Celebrating Margaretta D’Arcy’s Theatrical Activism

Margaretta D'Arcy released from Mountjoy prison, 2014

Margaretta D’Arcy released from Mountjoy prison, 2014. Image from http://www.indymedia.ie/article/104731

The two contributions that follow represent a tribute to the on-going inspirational influence of Margaretta D’Arcy in contemporary performance activism. A writer and performer involved in protest since the 1950s, D’Arcy has made significant contributions to a range of campaigns, from support for Republican political prisoners during the Troubles and participation in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s to, most recently, a high-profile campaign against the use of Shannon airport in Ireland by the US military. The contributions here reflect on and extend two interconnected discussions that feature in the special print issue of Contemporary Theatre Review – firstly, of the woman’s body in activist performance, and secondly, about how the gestures of protest developed by contemporary activists draw on the potent figures and forms associated with historical struggles.

This latter theme is especially evident in the first contribution. Here, activists from the brilliant feminist performance group Speaking of IMELDA offer a series of stimulating reflections on the influence of Margaretta D’Arcy on their own agitation for abortion law reform in Ireland. The second contribution is from Robert Leach, author of the only book-length account of the partnership between Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden (a partnership that generated a series of works of rich significance for contemporary British theatre). Leach offers a celebratory overview of Margaretta D’Arcy’s unconventional book Loose Theatre on the 10th anniversary of its publication, drawing attention to her conceptualisation of a ‘loose’ theatre – theatre as a source for acts of resistance taking place across diverse times and places, from theatre stages, criminal courts, streets and traffic islands, temporarily transformed into stages for denouncing violence and oppression. We are extremely grateful to Robert and all the activists from IMELDA for their generous contributions and to Finn Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy for the images they’ve kindly shared with us.

– Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry

Dirty Work Still To Be Done: Retrieving and Activating Feminist Acts of Resistance

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.

In 2014, despite advancing years and ill health, the intrepid Margaretta D’Arcy was incarcerated in the Irish Republic for disrupting US military flights using Shannon Airport as a stopover (the Republic is a neutral country). Born in London in 1934 to a Russian-Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, D’Arcy has worked as a performer, writer, playwright, film director, broadcaster and political activist both in England and Ireland. We, the direct action pro-choice feminist performance group, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., pay tribute to the lineage of Irish feminist activism pioneered by Margaretta D’Arcy. In this short piece, we link the feminist protest of D’Arcy to contemporary Irish feminist activism focused on reproductive rights.

D’Arcy has been imprisoned a number of times for her activism, including in the women’s jail in Armagh, Northern Ireland, for refusing to pay a fine for protesting outside the jail on International Women’s Day with the group Women Against Imperialism. Amongst other things, this autonomous feminist organisation comprised largely, although not exclusively, of republican women, campaigned against the practice of strip-searching of prisoners and detainees. On the occasion leading to D’Arcy’s arrest the group was protesting the prison’s squalid and inhumane conditions during the so-called ‘Dirty Protests’. The Dirty Protests began in the prison’s H-Block in 1978 and were an escalation of republican protests against the phasing out of ‘special category status’ for prisoners arrested under emergency legislation. In Armagh Prison, after a serious assault on 7 February 1980 by a large contingent of prison officers in riot gear, republican women prisoners were locked in their cells without toilet and washing facilities for twenty-three hours a day. They retaliated by smearing their excrement on cell walls, pouring urine through spy holes onto the corridor outside their cells, and casting out used sanitary pads and tampons. Their soiled cells were left dirty for the first six months, all of which took a major toll on the women’s health.1

Into this vortex D’Arcy was cast when she joined thirty young republican women on the Dirty Protest in Armagh in May 1980 for eight weeks. Notably, she entered the prison as a feminist rather than a member of the republican movement. Indeed, many Irish feminists were deeply suspicious of nationalism of any kind. Her aim, as stated in her book, Tell Them Everything, was not only to protest the British state’s treatment of prisoners, but also to pose a crucial question for the women’s movement on both sides of the Irish border and in the Diaspora, regardless of creed or shade of political affiliation. She asked whether feminists could remain silent in the face of the sufferings and resistance of republican women prisoners in Northern Ireland.2 The same question was later posed by the Derry feminist journalist Nell McCafferty. After public outcry and the intensification of division on the subject, McCafferty asked:

What is to be done? Shall we feminists record that they [protesting prisoners] are inflicting the conditions on themselves in case any question of moral dereliction arises against us? The menstrual blood on the walls of Armagh prison smells to high heaven. Shall we turn our noses up?3

The Dirty Protests ended when some of the women prisoners joined the 1980 hunger strike in unison with their male republican colleagues incarcerated in the H-Blocks. Women prisoners did not participate in the second hunger strike of 1981 where ten men died. In Theatre and Ireland, Lionel Pilkington argues that the hunger strikes marked a ‘pulling back from the radical transgressiveness that the Dirty Protests managed – albeit inadvertently – to expose’.4 Drawing on both D’Arcy’s account and the writing of Begoña Aretxaga,5 he outlines the ‘unspeakable shame and embarrassment’ the menstrual blood on the cell walls of Armagh caused, suggesting it was ‘de-stabilising because it was an indictment not just of the brutality of the state and its colonial history but of the same patriarchal codes that were shared by most in the republican movement’.6 In the 35 year impasse since the end of the ‘dirty protests’ on the island of Ireland there remains, at a governmental level, an inability to address the realities of female reproductive biology both North and South of the Border. Women’s bodies are continually policed in accordance to archaic patriarchal ideals.

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.-Direct Action at the St. Patrick's Day Parade London, 2015. Courtesy of I.M.E.L.D.A.

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.-Direct Action at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade London, 2015. Courtesy of I.M.E.L.D.A.

The inability of governments to address the realities of female reproductive biology, alongside the continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive autonomy, is what we, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., confront in our work from our base in London. We are focused on challenging the severe anti-choice laws in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We use I.M.E.L.D.A. as an acronym to mean – Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion. Imelda, which is a popular name for girls in Ireland, was used as a code-name by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), a group of activists based in London who provided support to women traveling from Ireland to England for abortions between 1980 and 2000.7 The code-name was especially necessary between 1986 and 1995 when the Information Cases in the Republic of Ireland made it a criminal offence to travel abroad for an abortion and to provide information and referrals for abortion services. Today up to 4,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,000 women from Northern Ireland continually travel to England each year to access safe and legal abortions, often in secrecy and always at considerable financial cost. This is why; Article 40.3.3 of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland (1983) legislated that the unborn foetus has equal rights to the life of the mother. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 20138 implemented a 14-year prison sentence for those who effect an abortion themselves in Ireland, whereas, Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, remains exempt from the Abortion Act 1967.

Through our actions we purposefully play with the insidious and hypocritical culture of silence and shame around abortion in Ireland. In October 2014 we served a pair of knickers on the plate of Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at a fundraising dinner for his political party, Fine Gael, in London. The knickers, symbolic of women’s private and sexual autonomy, had the message ‘Repeal the 8th’ written on them. Our deployment of knickers in this action follows on from our Knickers for Choice campaign, which was launched in September 2014. Through this action we sought to embarrass the Irish Taoiseach about his administration’s failure to cater for women’s very real needs. In reaching global audiences via news networks and social media, this action shone a light on the draconian and archaic policies still perpetuated by the Irish state. In our rejection of the stigma and silence, imposed on the daily dozen forced to travel for abortion, we correctively deflected shame back onto the seat of power itself.  We also raise awareness of the responsibility of the UK government to ease the hardship faced by Northern Irish women traveling for an abortion. For example, in May 2014, we confronted the British Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to highlight how easy it would be for him to grant Northern Irish women, as UK citizens and residents, access to free abortions under the NHS in England. This action interrupted Hunt’s ‘advice surgery’ in a Sainsbury’s supermarket in his constituency of Farnham. Handing Hunt half-eaten apples, to which snippets of advice were attached, we again ridiculed the supposed expertise of governance by showing up the hypocrisy of what Máiréad Enright calls ‘po-faced statesmanship’.9

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. - Direct Action at RTE's Road to the Rising Event 2015, outside the General Post Office Dublin. Courtesy of I.M.E.L.D.A.

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. - Direct Action at RTE's Road to the Rising Event 2015, outside the General Post Office Dublin. Courtesy of I.M.E.L.D.A. Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. – Direct Action at RTE’s Road to the Rising Event 2015, outside the General Post Office Dublin. Courtesy of I.M.E.L.D.A.

In reclaiming the name IMELDA we wish to act in solidarity with women’s groups who have sought to counteract the inhumanity of state legislation. In our most recent action we also paid tribute to lineages of feminist activism by using suffragette imagery as we chained ourselves to the General Post Office (GPO), Dublin. This action intervened in the Road to the Rising event – a historical re-enactment of life in 1915 Dublin initiated by the national television broadcaster RTE ahead of the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Our discerned use of location was reminiscent of the hijacking of the GPO in 1916 by nationalist rebels and the action caught the tensions between nationalism and feminism. In fact, women were indispensable to the Rising, seventy-seven women having been arrested for playing vital roles. They were inspired – as were some men – by commitments to feminism and socialism as well as to national independence. However, similar to the context outlined by D’Arcy in the Dirty Protests, feminist concerns were overshadowed by the nationalist cause. With reference to the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, we declared ‘The 2015 Pro-choice Proclamation’, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. highlighted that tensions between nationalism and feminism remain today to such an extent that the bodies of women in Ireland are territorially controlled as if they are national property. Importantly, in referring to the suffragettes we were not interested in simply preserving the past but actively contributing to women’s ongoing struggle to achieve political and bodily autonomy. This certainly stood in contrast to RTE’s risible attempt to include women at the event by deploying a bus with the signage ‘Votes for Women’, as the conveyance for a male compère who told jokes about his wife.

Pirate Radio, Women’s Scéal with Sabine Higgens

Pirate Radio, Women’s Scéal with Sabine Higgens

Referring to the film Silent Grace (2001), which is based on the women’s protests in Armagh Prison, Emile Pine notes that for audiences it ‘may be their first realisation that women prisoners were also on the Dirty Protest and on the 1980 hunger strike.’10 As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising it is important to actively remember Irish women’s political activism. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, similar to many contexts globally, politically active women were told to quietly return to the homestead. One way that D’Arcy dealt with the homestead was to set up her own pirate radio station, Women’s Scéal (story), in February 1987. She broadcast on feminist issues in spite of Irish censorship regulations like section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, defying the prohibition of information on abortion and literature dealing with sexuality. One stated aim of D’Arcy’s station was ‘to recognise that the three ages of women are a continuity, pre-menstruation, menstruation and post-menstruation. No one of them is more valuable than the others.’11 Similar to D’Arcy’s illicit vocalisation of the realities of reproductive biology, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. seek to operate against the secrecy and denials that maintain the rigid policing of women’s bodies. In retrieving the tropes, aesthetics and histories of feminist activists in the past, we operate against the silencing of feminist activism in dominant discourses while actively continuing their labours.


Cover: Margaretta D'Arcy, Loose TheatreMargaretta D’Arcy, Loose Theatre: In and out of my memory (Crewe: Trafford Publishing, 2005)

Robert Leach

Margaretta D’Arcy’s Loose Theatre is an extraordinary book. Part autobiography, part polemic and part report from the battle-front (many battle-fronts actually), it no more conforms to the reader’s expectations than its author in her life conforms to social expectations. It is infuriating, stimulating and intriguing by turns. It is probably too long. It is certainly discursive. And it never pulls its punches when its author feels passionately about any of a long list of abuses or grievances, most of which are committed by the state, or what has been called the ‘military-industrial complex’, and against which she has fought, campaigned and protested unremittingly through the eight decades of her life. The autobiographical sections of the book, or rather the ‘dips in-and-out of my memory’ (p. 1), as Margaretta D’Arcy calls them, contain some of the most fascinating material. She is the daughter of an Irish freedom fighter and a Jewish doctor, a second-generation refugee from Odessa in the Ukraine, and her struggles with this split identity reveal a good deal about her and her battles in the theatrical and political worlds she has inhabited.

She was the third of four girls in the family. While her father worked for the Irish Free State and the mother trained and then practiced as a doctor, the girls were moved like chess pieces between England and Ireland, and to different addresses in Ireland. They were largely under the supervision of a nanny, the love-lorn Nancy Spain, and Margaretta was taught to end her prayers: ‘And let Jimmy Timmons love Kitty’ (p. 66).

She also divulges somewhat nonchalantly her discovery of masturbation, her affair with a sculptor and how she suffered violence and near-rape at the hands of a group of drunken medical students.

She escaped to England and ‘the joyous illusion of theatre’ (p. 197), She was an acting ASM at the new, progressive-looking Hornchurch Rep in the early 1950s and graduated to the Royal Court where she became an actress in the heady days of that theatre’s radical resuscitation under the charismatic George Devine. For a time she was one of the company’s most flaming members, but after a remarkable contribution to it – largely underplayed here – she became disillusioned by its insularity and English eclecticism, and left.

Meanwhile she had met the man whom she would never call a singular part of her destiny: the brilliant radical playwright, John Arden, whom she married. She and he together created a series of provocative, glittering plays – The Business of Good Government (1960), Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1964), The Royal Pardon (1966), and The Hero Rises Up (1968) – each utterly different from the others but each extraordinarily potent. The sequence reached a remarkable climax in The Island of the Mighty and The Non-Stop Connolly Show.

John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy at home in Woodquay, Galway. Photograph by Eamon Ward. Courtesy of Finn Arden.

John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy at home in Woodquay, Galway. Photograph by Eamon Ward. Courtesy of Finn Arden.

These unmatched epics are monumental and revolutionary, both in form and content, but after them playwriting took second place for D’Arcy to her growing one-person wars against the state and the military-industrial complex in whose interests the state is made to function.

She was always happy to engage with the enemy on her own. In one of the most memorable protests described in the book, when she was still in her twenties, and when Arden had gone to London to join a major protest against nuclear weapons, she took her baby on her bike to the local missile base and delivered what was in effect a treasonable letter to the commander there, inviting him to examine his conscience as to the morality of nuclear weapons. The police soon made it clear that she would be wise to move away.

Margaretta D'Arcy at Greenham Common. Courtesy of Finn Arden.

Margaretta D’Arcy at Greenham Common. Courtesy of Finn Arden.

In the 1980s she mounted a one-woman ‘circus exposé’ (p. 309) of Aosdána, the bureaucratic Irish ‘Parliament of Artists’ and followed this up by founding Radio Pirate-Woman, an illegal feminist pirate radio station which broadcast from her bedroom. She engaged passionately and for years with the earth-shaking ‘Troubles’ in the Six Counties and simultaneously was active in the Greenham Common peace camp. There is much material here for the historian of these seething conflicts.

What has all this to do with theatre, or ‘Loose Theatre’ as she entitles her book? From the very beginning of her adult engagement with theatre she thought of it as a weapon. But she also worked hard to broaden the definition of the term.

Loose theatre for Margaretta D’Arcy was not what is put decorously on a bourgeois stage before a submissive paying audience. The book opens with her proposed alternative. She tells how she stood with other women on a traffic island outside Shannon Airport, holding a placard which asked motorists who passed to ‘Beep for peace’. Many who drove past did beep their horns, some did not, but

the whole experience was so enlivening that we took it in turns to stand out there most    of the night – nothing formally organised: we just took our places when the spirit moved. As each car bleeped (sic) we all let out a roar of approval and delight, saluting them. It soon became a cacophonic musical show, shouts and car-horns, exuberance, vitality; cars that had hurried past turned round and came back to join in. We had created a loose and spontaneous form of theatre. (pp. 1-2)

Loose theatre is perhaps the only convincing riposte to the ‘society of the spectacle’, the phrase coined by Guy Debord for the commodification of culture. The ‘spectacle’ dazzles and numbs the ordinary citizen and thereby enables the relentless march of the financial-military state and its ubiquitous surveillance of us, the mass, the majority. ‘Loose theatre’ debunks and destroys this process. That is why it is important.

This unconventional book describes the tortuous, triumphant, bitter path its author travelled to reach this necessary position. It should be read by all who aspire to oppose the corruption and hypocrisy endemic in those who run our society.

Robert Leach is the author of Partners of the Imagination: The Lives, Art and Struggles of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy (Stoney Stanton, Leicestershire: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2012).

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  1. Raymond Murray, Hard Time: Armagh Gaol 1971-1986 (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998);  Síle Darragh, John Lennon’s Dead: Stories of Protest, Hunger Strikes and Resistance (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2011).
  2. Margaretta D’Arcy, Tell Them Everything (London: Pluto Press, 1981).
  3. Nell McCafferty The Irish Times, 22 August 1980.
  4. Lionel Pilkington, Theatre & Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), p. 65.
  5. Begoña Aretxaga, Shattering Silence: Women Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1997).
  6. Pilkington, p. 64.
  7. Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The ‘abortion trail’ and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000 (London: Iasc Publishing, 2009).
  8. Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 – Tithe an Oireachtais (Office of the Houses of the  Oireachtas) <http://www.oireachtas.ie/viewdoc.asp?fn=/documents/bills28/acts/2013/a3513.pdf> [accessed 29 June 2015].
  9. Enright, Máiréad, ‘Sparing Enda’s Blushes. Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. and #knickersforchoice’ <http://humanrights.ie/constitution-of-ireland/sparing-endas-blushes-speaking-of-imelda-and-knickersforchoice/> [accessed 29 June 2015].
  10. Emilie Pine, The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011), p. 109.
  11. Margaretta D’Arcy, ‘Galway’s Pirate Women’ in Women and Radio: Airing Differences ed. by Caroline Mitchell (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) p. 167.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Margaretta D’Arcy’s Theatrical Activism

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