Theatre does something that no other medium can do. While a good film can draw you in, a play can create a physical world right in front of you. In some cases, they make you a part of the show. Theatre has been at the heart of Irish arts for decades, and most plays have modern productions featuring some of the worlds leading actors. Most of the plays in this list are repeatedly produced all over the country, and the best Irish plays offer each retelling differently from the last.
The Cripple of Inishmaan – Martin McDonagh
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The arrival of a Hollywood film crew shooting a documentary stirs up great excitement for a small Irish village on Inishmaan, one of Ireland’s coastal islands. Billy Claven, a ‘cripple’, dreams of escaping his mundane life on the island and wants to be a part of their film. He believes the film crew will cast him and his life will change, much to the amusement of the other islands. Billy is ridiculed on the island and, to the islander’s disbelief, is cast in the movie. What may be a dream-come-true situation to Billy, may change his fate in unexpected ways.
Little Gem – Elaine Murphy
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Three women, each undergoing their own personal crisis. Its three characters tell the plot of this tragic comedy. Each character represents a generation within a family, with Kay as the grandmother, Lorraine as the mother and Amber as the granddaughter. The play has moments of great comedy expressed through the characters, mostly by the way they speak to the audience, their sensibilities and their reactions to their own words. Despite this comedic aspect, the women each live with great difficulty, brought on by the male presence in their lives. This play has been reproduced continuously since its first production and is considered one of the best Irish plays from a female playwright in recent years.
Juno and the Paycock – Seán Ó Casey
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Juno and the Paycock takes place shortly after the Irish Civil War and centres on the Boyle family in a poor part of Dublin. As news of a large inheritance comes to the Boyle family, the money seems like it will change their lives. The alcoholic and work-shy father begins spending the money before it has arrived. Their celebration is cut short by a shocking revelation that begins to tear the family apart.
Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett
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Anyone familiar with Beckett will know that his plays tend to stretch the abilities of storytelling through absurdity. Waiting for Godot leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions in many ways. The setting is simply a hill with a tree near a road. At this hill the two lead characters, Didi and Gogo, await Godot. Little is revealed about Godot or why the men wait, except for some minor details given by a messenger boy. The interaction between the play’s few characters brings out the unique, quirky and sometimes nonsensical storytelling and characterisations that only Beckett could produce.
Faith Healer – Brian Friel
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Told through monologues by each character, Faith Healer gives a detailed and personal account of the plays three characters and a seemingly fatal event. It follows Francis Hardy, a faith healer, his wife Grace and the stage manager, Teddy, as they describe their life on the road. Francis is conflicted about his powers and remembers when he healed people in a Welsh village. Although he revealed that his powers have also failed him. Through their memories, it is revealed in pieces that Francis was asked to heal a disabled man. Francis knows that he can’t heal this man and that his failure will have serious repercussions.
By the Bog of Cats – Marina Carr
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By the Bog of Cats may feel familiar to some that see it. It draws heavily from the Greek tragedy Medea set in rural Ireland and complete with ghosts, curses and witchcraft. Hester was abandoned as a child in the lair of a black swan. Her mother cursed her to live only as long as the swan does. As the play opens, we see Hester, now a middle-aged woman, dragging this dead black swan behind her. The play introduces the supernatural elements early on and keeps that mythical connection throughout the play. Hester’s lover is marrying a younger woman, and the two attempt in several ways to push Hester out of her home in the bog. Throughout the play, Hester’s past is revealed, and the darker side of her comes into the forefront.
The Seagull – Thomas Kilroy
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Originally written by Anton Checkhov, The Seagull was adapted by Thomas Kilroy and given an Irish setting. Although the inspiration for the play was written about Russian society, Kilroy’s adaptation draws a parallel to this in 19th century Ireland’s politics and society. The play shines through the characters, each with their own desires and motivations that conflict with the others. The play features a love-hate relationship between family members, a love triangle and a play within a play as some of the core elements.
Disco Pigs – Enda Walsh
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A play performed with only two actors, Disco Pigs takes the idea of a fated romance and pushes it to an extreme. Pig and Runt are two star crossed lovers. They were born in the same hospital, only minutes apart and rooms away from each other. This connection has grown through their lives, to the point that they speak their own language with each other. On the night of their 17th birthday, their celebration is halted by alcohol and violence. The play initially had a young Cillian Murphy as Pig. He also played him in a short film version of this play.
Portia Coughlan – Marina Carr
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Portia Coughlan follows the titular character and a tragic event that has traumatized her into her later life. A wife and mother to three children, Portia’s trauma at the death of her twin brother at 15 has affected the core of her family, life and relationships. As the ghost of her twin begins to appear to Portia, and in the town, the strong domino effect of this loss begins to reveal itself.
The Hostage – Brendan Behan
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The Hostage was originally produced as a one-act play that was written and performed in Irish Gaelic as An Giall. Adapted into an English version, it tells the story of a British soldier being kept hostage in a brothel. As the play progresses, an unlikely love blooms between the soldier and one of the brothel’s women. The play hops from drama to comedy to musical and back, including music and singing to split the scenes and dialogue. Behan’s characters are always interesting and well thought out, with each lending an integral piece of the play’s themes and setting. It also featured some of the earliest representations of LGBT characters for the time.
Many of these plays have reached critical acclaim and are considered some of the best Irish plays. They can often be seen at different times throughout the country for anyone that wants to see them. Youtube also has plays to watch in entirety, usually with a cast of well-known film and theatre actors. Each playwright on this list has a series of work that would fit in any list of best Irish plays. Although some may have been missed, there is a massive world of comedies, tragedies, drama and more waiting for you to discover.
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