Jo, who died on Christmas Eve in a traffic accident in Co. Wicklow, aged 62, was born in London and lived in Dublin from the age of 12, before moving to Belfast in 1996, where she became a highly influential figure in the Northern Ireland arts scene.
She brought her passionate interest in cultural politics and her experience of working as a playwright and director in the community theatre sector in Dublin to Belfast, where she worked with communities impacted by the Troubles, creating theatre, facilitating drama and creative writing workshops, and establishing arts-based training programmes for community, health and education workers. She wrote for professional as well as community theatre companies and was Creative Producer for Kabosh Productions from 2005-2008, where she produced work that questioned ‘what theatre is and where it takes place’.
In 1999 Jo Egan created and developed the concept for ‘The Wedding Community Play’, written by Marie Jones and Martin Lynch. The project was groundbreaking and marked a milestone in the development of community arts practice in Belfast. The story of a cross-community marriage, the play brought together groups from a flashpoint interface area in east Belfast in a very direct way, performed as it was by members of Catholic and Protestant community theatre groups and played out in their actual homes in the Short Strand area of the city.
In a later interview for ‘In Our Time – Creative Arts Within Reach’ for Northern Visions, she reflected on the impact of ‘The Wedding Community Play’:
“We didn’t really know what we were doing, but what we did know was that in the past people had been asked to come together in cross community projects and ‘love’ each other and everything would be forgotten and they were going to have this deep respect for each other and we didn’t ask anybody to do that, what we said was ‘we just want you to work together’.”
In 2015, alongside fellow theatre activist Fionnuala Kennedy, she founded MACHA Productions, to ‘democratise cultural expression’ and use theatre to give a voice to marginalized communities and individuals. In 2018, as Artistic Director of MACHA Productions, she brought to the stages of the Playhouse Theatre in Derry-Londonderry and the Brian Friel Theatre in Belfast one of her most highly acclaimed works, ‘The Crack in Everything’, written during her time as artist-in-residence at the Playhouse. An edited version of this powerful and moving play, based on the real-life testimonies of close friends and relatives of six children who died in the Troubles, was presented to MPs at Westminster in June 2022.
Colleagues from across the arts sector in Northern Ireland have paid tribute to Jo Egan.
Theatre and Dance NI said: “We are so deeply sad and shocked that our dear friend and valued colleague Jo Egan has died tragically. Jo was one of our best and most talented theatre makers and practitioners. Her talent and contribution immeasurable and most certainly unfinished.”
The Playhouse called her “A brilliant playwright, producer and director … a tireless campaigner and champion of community voices. Her gift for storytelling and her boundless compassion and kindness changed so many lives.”
The Lyric Theatre said they were “devastated to learn of the tragic loss of playwright Jo Egan”, and The Mac said “Jo and her talent for creating amazing theatre, mentoring and addressing social issues will be so missed.”
At the funeral service, which took place last Friday in Dublin, Jo Egan’s daughter, Kitty, read an extract from ‘Madame Geneva’, her typically insightful 2017 play about the beginnings of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, for which Kitty had been offered the lead role. She went on to speak of her mother as “a creative genius, a warrior of the heart and kind without any limit. A champion of the underdog, social justice and a massive advocate for women’s rights”, going on the say that the body of work she created, “gave a voice to so many whose voice had been taken or silenced”, and showed people “how to live and celebrate their creativity”.
Jo Egan’s death came just weeks after she read the first draft of her new script for a project at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
She is survived by her sisters Patsy and Maggie, brothers Charlie and Julian, and daughters Sinead, Rachel, Kitty and Antonia.