The history of Grangegorman brought to the stage in ‘The Asylum Workshop’

Grangegorman is now home to the beautiful, open campus of Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin), designed by architect James Mary O’Connor and realising his vision of “opening up something that was once hidden”. 

Yet, for nearly 200 years, it was a formidable institution behind stone walls: an aspirational place of asylum and the treatment of mental illness, but also a place of medical mistreatment and traumatic incarceration.

The Asylum Workshop is a new documentary drama written by playwright Colin Murphy in conjunction with the final-year students of the B.A. (Hons) in Drama (Performance) at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

It first ran in December 2022 at The Black Box Theatre, on the new TU Dublin campus in Grangergorman, Dublin 7 and sold out immediately, such was the interest and intrigue surrounding the history of the site. 

This June, The Asylum Workshop returns for an 11 performance revival, with TU Dublin Conservatoire giving the former students their first paying roles as professional actors.

This is an unprecedented act of support and faith on the part of TU Dublin in both the quality of the production, the significance of the subject matter – for the university as well as the country – and the sophistication and sensitivity with which the subject is handled by the play and the cast. 

Peter McDermott, TU Dublin drama lecturer and Director of The Asylum Workshop, says: 

“We were overwhelmed by both the demand for tickets and by the responses from those lucky enough to see the production. Many spoke about their memories of the hospital, of relatives who had been admitted there, sometimes never to come out again. In the wake of other institutional neglect, such as that occurred in industrial schools and mother-and-baby homes, some spoke of how the play represented a national crisis that we are still coming to terms with. The immediacy of today’s young actors directly confronting a very difficult chapter in Ireland’s past was also very impactful for many — Ireland’s future grappling with Ireland’s past on the very ground where it happened, in order to try to move into the future more wisely.”

Drawing on unique access to the hospital archives, The Asylum Workshop weaves together verbatim letters and testaments from patients and families, reports from doctors and nurses, and expert analysis from historians and psychiatrists.

Colin Murphy frames these materials as questions about the relationship between the hospital and Irish society’s values and priorities in the 20th century.

Colin Murphy, Playwright, says: 

For a long, long time, Grangegorman was closed – closed off from the world, behind high walls, forbidding and forgotten. At the heart of architect James Mary O’Connor’s masterplan for campus was the idea of opening Grangegorman up: inviting the communities and city around it inside and through the campus. That’s the philosophy behind Grangegorman Histories and the depositing of the hospital’s archives in the National Archives as well: the opening of an extraordinary part of our history and heritage to the public. And that’s the idea behind the Conservatoire’s commissioning of a play based on that history. 

“By bringing that history and archive to the stage, by bringing voices from the hospital’s past to life in the bodies of today’s students, and by bringing audiences into the grounds to see this performed, we aim to fulfil that promise of the opening of Grangegorman. We aim to shine light into dark corners and blow the dust off forgotten archives, and find humanity, resilience and even some joy amongst the untold stories of those who lived behind those walls.”

In The Asylum Workshop, acting and performance converge with the pursuit of knowledge. This production offers moving storytelling, excellent acting, beauty and heartbreak, social debate, pertinent issues in psychiatry, architecture and history, all at the same time. It is no wonder that the production emerged from an educational context. 

Perhaps more importantly, it has had such an impact on audiences at this particular moment in Ireland that it has had to move beyond the confines of the course and the university and, like the Grangegorman site itself, open itself to the wider world.

Don’t miss this special event by Ireland’s foremost writer of documentary theatre, now revived for 11 performances only between 14th – 24th June 2023 at The Black Box Theatre, East Quad, TU Dublin, Grangegorman

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