Building (in) the Promised Land

Postcolonial Biblical Readings of Contemporary Irish Drama (2000-2015)

by Grzegorz Koneczniak (Author)
©2022 Monographs 312 Pages


This book offers new close readings of contemporary Irish drama in the context of postcolonial Biblical studies. Developing Christopher Morash’s historiographical metaphor of Babel, it combines appropriations of this and other selected Biblical themes of building found in plays by such authors as Malachy McKenna (Tillsonburg), Dermot Bolger (Ballymun Trilogy), Stacey Gregg (Shibboleth), Richard Dormer (Drum Belly) or Sebastian Barry (Tales of Ballycumber). The monograph explores the stances contributed by key scholars specialising in Irish drama and theatre (Christopher Morash, Shaun Richards, Helen Heusner Lojek), draws on the most recent findings within postcolonial Biblical criticism and touches upon the assumptions of subcreation studies (Mark J. P. Wolf).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Dramatic Buildings, Symbolic Building and the Promised Land: Biblical Master Narratives and Their Postcolonial Appropriations
  • 1. Dramatic Buildings, Symbolic Building
  • 2. The Bible and the (Irish) Postcolonial
  • Chapter Two Forces of Construction and Destruction in Tillsonburg by Malachy McKenna: Building upon Rock
  • 1. The Bunkhouse in the Promised Land: (A) Building upon the Rock
  • 2. Harvesting as Building
  • 3. Nature, Destruction and Revival, Circularity
  • 4. The Bunkhouse and Discursive Destruction
  • 5. The Bunkhouse: From Destruction to Construction, From Building on Sand to Building upon the Rock
  • Chapter Three Building (in) the Postcolonial Irish Underground: Drum Belly by Richard Dormer
  • 1. The Mafia, Irish Underground, and the Context of the Promised Land
  • 2. Sullivan and Neo-imperial Building in the Promised Land
  • 3. Irish Colonial Narratives and Postcolonial Appropriations in the Promised Land
  • 4. Building a Tower of Babel in the Promised Land
  • 5. On the Sacrificial Altar
  • Chapter Four Building and Survival in Dermot Bolger’s The Ballymun Trilogy
  • 1. Building the Promise of the Promised Land in From These Green Heights
  • 2. Surviving Before and After the Construction of the Promised Land in The Townlands of Brazil
  • 3. Surviving in Ballymun, Building Elsewhere: The Consequences of Lightning
  • Chapter Five The Wall of Babel: Building by Strangers in Shibboleth by Stacey Gregg
  • 1. Shibboleth and Stacey Gregg’s Considerations on Building the Tower of Babel
  • 2. The Wall and Meanings
  • 3. On a Construction Site, not in the Promised Land
  • 4. Building Stories on the Rock
  • 5. Mo Builds the Wall, the Wall kills Mo
  • 6. The Wall of Babel?
  • Chapter Six Entrapped Inside and Outside the Ivory Tower: Tales of Ballycumber by Sebastian Barry
  • 1. Nature in Building and Destruction
  • 2. Colonial Building, Postcolonial Consequences
  • 3. Buildings and Builders
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index of Names

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I would like to thank Edyta Lorek-Jezińska for reading the first version of this book, for the insightful and inspirational, even if critical and challenging, comments that have helped me to rearrange its contents, structure and interpretations. I am also grateful to Aleksander Bednarski for reading the second version of this book, and noticing and pointing out the significant loci for the development and completion of this project.

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“Building,” understood as a creative activity, the endeavour which relates not only to the physical acts of erecting new houses and other edifices but also to constructing new literatures and cultural formations of unifying anti-colonial force, is often metaphorically used to describe the artistic and intellectual developments within former colonial societies and their states. These developments frequently occur along with the foundation of new symbolic places, the loci of anti-colonial activities and their results, which perhaps may justify the use of “building” in writings about such processes. In this monograph the symbolic and associative dimensions of building – such activities and processes as those whose focus is on construction, fabrication, and creation – will be related to the importance of dramatic buildings and building-like constructions, and situated in the context of the biblical metanarrative of the Promised Land and selected cultural and literary appropriations of biblical themes of building. Such themes will be considered in terms of master narratives. Although the concept of a “master narrative” can be associated with such ideological constructs as “metanarrative” or “grand narrative,” as defined and used by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (originally published in French in 1979), its meaning in this study has been appropriated to account for significant narratives originally found in the Bible, treated as a literary masterpiece, and developed as independent or semi-independent historical, cultural and literary renditions of such stories in postcolonial contexts.1 Such biblical master narratives are thus treated as conceptual and interpretative referents found – on the levels of symbolism, abstraction, and metaphoric inversion2 – in the dramatic texts analysed. The overriding assumption is to examine the importance of literal, sensorily experienced buildings and other constructions, or creations, present on the stage and to interpret this significance on the level of the underlying ←11 | 12→concept, in the context of metaphorical and symbolic definitions and redefinitions of building within the combination of biblical and postcolonial studies.

The concept of building seems broad, with a lot of denotations and connotations; thus, the conceptual and contextual frameworks of the interpretation will be singled out. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines a builder as “a person who constructs something by putting parts or material together over a period of time” or, more generally or metaphorically, as “a person or thing that creates or develops a particular thing” (1998: 238). When transferred to the dramatic scenario, the second definition, on the one hand, gives freedom as to the apparent presence of the vast number of characters, for example on the stage, who can be said to be involved in the process of building; on the other hand, the vagueness of such a definition may lead to confusion caused by the thinking that each of the dramatis personae in a play is a builder, at least to some extent.

Only in some of the plays to be discussed, namely the ones belonging to The Ballymun Trilogy (2010) by Dermot Bolger and Shibboleth (2015) by Stacey Gregg, the building process, constituting the foreground or background, is presented in an explicit way and some of the characters there are builders or building experts in the literal senses of these words. In other plays, building activities are depicted on the level of abstraction, as developing the underground kingdom by Irish immigrants in the United States in Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly (2013), and eclipsed by other actions taken by characters on the stage. Yet, it can be maintained that all of the dramatic texts include symbolic builders and contain references to buildings and their constituent parts whose significance, as I would argue, should be foregrounded in interpretation. By way of illustration, some of such constructions play a significant role in the development of another character’s life story. Other buildings can be treated as silent witnesses to the development or degeneration of a given character. And there are still other buildings which, as will be argued, may symbolise internal and external conflicts, psychological composition of a figure on the stage and the problems he or she is facing.

The discussion of building processes, activities and outcomes will be situated within a two-fold context: the cultural rendition of the theme of the Promised Land found in the Old Testament and the postcolonial situation of Ireland, unique and specific within postcolonial studies. The former, biblical, context will further include cultural and literary adaptations of such themes of building as the construction and meaning of Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, the sacrificial altar used in the Binding of Isaac, the Tower of Ivory and the parable of building ←12 | 13→upon the rock.3 These, in their original contexts, functioned as the conceptual combination of literal and symbolic dimensions of building and will be used in the way they have been adapted predominantly in postcolonial readings, different from the original exegesis and appropriated within postcolonial biblical studies. This recently developing field of research is represented by such contributions as The Postcolonial Bible (1998) or Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (2005). The metaphor of building upon the rock and sand, only on the abstract and symbolic levels of how building is understood, can be linked to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the figure who, having set free from his father’s influence, begins to lead his life according to his own principles, and this life collapses. It should be stressed that those themes will not be treated as totalising interpretative keys: the aim of this study is to show how they function in the selected plays along with other symbolic meanings of building and buildings.

One of the major directions of criticism, in terms of the historiographic perspective, is the concept of examining recent Irish drama within the distant metaphor of the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel. Such an examination is offered by Christopher Morash (see 2002: 242–271) and, to some extent, Declan Kiberd (see 1995: 636). The assumption underlying this study is that the cultural, and specifically postcolonial, appropriation of the master narrative of the Tower of Babel is only one of the themes of building found in contemporary Irish drama and other, originally biblical, master narratives of building are present, on the level of abstraction and postcolonial appropriation, too. I would thematically explore the Tower of Babel narrative and other biblical histories of building, originally found in the Bible, focusing on their new contextual and cultural adaptations and appropriations foregrounded or backgrounded in selected Irish plays from the beginning of the twenty-first century up to recent times. Biblical themes of building have evolved into various cultural and literary renditions of their original senses. Their discursive plurality might have stemmed ←13 | 14→from various approaches to the Bible – hardly treated now as a master literary text in an etymological sense.

Individual problems experienced by dramatic characters involved in building their Promised Lands or building in their Promised Land can be described with a few abstract nouns: dislocation, miscomprehension, unavoidable suffering, and ultimate loneliness. All of such dilemmas are faced by dramatic figures who, functioning in various kinds of entrapments, form part of communities existing in the dramatic portrayals of postcolonial Ireland. The plays to be analysed are set in contemporary times (maybe except for Drum Belly, set in 1969), specified in more or less detail, and most of them deal with the society, or its representatives, of postcolonial Ireland. The postcolonial aspects of contemporary Ireland will provide one of the contextual frameworks for the discussion of the dramatic texts – similarly considered within the present-day postcolonial discourse. Such a treatment of recent Irish drama is found in studies by influential researchers, for example Patrick Lonergan, Victor Merriman4 or Eamonn Jordan. The last mentioned scholar thus comments on the developing awareness of postcolonial and neocolonial issues in modern Irish drama – both built as a reaction to its domestic traditions and influenced by foreign dramaturgy:

While the late twentieth-century dramaturgy of Irish theatre must be traced back through Samuel Beckett to William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, Oscar Wilde and in particular John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey, it is clear that during the late 1950s and early 1960s new and different types of writing emerged; Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark (1961) and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) were the plays that most pronounce the emergence of a new approach to writing and performing for Irish theatre. […] The plays of the new era from the late 1950s forward were cognisant of developments in Europe and America, were intent on addressing subjects that were under-discussed, and were focused on confronting repression, injustice and the historical and contemporaneous implications of imperialism and colonization. (Jordan 2010: 5; emphasis mine)

Repercussions of colonising practices based upon imperial discourses have been haunting the Irish drama created in the twentieth-first century and the plays analysed in this book are no exception in that respect, even though direct connection of their plotlines and configurations of characters with the Irish colonial past and experience is not always easily noticed and requires detailed contextualisation.

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Neocolonialism, as part and parcel in the development of postcolonial states and societies, is understood in this study as the continuation of practices similar to those existing in colonial times (see Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2007: 146; cf. Buchholtz and Koneczniak 2009: 44–45). In the context of African postcolonial studies, Oseni Taiwo Afisi links neocolonialism to imperialism and colonialism: “Although these epochal events preceded one another, the methods and praxis of colonialism, imperialism, and neocolonialism are only slightly different. Their common denominators include social, economic, political, and cultural subjugations of the colonized” (“Neocolonialism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is worth noting that Afisi mentions Ireland and singles out its status within the development of imperialism in Europe, referring to Michael Parenti’s observations: “Western European imperialism first took place against other Europeans such as when Ireland became the first colony of what later became known as the British Empire” (Afisi; Parenti in Afisi, “Neocolonialism”).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the founders of postcolonial thought, when asked about neocolonialism by Robert Young in an interview, answered that it “is what happened after the beginning of the dismantling of colonialism proper, that is to say, old territorial imperialisms which began with the rise of monopoly industrial capitalism” (1991: 220). This points to economic implications underlying the development of neocolonialism, which, over ten years prior to the pronouncement of Spivak’s argument, had been noted in the case Ireland (see Walsh 1980: 66–72).

When we take into consideration the condition of Irish culture and recent Irish drama, it is worth pointing to Merriman’s essay “Decolonisation Postponed: The Theatre of Tiger Trash” (1999). Following the theory by Awam Ampka, Merriman seeks to adapt the general developmental pattern of “colonisation–anticolonialism–decolonisation” and “attempts to explore the success of Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr in terms of what it may tell us of cultural politics in independent Ireland at a time of increasing affluence” (1999: 305). He endeavours to demonstrate that the wide-ranging postcolonial condition, which also affects Ireland, eventually becomes tantamount to “the replacement of one elite by another, as the departing colonisers give way to a nascent bourgeois class,” and it “typically results in disillusion, voluntary exile or even incarceration for some of the most radical persons and groups in the new social order” (Merriman 1999: 305; cf. Howe 2000: 146).5

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Merriman finds the approach offered by Ampka applicable to the description of Irish theatre functioning in the context of neocoloniality at the end of the 1990s, as it “provides opportunities to open up discussion about the current state of neocolonialism, postcolonial consciousness and the prospects for decolonisation in contemporary Ireland” (1999: 311). In theatre, this state, as Merriman argues, is seen in the proliferation of “moments of violence and breakdown of human relationships from the deeply intimate to the broadly social, in ways which enable a deepening of audience understanding of the complexities of their conditions” (Merriman 1999: 312). Such, and other, themes are explored by Merriman in selected works by Carr – By the Bog of Cats and Portia Coughlan, which “travesty the experiences of the poor, urban and rural”; and by McDonagh – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West and The Cripple of Inishmaan, which “stage a sustained dystopic vision of a land of gratuitous violence, craven money-grubbing and crass amorality” (Merriman 1999: 313). According to Merriman, these (and other) works prove the relevance of thinking in terms of neocolonialism: “Ampka’s model suggests that neocolonialism repeats the practice of colonialism, and these plays demonstrate the cultural logic of such repetitions” (1999: 313).

Within the postcolonial and neocolonial contexts of the plays to be analysed in this study, cultural and literary uses of the biblical master narratives of construction will be adapted as the point of departure and as cultural appropriations existing along with other metaphorical6 and symbolic narratives of building. Considering plotlines, configurations of characters and their conflicts found in the worlds depicted by contemporary Irish playwrights seems a risky endeavour bearing in mind the general distrust towards grand narratives in poststructural and postcolonial thought. One of such voices of scepticism belongs to Martin Middeke and Peter Paul Schnierer, who are aware of the new phase in the development of Irish drama and theatre. The phase is characterised by “the collapse ←16 | 17→or interrogation of the grand narratives of ‘history,’ ‘religion,’ ‘nation,’ ‘progress,’ ‘community and the rigorous questioning of private and public institutions (‘family,’ ‘home,’ ‘church’)” (2010: xi; cf. Murphy 2010: 181–200).

In contrast, Eamonn Jordan points to the importance of “identity-forming narratives” in the development of Irish drama and notices the specificity of such “grand stories,” or rather their individual renditions, and links it to the Irish postcolonial status:

Identity-forming narratives were constructed out of the strictures and constraints of a postcolonial consciousness that is in part based on domination, violence, inclusion and exclusion, objectifications and legitimate grievance. In this instance the Irish dream was distinctly localized by a particular trajectory of history and universalized by the anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-authoritarian sensibilities as well as by the perceived lack of agency. Concurrently, myth/dream provided the dramaturgical impetus for plays to evade the trappings of realism and to consolidate something else, primitive, unconscious, that was not easily articulated. (Jordan 2010: 13)

The word “trappings” – as used by Jordan – has negative implications and refers to the limitations of realism, the reflection of reality which is no longer the necessary essence to be sought after by contemporary Irish playwrights. However, in the critical discussion of Irish dramas created and staged in the twenty-first century, worth noting is a locus for addressing other “trappings,” and possibilities at the same time. These might be related to the long-lasting Christian tradition whose arrival predated the onset and development of colonialism and whose current status and role are being questioned. The traces of this tradition are present or implied in conflicting forces of building and destruction in contemporary Irish drama – in their complex relationships with other master narratives which have originated from the specific context of Irish coloniality and postcoloniality.

As Anne F. O’Reilly observes, “[c]ultural narratives, whether great religious narratives or poetic or theatrical texts, offer horizons of understanding” and it “occurs where there is a fusion of horizons as the world of the individual is interpreted by the wider horizon of the cultural narrative, and he or she in turn interprets what is received” (O’Reilly 2004: 6). The Bible has become a common source of master narratives and cultural narratives. Some of them are currently used to show counter-discursive practices underlying postcolonial literatures, including drama. In such practices, the Bible and biblical themes are readdressed to voice individual sufferings and injustice experienced by the formerly, or perhaps ←17 | 18→still, colonised people. I would argue that these individual experiences can be interpreted within the context of master narratives of building.7

The Bible appears as one of the ideological tools formerly employed to justify the processes of subjugating and colonising people. Yet biblical themes, especially the master narrative of the Promised Land and other grand narratives of building in the Bible, frequently lay the foundations for the processes of defining and naming the cultural processes in the development of postcolonial societies, including the Irish. The plays selected for the discussion in this book have participated, more or less immediately, in such processes. I will demonstrate that, in the case of contemporary Irish drama, one can find distinctive postcolonial appropriations of the theme of the Promised Land – ones already employed to describe developments in Irish history, culture, and politics, while also manifesting themselves in single texts belonging to Irish literary heritage. This motif can be treated as a common aspect found in the dramatic works to be explored in this book. As regards Irish literature, and specifically drama, no comprehensive study addressing the theme of the Promised Land exists; the concept has appeared only in single cultural and literary, including dramatic, contexts discussed in Chapter One.8


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
symbolic meaning Ireland theatre Abbey Theatre cultural appropriation postcoloniality
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Grzegorz Koneczniak (Author)

Grzegorz Koneczniak is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anglophone Literature, Culture and Comparative Studies at the Faculty of Humanities, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruñ, Poland. He specialises in Irish literature and textual as well as editorial aspects of literary works.


Title: Building (in) the Promised Land
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314 pages