It was a year dominated by austerity, elections, emigration and unemployment. And yet the key event in Irish theatre this year was one of great ambition and hope.

At a time when the education system is buckling and prospects for graduates are the worst since the 1980s (and could well surpass that), Ireland’s first ever professional theatre academy opened its doors.

The opening of the Lir in Dublin, which I wrote about last week, was a bold and inspiring move at an extremely challenging time. In Irish theatre in 2012, it was the innovation of the year.

It was a year when inspiration was much needed, but often lacking. Irish theatre was never quite seduced by the boom, and has proven reasonably adept at questioning the values that underlay it. There have been probing works on the main stages, and innovative experiments on the fringe. But recent Irish theatre has lacked a master imagination. It is a long time since we have seen a new play to rival the best of John B Keane or Brian Friel or Tom Murphy. At times like these, we need one.

Perhaps it’s no longer possible. Or perhaps looking for such inspiration in a play is to restrict ourselves unduly. There was one show I saw this year that had the capacity to unite and inspire a national audience, that held a mirror up to Irish society and enriched it with its reflection. But it wasn’t a play.

Best show

In 1969, Sean Ó Riada performed a seminal trad concert at the Gaiety. In 2005, Liam Ó Maolnaí recorded an homage to Ó Riada’s earlier performance, titled Rian. And, this year, Michael Keegan Dolan and Ó Malonaí combined to stage an extraordinary piece of dance theatre at the Gaiety that managed to be both a seamless entertainment and rich in insight into Irish culture. Where Keegan Dolan’s earlier shows (such as The Bull) had often been acerbic, Rian was joyous. It was a statement of hope and identity. We needed it, and now it needs to come back.

Best script

No new play had the ambition or impact of Rian, but there were more modest successes: Paul Mercier’s underrated laments for Dublin suburbia at the Abbey, Nancy Harris’s taut No Romance at the Peacock, and Richard Bean’s brash take on Irish-American republicanism in The Big Fellah. More modest still was Mark O’Halloran’s Trade, a short play about a rent boy and his client, staged in a guest house on Gardiner Place. Modest, but pretty much perfect. On screen and stage, O’Halloran is one of the most invigorating writers of the moment.

Best company

Both Rian and Trade were part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, in the fifth and final year with Loughlin Deegan at the helm. (Deegan has left to run the Lir.) It wasn’t his best festival (it lacked a headline international show), but it amply demonstrated the key facets of Deegan’s tenure: popularity with the public, a challenging international programme, very diverse Irish programme and, crucially, loyal sponsorship (thanks to Ulster Bank). With key backing from Culture Ireland, Deegan has made the festival a vital force in producing and promoting new Irish work to both the home audience and international promoters. He will be missed…

Best theatre

… Or maybe not. Because Deegan has been replaced at the helm of the festival by Willie White, who has left the Project Arts Centre after nine years during which he has not merely consolidated its place at the heart of the Dublin arts scene, but has made it a key player in fostering new talent. The quantity and diversity of work at Project mean it will always turn up some gems. Under White, those gems weren’t just occasional shows, but people: pretty much the entire “next generation” of Dublin’s theatre makers seem to have incubated there.

Best director

That includes some of the year’s best directors, such as Tom Creed, director of Mark O’Halloran’s Trade, and Annabelle Comyn, who gave us a vivacious Pygmalion at the Abbey. And it includes Grace Dyas of THEATREclub. THEATREclub debuted in 2009 with Rough, which Dyas wrote and directed. On that evidence, she could write, but she couldn’t direct for toffee. What happened inbetween, I don’t know, but Heroin, which Dyas devised and directed for last year’s Dublin fringe festival, and was revived at the theatre festival this year, was astonishingly accomplished.

Best actor

Philip Judge’s performance in Mark O’Halloran’s Trade was a piece of great acting. But Pat Kinevane’s performance in his one-man show, Silent, was something else altogether: an utterly original, and daring, fusion of performance styles – part confessional, part comedian, part music-hall, part tragedian, part clown. Magnificent.

Best actress

“Magnificent” precisely describes the standout female performance of the year also: Aisling O’Sullivan as Big Maggie Polpin, in the Druid production of John B’s play, which is currently touring (and selling out; see She is exhilarating. And it always helps when an actor looks like they’re having the time of their life.

Biggest regret

Too late, I requested press tickets for Laundry, by Anu Productions, in the Theatre Festival. I tried the ticket booking line for cancellations; no luck. I turned up at the venue, on Sean MacDermott Street, and hoped for a no-show; no joy. So I never saw it, and it’s quite clear I missed something extraordinary. Bring it back, soon, please.

First published in the Irish Independent.