Jailed playwright Margaretta D'Arcy is a heroine of pacifism

D'Arcy is more than an elderly firebrand. Niall Carson/PA

Much has been made about the power of social media to improve democratic participation. But as with medicines and drugs, no heavily used technologies are without their side effects. This is particularly true in times of crisis, whether for crowds or individuals. And the current plight of an elderly Irish playwright and peace campaigner, whose reputation is on the line, may be no exception to this rule.

Outside the Irish Republic, it may be that Margaretta D’Arcy is best known in an adjunct role as the wife and partner of the celebrated English playwright John Arden, who died in their adopted hometown of Galway in 2012.

But, that being the case, her current predicament of a three-month term in Limerick Prison for protesting against military use of civilian Shannon Airport promises to be profoundly ironic. It might even finally mark her historically in her own right as just another radical firebrand obsessed with the geopolitical success of the US and its liberal democratic allies.

Evidential grist for that is easily found in the electronic mills of Google. Just search her name via “images” and the scroll-down panorama becomes swamped by pictures of protests against her jailing for protesting. But the 79-year-old D’Arcy could well be facing much worse than a few weeks in prison, bad enough as that is.

Arden, D'Arcy and their ten-year-old son Jacob protesting in 1972. PA Archive

There is a cracking classic protest picture of D’Arcy, Arden and their son Jacob in the Google collection, one of the few in black and white. It’s 1972 and they are outside London’s Aldwych Theatre, at that time home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The great institution had banned them from rehearsals of their co-authored trilogy The Island of the Mighty after they disputed the director’s interpretation as pro-imperialist, so they picketed the audience.

It was the last piece they wrote for mainstream theatre anywhere, either together or separately. They moved to live in Ireland permanently, trailed by nasty insinuations from conservative theatre critics that D’Arcy had ruined Arden’s prospects of being among the very greatest dramatists.

They co-authored culturally, socially and politically radical shows for professional and amateur community theatre production, for children, and for radio. The best known became the six-part 1977 Non-stop Connolly Show, celebrating the struggles of Irish-born republican and socialist James Connolly, and in 1988 the BBC radio series Whose is the Kingdom?, an epic communistic retelling of Christian history.

Increasingly Margaretta D’Arcy’s stalwart dedication to theatre for radical change was strongly complemented by her film-making, pirate radio production and a diversely creative activist repertoire. She spent 18 years off and on supporting and protesting in another trespass show, the fearsomely disputed spectacle of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. In 1982 she became an invited founder member of Women in Media & Entertainment (WIME), which achieved consultant status at the UN. In the early-1990s she started up annual seasons of Radio Pirate-Woman broadcasts from her kitchen. And there’s more.

Each in its different way remains a triumph of feminist cultural radicalism driven by a particularly imaginative disordering. But is all that really already fading in light of those brightly startling images glittering the web following her home arrest on 15 January 2014 for refusing not to enter the airfield in question again?

There she is behind her walking frame, unlit fag clamped by two fingers, eyeing the cameras through the cool glaze of a very seasoned professional performer and wearing the bright orange boiler suit uniform of Guantanamo Bay. And again near the airport runway brandishing a placard.

Between January and September 2013, Shannon’s airport welcomed only 30 military landings from nine countries, compared to an enormous total of 336 US Air Force flights. This military dominance and its beyond-the-law “side effects” in Guantanamo and elsewhere is what D'Arcy was originally campaigning against. But now the flood of online images, stories and comment threatens to drown this fact, along with the amazing history of this heroine of pacifism.

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