States of Independence: Citizenship in Performance

By Mary Moynihan

Mary Moynihan, a writer, theatre and film-maker and Artistic Director, Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality, was delighted to be invited as a guest speaker for the Irish Society for Theatre Research 2022 conference titled Citizenship, Conflict and Performance held at the University of Ulster, Derry/Londonderry on 3 and 4 June 2022. The following is a section from her presentation essay.


As a writer, theatre and film-maker, I was delighted to be invited as a guest speaker for the Irish Society for Theatre Research 2022 conference titled Citizenship, Conflict and Performance held at the University of Ulster, Derry/Londonderry on 3 and 4 June 2022.


At the conference I spoke about the artistic work created by Smashing Times that focuses on historical memory and stories of women change-makers in history and today,  particularly stories of women who stood up for the rights of others. As an artist I am involved in the creation of plays, books, short films, documentaries and theatre and arts-based workshops that are inspired by stories of women particularly from three distinct periods; the Decade of Centenaries on the island of Ireland from 1916 to 1923; stories from WWII and stories of women across the world today. Through the sharing  of plays, films and workshops, artists are creating a space and body of work to contest and transform understandings of woman as citizen, particularly in times of conflict, highlighting stories of self-empowerment for action in times of adversity and oppression. 


What is common to the majority of the  stories told through  my work with Smashing Times is that we are telling stories of  women who stood up for the rights of others and in doing so these women created an embodied self-proclaimed form of citizenship in spaces where fundamental human rights were denied. These stories are a key part of our work and I believe our success comes from three key principles, firstly  our faith in storytelling to transform ways of thinking and ways of seeing, secondly our belief in a value system that unites and drives us and thirdly the fact that we use our artform to promote human rights while at all times ensuring the artistic integrity of the work.


In relation to storytelling, according to the social entrepreneur Simon Sinek, ‘Stories are attempts to share our values and beliefs. Storytelling is worthwhile when it shares what we stand for, not what we do’. In Smashing Times storytelling is a key part of what we do. Theatre and film can be effective and important tools for promoting equality in today’s society because they are places where we actively choose to listen to someone else’s story.  In Smashing Times we use  storytelling workshops, theatre performances, films and books,  to gather, share and tell stories that promote human rights.  


Creative Connections


I first became involved creatively in using historical memory as a form of storytelling through my peacebuilding work in Northern Ireland.  We worked since before the ceasefires and in a post-conflict environment after peace was established, using the arts to promote peace building and reconciliation. A key part of the  work was bringing different communities together with a  focus on telling the  hidden or denied stories of the conflict, and finding ways to create a more diverse narrative.


Because of the success of our work in peacebuilding and bringing different communities together,  we were invited by different organisations to work across Europe. We had colleagues in European countries who were at the coalface of the refugee displacement of people and we came together  using the arts to promote anti-racism, gender equality and inclusion and the work proved highly successful with many organisations continuing to use the workshop models we had developed long after the projects were over.


Decade of Centenaries and Commemorations on the island of Ireland from 1916-1923


In Ireland, around 2015 to 2016,  the Decade of Commemorations was taking place. Ireland was remembering its past history of its struggle for independence and   Smashing Times were asked would we consider exploring women’s stories from 1916.  In 1916 a group of men and women including activists, artists and poets took part in an insurrection against British rule that lasted for six days. This insurrection failed but was a catalyst for the war of independence in Ireland that followed.   I like to mention this because for many years in Ireland, we were  under the impression that there were very few women involved in the Irish uprising of 1916. 


As we now know over 300 women took part with many of these stories now being brought to light by historians today.  Smashing Times were delighted to link with historians including Sinead McCoole  and with Dublin Castle.  We created a number of performances and a film highlighting these stories of Irish women standing up for freedom. Masculinised memories of history are the norm and the role of powerful women are side-lined and forgotten so telling women’s stories is important. What struck me about the women’s stories from 1916 in Ireland was that many of the women fought not just for freedom, they also had a desire for a complete transformation of society that was radical in terms of its focus on social justice and gender equality.  There are many incredible women’s stories out there that deserve to be acknowledged by a wider audience.


We created a theatre performance called Constance and Her Friends which continues to tour. The play was adapted into a short film in 2020 called Courageous Women. In Constance and Her Friends, Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth) speaks to us about her memories of the 1916 Easter Rising, her time in prison as she remembers her friends Margaret Skinnider and Helena Moloney and her sister Eva Goore-Booth. Constance was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons and first female Cabinet Minister in Europe.


Women’s stories in the performance include  Margaret Skinnider (1893-1971) a revolutionary feminist and maths teacher who came to Dublin from Scotland at the age of 23 to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising and who remained in Ireland and campaigned for women’s rights in the trade union movement from the 1930s onwards; Helena Moloney (1884-1967), a member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and the Irish Citizen Army, stationed at City Hall Garrison during the 1916 Rising;   and Grace Evelyn Gifford (1888-1955), an illustrator and caricaturist who married Joseph Mary Plunkett, a writer and poet and  youngest signatory to the Irish proclamation, in Kilmainham Jail Chapel on May 4 1916 hours before his execution and who, after the Rising was involved in the War of Independence and Civil War and later worked as an artist.


If young women continue to read history books that tell mainly men’s stories from history, young women will learn they are worth ‘less’. Hearing stories about powerful women and giving women a stronger presence in history and cultural memories encourages self-respect and empowers both young women and men to become more active citizens in society.  Recognizing the dignity and accomplishments of women in the past can lead to higher self-esteem among girls and greater respect among boys and men and encourage young people to achieve more.


Women War and Peace


Arising out of our work telling hidden narratives from Irish history we then worked on a project titled Women War and Peace and the aim was to use creative processes of theatre and film to explore the experiences of women in Europe from WWII and to link those stories to the promotion of equality and peace in Europe today.  This project resulted in a theatre performance, a film and a book with a foreword by Marian Harkin, MEP. The book contains 23 women’s stories from WWII and the Holocaust – highlighting stories of women from Ireland, Spain, Germany and Poland who promoted liberty, spoke out against totalitarianism and advocated for peace.


We went on to create projects including The Comet Lines – Freedom Trails of Europe and discovered the stories of numerous  courageous Irish men and women who were active in the Resistance and in escape lines during WWII and who stood side-by-side with their fellow citizens from across Europe in the fight against tyranny. I think this is important because Ireland is on the edge of Europe and was neutral during WWII, yet we have numerous narratives of Irish women and men who went to Spain, Germany, Belgium,  and other countries and who  were involved on a humanitarian level and in many other ways right up to active combat as they stood up against Nazism, Fascism and totalitarianism.


The Comet Lines project  focused on ‘Escape Lines’ during WWII.  ‘Escape lines’ were secret World War II networks set up to assist Allied soldiers and citizens leave Nazi occupied territory during WWII. As part of the Comet Lines project I wrote a short play called Shadow of My Soul which highlights the stories of two women who ran the Comet Line. The Comet line is estimated to have taken in or repatriated some 800 Allied, mainly British servicemen who themselves were aided by over 3,000 civilians, approximately 700 of whom were arrested and some 290 shot dead or died during deportation.[1]  


The two women are Belgium woman Andrée Eugénie Adrienne de Jongh (1916-2007), nickname Dédée de Jongh, who set up the Comet Line and her friend Belgium woman Andrée ‘Nadine’ Dumon. At the age of 18, Nadine joined the resistance and became a key member and main courier and guide between Brussels and Paris  in the  Comet Escape Line from 1940 to 1942. She undertook all kinds of missions and at  one stage guided eleven airmen from Brussels to Paris, a remarkable task considering the dangers involved and her age at the time. Nadine was eventually betrayed and captured by the Germans on 11 August 1942 and imprisoned for over a year in a Belgium prison before being deported to  various camps in Germany including Ravensbruck and Mauthausen concentration camps between 1942 and 1945. She was liberated from Mauthausen in April 1945. Years later  Nadine wrote a book called Je ne vous ai pas oubliés published in 2018.  Nadine who is still alive was determined to remember all her friends and comrades who lost their lives during the war.


Mary Elmes


One of the stories from Women War and Peace that continues to inspire us is that of Irish woman  Mary Elmes (1908-2002). Mary was a Cork woman who was the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ for her work saving Jewish children from the Nazi gas chambers during World War II. Mary worked with refugees, firstly in Almería in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, and then in France during WWII, assisting Spanish refugees and then Jewish people interned in Rivesaltes Internment camp when France falls to the Nazis.


The story of Mary Elmes has many parallels today. Mary was actively involved in helping refugees who were fleeing from war and persecution. Today we are witnessing the flight of ordinary men, women and children from war and there is an onus on all of us to support in whatever way we can.


The story of Mary Elmes appears in an original play created by Smashing Times titled The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII. When Smashing Times first produced this play in 2016 a journalist called Clodagh Finn came to see the production. She was so moved by the evocative portrayal of Mary Elmes that she set about piecing together the real-life story of how this courageous Cork woman saved hundreds of lives in Franco’s Spain and Nazi-occupied France. She trawled archives in Paris, London and the US and managed to track down several of the refugees that Mary saved as children.


As a result Clodagh was able to publish a book in 2018 called A Time to Risk All, the incredible untold story of Mary Elmes, the Irish woman who saved children from Nazi Concentration Camps, now published by Gill Books and is on the bestseller list in Ireland. We are delighted with the news that Cork’s newest bridge has been named after Mary Elmes and was officially launched in September 2019.


Other women whose stories we tell  include Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan who parachuted into France for the SOE to work as a radio operator; Mary Cummins (1905-1999), a woman  from Dublin who joined the Belgium Resistance during WWII and Katherine (Kate) Anne Mc Carthy  (1895-1971), also known as Sr Marie-Laurence, a nun who ‘helped 120 allied servicemen escape from German occupied France  and was condemned to death by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp  where she nearly starved, contracted typhus and was four times designated for the crematorium by the ‘huntsman’ who selected women unfit for hard labour.[2]  She survived the war but many others did not. Women such as Irish woman Catherine Crean who was involved in the escape lines during the war  and who tragically died in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women and whose life we know very little above. We remember these brave women and men.


Courage in Adversity


A recent project was called  EU 1979: A People’s Parliament which uses a feminist framework, film and the creation of a virtual art exhibition to remember the first 1979 European parliamentary elections. We remembered the election through a celebration of the stories of the 67 powerful women MEPs elected at that time.   The exhibition featured work by artists from Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and France alongside the display of the 67 women’s stories.


One of the stories is that of French woman Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became the first president of the first European parliament elected by universal suffrage in 1979. We created a monologue adapted from a speech by Simone and this monologue was transformed into a short film titled Remembering the Shoah.


Remembering the Shoah is a short film adapted and directed by Mary Moynihan from The  Shoah – a speech by Simone Veil. Simone was a French holocaust survivor who championed women’s rights. Simone was 16 years old when she and her family were deported from France to concentration camps where most of her family perished. Simone remembers how in the camps, women showed an immense capacity for resistance and helped each other in generous, unselfish ways. Simone and her two sisters survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, while her parents and brother died in the camps.  After the war, Simone became French lawyer and politician and Minister for Health where she presides over the first bill legalizing abortion.  She has always fought to defend the rights of women, as well as prisoners  and children. In 1979, Simone became the first President of the European Parliament and was committed to a  Europe of solidarity in which such atrocities as happened during WWII  can never happen again.


What strikes me is the way in which ordinary people from  different countries across Europe came together during WWII  in solidarity with each other, ordinary people risking their lives for ‘strangers’, showing courage in times of adversity. These men and women, each in their own unique way, stood up for the right of all human beings to be treated equal and with respect.  I believe their stories need to be told at a wider level to inspire the importance of working together to promote democracy, peace and equality for all.  This solidarity of people in the resistance and in escape lines during WWII underpins the founding of the EU which was set up to end the wars between European countries, to promote freedom and peace as well as economic and political unity.


Visions for the Future


The theme of ‘performing citizenship’ is very relevant at present. As citizens we continue to lose our rights because of economic globilisation which is disempowering nation states and because of the rapidly increasing gaps between rich and poor both within and across nation states.


Going forward the idea of citizenship may be to advocate for a balance between political and economic agendas and the human rights agenda. Covid-19 has brought into sharper focus the inequalities that exist. It has however, also highlighted the importance to all of us of  interdependence and connectivity, within Ireland, and particularly between Ireland and Northern Ireland and across Europe.  We, as citizens, can all play a part in standing up for equal citizenship and equality for all people and respect for the planet we live on.


Simone Veil said we cannot underestimate the fragility of peace and democracy. Telling stories through the arts and performing the lived experiences of people who stood up and risked their lives for the rights of others and who fought against intolerance and hatred and for a better future is a way to pass on values of freedom, democracy, equality and peace today and  that is what we do in Smashing Times.


Antonin Artaud has written, “all that is in love, in crime, in war, or in madness, the theater must give it back to us, if it wishes to recover its need “. The arts, while not required to, can illuminate values that matter for our word today especially when they are under attack.

Citizenship is not solely defined in a conventional way by place, origin or nation.  It can be about different ways of belonging and different ways of representation taking in urban, rural, multicultural, intercultural, and transnational identities. It can and needs to be seen as fluid and ever-changing, crossing borders and identities. Citizenship needs self-empowerment so we can act as citizens and take action for transformation. Then we reach out to build alliances for collective action across social, cultural, economic, political and  institutional systems. As citizens we come together to engage, to act, to create and to transform and that is what we do in the arts. In the arts we are working on new ways of making art that is participatory and inclusive of diverse narratives and communities. The arts can be used to focus on the performativity of equality, rights and values  through the medium of bodies,  space and content


When artists create new work that reflects on or challenges the world we live in that in itself is an act of citizenship, an attempt to create or bring to light previously hidden or new emerging acts of agency. The arts are about bringing people together and creating new forms of belonging which is a form of citizen action crossing boundaries of ethnicity, origin, and gender.


How are we claiming our rights as a citizenship through a play or film. By reclaiming and highlighting  stories of strong women of courage for example,  this performative act becomes an act of citizenship. The stories show the agency of women, the active engagement in changing the world around them, It becomes about the right to speak, to be heard, to participate, to not be denied, oppressed or crushed by the dominant society but to stand up and challenged on a personal level which becomes political. If a community who are experiencing marginalisation use the arts to highlight their lack of rights, they are in the act of challenging with a view to transforming the political and social landscape around them, acting as citizens through their actions. Here, public space comes into play: through the demonstration, participants collectively become manifest in urban space, turning the streets into a stage for their claims, visible for everybody to see, ‘transform[ing] them into temporary places of urban citizenship’ (Lanz 2016, p. 489).


Caribbean-American poet and writer Audre Lorde described herself in many different ways to emphasise the fact that women are multi-faceted and complex and cannot be boxed in.  She referred to herself as a lesbian, feminist, warrior, civil rights activist, writer and poet whose work fuses the personal with the political, and encouraged others to express their own power from within and to blend the personal with the political. She always introduced herself with a long list to show the complexity of women, the multitudes we contain and that there is no need to prioritise one aspect of identity over another.


Women’s stories and experiences continue to be represented through the codes of a phallocentric discourse’[3] and the right to a ‘multi-faceted’ representative of woman or diverse genders is an essential component of women achieving full rights and citizenship in society.


Question facing us today is how can the arts continue to reflect the reality of people’s lived experiences, to continue to push beyond the dominant discourses,  and express the powerful images within us. We need to keep our focus on the simple idea of storytelling. ‘Stories are attempts to share our values and beliefs. Storytelling is worthwhile when it shares what we stand for, not what we do’. In Smashing Times storytelling is a key part of what we do. Theatre and film can be effective and important tools for promoting equality in today’s society because they are places where we actively choose to listen to someone else’s story.  In Smashing Times we use  storytelling workshops, theatre performances, films and books,  to gather, share and tell stories that promote human rights.   The question remains of whose story is told and who decides?



Mary Moynihan

Writer, Theatre and Film-Maker

Artistic Director, Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality


June 2022