Frank McGuinness

This article is about the Irish playwright. For the Australian journalist and newspaper editor, see Frank McGuinness (journalist).
Frank McGuinness
Born (1953-07-29) 29 July 1953
Buncrana, County Donegal, Ireland
Occupation Playwright, poet, translator
Nationality Irish
Genre Drama, Poetry
Notable works The Factory Girls,
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me,
Dolly West's Kitchen

Professor Frank McGuinness[1][2] (born 1953) is an Irish writer. As well as his own works, which include The Factory Girls, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and Dolly West's Kitchen, he is recognised for a "strong record of adapting literary classics, having translated the plays of Racine, Sophocles, Ibsen, Garcia Lorca, and Strindberg to critical acclaim".[3] McGuinness has been Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin (UCD) since 2007.[1]


McGuinness was born in Buncrana, a town located on the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal, Ireland. He was educated locally and at University College Dublin, where he studied Pure English and medieval studies to postgraduate level.

He first came to prominence with his play The Factory Girls, but established his reputation with his play about World War I, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which was staged in Dublin's Abbey Theatre and internationally. The play made a name for him when it was performed at Hampstead Theatre, drawing comments about McGuinness's Irish Catholic background.[4] It won numerous awards including the London Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright for McGuinness and the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. He has also written new versions of classic dramas, including works by Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Euripides, adapting the literal translations of others.[5] In addition, he wrote the screenplay for the film Dancing at Lughnasa, adapting the stage play by fellow Ulsterman Brian Friel.

McGuinness's first poetry anthology, Booterstown, was published in 1994. Several of his poems have been recorded by Marianne Faithfull, including Electra, After the Ceasefire and The Wedding.

McGuinness previously lectured in Linguistics and Drama at the University of Ulster, Medieval Studies at University College, Dublin and English at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Then he was a writer-in-residence lecturing at University College Dublin before being appointed Professor of Creative Writing in the School of English, Drama and Film there.[1]

Original plays

Frank McGuinness has explained that: "My earliest writing was ... song writing. I would have loved to have been ... Paul McCartney ... Joni Mitchell."[6] Desiring to write something "substantial", however, he "tossed a coin" between a play and a novel, and decided to write a play.[6] The Glass God, a one-act play written by McGuinness for the company Platform Group Theatre, was premiered at the Lourdes Hall Theatre in Dublin in 1982. It was one of three one-act plays presented under the collective title of Shrapnel.

McGuinness' first full-length play, The Factory Girls, also premiered in 1982, and dealt with a group of female workers facing redundancy from a small town in Donegal. McGuinness explained that he was inspired by "the women in [his] family".[7] A critic has highlighted "its Wednesday to Sunday time frame", which betrays a Catholic imagery, as this is in fact "a passion play".[8] "When I wrote 'The Factory Girls'," McGuiness has explained, "I desperately wanted to bring across the audience a sense that I came from a sophisticated background, I come from a background where language is very dangerous, where language is very layered."[9]

His second play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme, was first staged in 1985. The play, about a group of Protestant soldiers in the First World War, was not primarily political in intent, but, according to the playwright, was originally inspired by "a great story".[6] Observe the Sons of Ulster has been described as "a theater of ghosts", a play where "a community is figured as spectral".[10]

The play which followed, Innocence, dealt with the painter Caravaggio. It took its name from one of his paintings, The Sacrifice of Isaak, about the Biblical story of the father whose faith is tested by God's request that he kill his son. In the painting, a sheep watches the sacrifice about to take place, and looks appalled at human cruelty, its innocence shattered. McGuinness was inspired by "this innocent sheep" who, at the end of the story, will be sacrificed instead of the child. "Only Caravaggio would remember the sheep" in the story, McGuinness says.[6]

His next play, Carthaginians, premiered in 1989, was concerned with the Bloody Sunday events in Northern Ireland. In 1972, in Derry, British soldiers shot unarmed civilians who were taking part in a march against internment, and killed 14 people. McGuinness has described Carthaginians as "My play on the Catholic imagination...", stating that "the key word in [the play] is the word 'perhaps'".[6] It has been claimed that this play should be placed primarily "within a body of translations and adaptations of ancient Greek tragedy in the Irish theatre of the 1980s and 1990s".[11]

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, first staged in 1992, is a play about the 1986 Lebanon hostage crisis. Many critics have pointed out that Ibsen is the main influence in the plays of McGuinness, something corroborated by the writer himself, who has also explained that "... there is of course another influence, that of Shakespeare...".[6] It was this influence that triggered the composition of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. In the author's own words: "I decided, right, lets grab the unicorn by the horn, and see what happens".

McGuinness has declared that he "wanted to construct a five act Shakespearean play", to use "narrative in a way that I hope no one had done before". He has described the play as "a big brute", adding that, among his works to date, "I suspect 'this play will last'".[6]

The play Dolly West's Kitchen, premiered in 1999, is set during the Second World War in Buncrana. This time was euphemistically referred to in the Republic of Ireland as "The Emergency". McGuinness has explained that the arrival of US troops into the town of Buncrana was not only an invasion in terms of the military presence, but also an "invasion of sexuality", as the soldiers made quite an impression in the town. But the main theme in the play "... was to do with a gigantic sorrow in my life, which is that my mother died." This was the heart of the story, because, McGuinness explained, when the mother dies, "the children have to grow up".[6]

The play Gates of Gold, premiered in 2002, was commissioned by The Gate Theatre in Dublin to celebrate its anniversary. The theatre was founded by Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, who were lifelong partners in life and work. McGuinness has explained that he "wanted to write a play that was a great celebration of homosexual marriage, love, partnership". The playwright has a drawing of MacLiammoir, by Norah McGuinness, in his sitting room, a work "which I bought with the royalties of the Factory Girls" so the actor is a constant presence in McGuinness' life. Gates of Gold looks at the dying days of MacLiammoir, because McGuinness wanted to write "something darker and stranger", and less predictable.[6]

Premiered in 2007, There Came a Gipsy Riding asks the question of "how do you survive the greatest loss, the loss of a child...", to conclude that "you don't recover, but you do learn to live with it".[6] A critic described this "impressive drama" as "a concentrated piece that intricately dissects a middle-class family at war with itself following the suicide of one of their three children".[12]

The play The Hanging Gardens, premiered in 2007, is concerned with Alzheimer's disease, and the devastating effect it has on its sufferers and the people around them. McGuinness explained that: "I hope the audience laughs. And that they’re shocked. I try to give them something more than they expect." [13] One reviewer declared that the play "holds us, moves us, alarms us."[14]


McGuinness is as well known for his adaptations as for his original plays. He has adapted classics by Sophocles, Racine, Ibsen, Valle-Inclan, or Lorca, as well as short works by Strinberg and Pirandello, a short story by James Joyce, and novels by Stoker and Du Maurier. His ability to distill the raw force from classic Greek drama, in particular, has been noted by critics. He sometimes takes noticeable liberties in his adaptations, in order to strengthen characterisation --for example by making the alienated protagonist of 'Rebecca' into an Anglo-Irish woman from a once privileged family-- or to underline the theme of the play --for example in 'Rebecca' "I've invented a scene in which Mrs Danvers confronts Max and says, 'You loved her, but she didn't love you'",[15] or in 'Barbaric Commedies', a play about a world of amoral grotesquerie, he added a sexual assault scene. Some of these liberties have been controversial.[16] By and large, McGuinness' adaptations have been hailed as reworkings that "breath[e] life" into the originals.[17]


Frank McGuinness began his career as a poet. As a university student, he has explained, "I sent some poems to the 'Irish Press' and the wonderful [general editor] David Marcus wrote back to me saying I’m going to publish them and ‘You are a writer’. He didn’t know what he was unleashing but that was the beginning really. A terrific thing to say when you’re 20 or 21. And I went from there".[18] 'Bootherstown' (1994), is rooted in the town of the same name; 'The Stone Jug' (2003) is a sequence of sixty sonnets; 'Dulse' (2008), takes its name from a Latin word meating 'sweet', which is also the name of an edible seaweed used in Ireland. Broadly, McGuinness poetic style is characterised by the use of clear solid unrhymed lines designed to echo in the mind of the listener or reader. The poems often seek to organise emotion, and sometimes represent probing psychological sketches. They are concerned with relationships, events, and the significance of the everyday. The poems are snapshots, often inspired by personal experience,[19] but sometimes created to supplement or assist in delineating fictional characters for his plays.[20] One critic has claimed that McGuinness's poetic work is characterised by its "reliance on dramatic monologue and on intense lyricism".[21]


Frank McGuinness’ first novel, ‘Arimathea’, was published in 2013. It has been described as “[a] story of salvation”.[22] The book is set in a village in Donegal in 1950, registering the effect of the arrival of an Italian painter who “came from out foreign and . . . spoke wild funny”.[23] The story, told from the point of view of various characters, is inspired by a historic Italian artist who was commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross in the catholic church of Buncrana in the 1900s. McGuinness wrote the book as research for his play The Hanging Gardens, but never thought it would be published as a novel. The story of the play deals with a novelist who contracts Alzheimer’s disease, and progressively loses control of his mind; and in order to understand the character better, McGuinness decided to try to write a novel that that man could have written, and the result was 'Arimathea'.[9] In addition to this piece of work, McGuinness also conducted other research for the play, by interviewing people with experience of elderly parents being affected by Alzheimer’s disease.[13]

While one reviewer claimed that “there is nothing like [this novel] in the history of Irish fiction”,[24] another stated that Arimathea is “a distinctively Irish book, and one in which echoes of Joyce vie with those of Máirtín Ó Cadhain”.[25] Many commentators pointed out that this choral novel, told in a series of monologues, makes good use of Frank McGuinness’ experience in the theatre, including his ability to render individualised voices. His background as a poet may also have been relevant to Arimathea’s investment on suggestion as method and silence as idea. “[T]he final effect” of the novel, as one reviewer put it, “is to lead the reader to consider those voices not yet heard, and the private agonies that are never shared”.[26]

Short Fiction

McGuinness’ short story “Paprika” was published in 2014. It appeared in a collection of new stories by Irish writers. "Paprika" is a tale of murder, centred on a disgruntled, mentally unstable operatic white tenor, who is currently playing the role of Othello in an opera, wearing blackface.[27] The story is told through “the pompous voice” of the protagonist, “who veers between grandiosity and despair”. Structured as a fluid but self-conscious monologue, the piece has various levels of association, starting from a subversion ─or an update─ of the plot of Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’, including an investigation on the performance of identity, dissecting the 'logic' of inequality, and employing “[t]he shards of childhood”, to “pierce the narrative in an unusual and thought-provoking [way].”[28]


Frank McGuinness’s first opera libretto was Thebans, produced in 2014 at the English National Opera in London. The opera is a version of the trilogy of plays by Sophocles. He was invited to write the libretto by composer Julian Anderson. Adapting this substantial body of work onto a single story 100 minutes long was a considerable challenge. Recalling his initial conversations with the composer, McGuinness explained: “The first thing I said was: I know it will have to be much, much shorter. We looked at a two-page speech. "I can get this down to six lines," I told him – and then did just that.”[29] The Theban trilogy, made of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, has been occasionally performed as a chronologically ordered, three-play show. For his version, McGuinness made the decision to change the traditional order in the story. He explained that “I've always thought that putting [the play Antigone] at the end of the evening short-changes it remarkably. Although it's the final part of the trilogy, it never feels like the end; in fact, it almost feels as if it were by a different writer.”[29] While some critics did not approve of the switch, they still described the opera as “distinctly impressive”.[30]

McGuinness’ priority in producing the libretto was to make the original text accessible to a contemporary audience. “I'm trying to make this accessible", McGuinness declared, "and to write as beautiful a text as I can for the singers to sing. And that is what I think they are, these stories that have haunted us: they are something beautiful, something brutal, and the beauty and brutality confound each other.”[29] The original trilogy is “revered as a foundational document of western civilisation”, and one of the main achievements of this “dazzling new opera”, a reviewer pointed out, was that “it blows apart this crippling reverence and presents the drama afresh” [31]

One reviewer underlined the fact that “McGuinness has whittled Sophocles’s plays down to a succession of very short, simple lines that can be easily heard when sung across an auditorium”, and that “Anderson’s music fills the emotional space around these lines”, to conclude that “[f]or all the antiquity of its roots, Thebans may point to the future of opera”.[32] Another reviewer declared that Frank McGuinness “has supplied what seems an eminently settable, elegant condensation of the drama”, and that the opera as a whole offers “[t]he superb assurance of the writing metallically intent but underpinned by a novel harmonic richness”.[33]

McGuinness on writing

A writer's task, McGuiness declared in 2015, is "to do something that no one has done before, to discover".[34] In the same interview, he added that: "The enquiring mind, the radical mind, will always be ill at ease about what is said about a particular subject."[34]

Awards and honours

Source for entries 1985-1999:[35]

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

List of works









  1. 1 2 3 "McGuinness named Professor of Creative Writing at UCD". UCD. Retrieved 22 June 2007.
  2. "Bloomsday Centenary Public Lecture Series". UCD. Retrieved on 3 June 2004.
  3. 1 2 "Passion, betrayal and hypocrisy in new version of Ibsen's 'Ghosts' at Town Hall". Galway City Tribune. Retrieved on 13 May 2011.
  4. Maxwell, Dominic. "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Hampstead Theatre, NW3". The Times. Retrieved on 25 June 2009.
  5. Higgins, Charlotte. "Frank McGuinness: 'I'm not entirely respectable. I couldn't be'". The Guardian. Retrieved on 18 October 2008.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "Playwrights in Profile Frank McGuinness - RTÉ Drama/Drama on One". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  7. "Playwrights in Profile: Frank McGuinness" (RTĒ Radio, 2013)
  8. Lojek, Helen (2004), Contexts for Frank McGuinness's Drama, CUA Press, p. 58, ISBN 978-0-8132-1356-9
  9. 1 2 "Arena - Frank McGuinness Public Interview". YouTube. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  10. Tom Herron, Dead Men Talking: Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme Éire-Ireland. Vol 39: 1&2 (Spring/Summer 2004): 136-62.
  11. "Review of Carthaginians" [at Millenium Forum, Derry, 2012, Directed by Adrian Dunbar] Liza Fitzhpatrick. 23 February 2015.
  12. Philip Fisher (2007). "Theatre review: There Came a Gypsy Riding at Almeida". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  13. 1 2 "A novel idea for veteran playwright McGuinness". October 22, 2013. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  14. Dominic Cavendish (October 13, 2013). "The Hanging Gardens at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  15. "Rebecca's secrets". The Independent. January 12, 2005. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  16. Joe Jackson (September 28, 2000). "BARBARISM AT THE ABBEY?". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  17. Joseph Hurley (February 24, 1998). "Theater Review McGuinness's vision breathes life into Sophocles' 'Electra' — Irish Echo". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  18. "Frank McGuinness in Conversation with Mary de Courcy". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  19. "Frank McGuinness 'The Palm of His Hand'.mov". YouTube. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  20. See for example Frank McGuinness' draft poems for "Greta Garbo in Donegal", at the Special Collections Library, UCD. <accessed 1 sept 2016>
  21. Maurice Harmon. "In the Wings: The Poetry of Frank McGuinness". Irish University Review. Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2010): 126-137, p. 126.
  22. Eimear McBride (November 9, 2013). "Arimathea by Frank McGuinness – review". The Guardian. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  23. "Arimathea". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  24. Brian Lynch (September 22, 2013). "McGuinness's first novel unique in Irish fiction -". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  25. Christina Hunt Mahoney (November 9, 2013). "Frank McGuinness: master of a novel form". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  26. Carol Taaffe. "Gianni in Buncrana". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  27. “Paprika”, in Surge: New Writing from Ireland, O'Brien Press, October 13, 2014, ISBN 978-1-84717-703-2 The story was reproduced in The Irish Times online: "Paprika, a new short story by Frank McGuinness". November 17, 2014. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  28. Sarah Gilmartin (December 22, 2014). "Surge: New Writing from Ireland - Shards of glass and solid bricks in a winning collection". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  29. 1 2 3 Frank McGuinness (April 30, 2014). "Frank McGuinness: how I turned Oedipus into an opera". The Guardian. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  30. Michael White (May 5, 2014). "A Review of Julian Anderson's 'Thebans' for the English National Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  31. Guy Dammann (May 5, 2014). "Thebans review – Julian Anderson's dazzling new opera for ENO". The Guardian. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  32. "Thebans: A Triumphant World Première At ENO". May 5, 2014. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  33. Paul Driver (May 11, 2014). "Pain of thrones". Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  34. 1 2 "UCD Faces of Research - Frank McGuinness". YouTube. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  35. Helen Lojek (2004). Contexts for Frank McGuinness's Drama. CUA Press. p. xvi. Retrieved May 29, 2014.
  36. Rose Doyle (February 13, 2013). "Living here: Playwright and poet Frank McGuinness in Booterstown, Co Dublin". The Irish Times. Retrieved May 29, 2014.
  37. "McGuinness honoured with 2014 Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Achievement in Irish Literature". University College Dublin. 14 February 2014. Retrieved May 29, 2014.
  38. Marlowe, Sam. "Yerma".The Times. Retrieved on 30 August 2006. "The play, in Frank McGuinness's sinewy translation, sets the sacred against the profane, sensuality against repression and duty against instinct".
  39. Frank McGuinness, from Euripides. 'Hecuba'. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
  40. Frank McGuinness, after Racine. 'Phaedra'. London: Faber & Faber, 2006.
  41. McBride, Charlie. "‘Stunning reworking’ of Ibsen’s Ghosts for Town Hall". Galway Advertiser. Retrieved on 5 May 2011.
  42. 'Thebans - Opera in Three Acts', libretto By Frank Mcguinness after Sophocles, set to music by Julian Anderson. London: Faber, 2015.

Further reading

External links

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