and nationally important places.

Dean Phelan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography and NIRSA at Maynooth University


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