Access some areas
by Peter Crawley 10 February 2011
Almost forty-five years since it first opened on Abbey Street, the Peacock theatre is now finally accessible to wheelchair users. Visitors to the Abbey’s basement studio this year will have noticed a neat refurbishment to the space which includes the installation of a lift at its street level entrance leading down to its foyer which now has a fully-accessible toilet facility. However, there will be no ribbon-cutting ceremony or fanfare to mark the €80,000 refurbishment. So far, in fact, there has barely been a whisper about it.
“It’s more than forty years coming, frankly,” Abbey Director Fiach Mac Conghail, told ITM. The development corrects a situation he considered “a great source of moral embarrassment”. That embarrassment was heightened last April during “The Darkest Corner”, a programme of work investigating institutional abuse in Ireland, when the Peacock’s accessibility became the subject of a protest. Speaking on the subject, Mac Conghail can express both the vehemence of a disability rights campaigner and the mortification of somebody who had been associated with the problem. If that sounds contradictory, Mac Conghail has been able to reconcile both positions: last year he joined the protest over disabled access to the Peacock and picketed his own theatre. His actions have gone significantly beyond waving a placard, though.
While the Abbey theatre space has always been accessible to audience members requiring wheelchair and disability access, accessibility has been a long recognised but rarely highlighted issue at the Peacock. Built well before 1997, when the Building Regulations were amended to ensure “adequate provision shall be made to enable people with disabilities to safely and independently access and use a building”, the Peacock was not in violation of any legal requirements. “It came to a head during No Escape [Mary Raferty’s docudrama on the Ryan Report],” Mac Conghail says, “when a lot of survivors couldn’t see the work… And that was a shocking indictment.”
While a performance of No Escape was quickly arranged for the fully-accessible Liberty Hall, Mac Conghail promised disability activists that the theatre would redress the long-term situation with the Peacock, and subsequently met with the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin. Keogan Architects, who designed the Abbey auditorium’s refurbishment in 2005, were retained to address the Peacock’s requirements while the Abbey consulted with disability experts for advice. The €80,000 refurbishment was paid for from the €500,000 capital grant the Abbey received from the Hanafin’s department in 2010.
Whether or not the Peacock can now be termed “accessible” is a vexed question. The Peacock is now fully compliant with Dublin City Council regulations and it has been issued a Disability Access Certificate. But Mac Conghail understands that not everyone is content with the extent of those regulations. So, while the Peacock can accommodate most wheelchair users in the loge area (which is not available to other audience members) and provide seats there for personal assistants, patrons with more complicated disabilities may still have difficulty accessing the theatre. Instead, the Peacock is now described as “partially accessible”.
“It’s the right thing to do and we’re not making a big deal about it,” Mac Conghail says of the quiet developments. In part, the continuing question of the Abbey’s relocation has allowed its directors to put architectural developments on a long finger, but Mac Conghail does not see the Peacock’s improvement as a sign the Abbey is resigned to staying put. “I wasn’t going to prevaricate about this for another while,” he says. “It’s a nice space, it’s an interesting theatre. While we wait for the sorting out the new building, morally I couldn’t have any reason to wait. It’s something that should have happened a while ago.”