I am of Ireland … and Dubai?

This post didn’t go in the direction I intended.

But I should be used to that. Unexpected but rewarding detours are part of my Irish experience, even now.

I started out wanting to tell you about I am of Ireland, a beautiful Irish design gallery housed online and in a 260-year-old stone barn, which we never would have encountered if its owner didn’t also run a fabulous Airbnb.

The gallery takes its name from a poem by William Butler Yeats that, in Anne Stevenson’s words, pits “an imaginary Ireland of legendary romance against Yeats’s Ireland, torn (as throughout its history) by political strife and bitterness.”

Listen to Yeats’s poem in Eithne Treanor’s voice against a backdrop of haunting images. Pay attention to the advert at the end of the short video.

Rise Up! A 1916 Celebration of Ireland in Two Parts
Ireland Awake: 1916–2016

April 22–23, 2016
The Madinat Theatre
Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Curious about the venue? I was.

A souk, it turns out, is a Middle Eastern marketplace or bazaar.

Souk Madinat Jumeirah supposedly recreates an ancient souk. In reality, it’s a fancy shopping mall in a luxury resort in Dubai that boasts a theatre and 25 restaurants.

So … why was a theatrical commemoration of Ireland’s Easter 1916 uprising staged in the United Arab Emirates?

Blame it on Pádraig Downey, “a proud Irish man, a Gaeilgeoir, a lover of Irish culture and history” – and a member of Dubai’s substantial Irish diaspora.

If you’re like me, you thought the Irish diaspora was mostly in Liverpool, New York, Boston, Newfoundland. But I’ve recently learned that more than 10,000 Irish expats live in UAE. Like Pádraig Downey, a lot of them moved there after the fall of the Celtic Tiger.

I shouldn’t be surprised so many Irish people live in Dubai that they have their own village. My friend Tracy, an Albertan who lives in Dubai with her husband Dale and their two daughters, tells me 85% of its 9+ million residents are from somewhere else. Tracy says,

“We are surrounded by expats from Asia, other Middle Eastern countries, all over Europe, North and South America. It’s an interesting place.”

Pádraig Downey says he went to Dubai on a whim, “thinking it would be for only a few months to escape the recession in Ireland.” He found a job as a teacher and drama director in an American school, and he stayed. Noticing a lack of quality theatre in the region, he founded the community theatre group Danú Dubai.

The company’s first production in 2013 was Dancing at Lughnasa. Downey had to “coax and coerce colleagues who had done some amateur drama to act in it.” He says:

“I booked a 180-seat theatre space at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, paid for out of my own pocket. I applied for licensing, got past the UAE censor, hired a carpenter to build the set, painted it myself, scraped together props including items from my home, asked a friend in New York to design a poster, emailed journalists begging them to feature us, enlisted theatre students to design and manage the tech, and got the Dubai Irish Society and Irish Embassy on board.”

To his surprise, the play sold out. He made his money back “with some left in the kitty for another.” Since then, Danú Dubai has staged more than a dozen productions, mostly by Irish playwrights.

They’ve also performed a Syrian play, and a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House using only Arab and Emirati actors.

Danú Dubai has given Downey opportunities to make friends with local people, which he says is atypical for expats in UAE. He says:

“I have developed a deep appreciation for the people here, and for their incredible land, history, culture and kindness.

We are all the same, regardless of religion or race, and theatre reminds us of this. In an age where people seek to build walls, theatre in Dubai is tearing them down.”

With a third of its population emigrating for the past two hundred years, those who can say “I am of Ireland” now live in every corner of the world.

Are you of Ireland? Where do you live?

2 Responses to “I am of Ireland … and Dubai?”

  1. Joan Conway

    Fascinating piece Lesley, you always stretch the imagination with your many textured posts.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Joan! I had fun with this one, as I usually do when I follow my curiosity.


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