At this year's Clifden Community Arts Week, Lorna Sigginsdiscovers a school continuing a tradition of artistic mentoring, and a history of maverick visitors
He's a messer, nothing but a messer, but all the girls like Johnny Brady. Laugh of the class, sitting at the back, face-twisting, joke-making and always with a smart answer ready when challenged by the teacher. And when Johnny makes fun of that fat boy - well, that Peter always has his head in the books, started school a week late, and sure he asks for it anyway . . .
Michael O'Sullivan has a hall-full of teenagers from Connemara's Clifden Community School in the palm of his hand. O'Sullivan, artistic director of Humourfit Theatre Company, works from an elaborate set - as in, no set at all, no costumes, no props, no lighting. Just him in his black trousers, black T-shirt, black humour, pacing up and down on the floor: one minute Brady, the next minute Peter, at all times playing bully, playing victim.
We are sitting up on the balcony observing the production - one of a plethora of school performances for the 30th annual Clifden Community Arts Week. "Marcel Marceau always said you had to prepare your audience - O'Sullivan does that," whispers Brendan Flynn, the school's retired vice-principal and festival director. Sure enough, during his brief introduction, Humourfit solo had spotted several uninterested participants in the hall, whispering and giggling - and had appealed, successfully and most diplomatically, to their better nature.
Then he's on stage again, developing his plot, which was first devised, he says, while walking around his garden table. Tested on young Clifden audiences four years ago, O'Sullivan has performed it 504 times in schools all round the island since.
This is the 505th show. "Like those Sims characters you'd create on computer," he explains to his rapt charges, recalling how he devised Bully Brady - "only a messer really" - and victim Peter - "unable to cope". There's unbridled laughter at Brady's various antics, but the glee is punctuated by increasingly uncomfortable silences as the intolerable pressure on Peter builds. Victim tries telling his parents; bully is disciplined, but it only makes him worse. As O'Sullivan tiptoes effortlessly between the two characters, one can almost touch the collective worry about the outcome of it all.
When resolution is reached, the spontaneous eruption of applause endorses O'Sullivan's realistic, simple approach. Humourfit solo doesn't do bows, he doesn't do encores, but he does analyse the audience reaction for their benefit. "Did you notice that each one of you laughed with Brady, you felt Peter was taking himself too seriously . . . but did you notice when the atmosphere changed?" he asks. Then there's 90 seconds of mime and another eruption of mirth at his sporting snapshots proving "girls will always be better at basketball".
"He never misses here - the pupils love him," school principal Dr James Mungovan says. Outside, several dozen kids have been drumming all morning, while three fifth-year pupils, Niall Black, Brian Hogan and Ian O'Malley, are on hand to explain the background to their transition-year project. Nothing too ambitious - just the collation, editing, proof-reading and publication of work commissioned from a breathtaking list of literary figures for The Clifden Anthology.
Former and current arts-week guests over a 30-year period have contributed poetry and prose. "To imaginative children, school can often seem like a prolonged prison sentence, and to others, it can offer a door of escape into a better world," Flynn writes in the introduction. Clifden Community School has always provided a place for the latter, he says. He recalls how a past student who attended a reading in the town library by a "pre-Nobel-winning" Seamus Heaney described how it was "like attending two All Irelands in one week".
Heaney, the late John McGahern, Desmond Hogan and Neil Jordan were among some of Flynn's first arts-week guests, when the programme was "just an A4 sheet" three decades ago, he recalls. Poet Richard Murphy has been among many regular visitors.
Originally from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, Flynn spent many years in Africa and Spain before taking up the teaching post in Clifden, where the late Br Killian Kearney, principal of the school from 1974 to 1983, allocated an afternoon a week to creative studies.
From 1974 on, the school doors began to open to a "stream of artists, writers and poets, who expanded the school walls and tore strips off the prescribed syllabi," a former pupil, Grace O'Grady, recalled in a tribute to Flynn published several years ago. "Standing there, wearing an oatmeal Aran cardigan, tweed tie and camel-skin sandals, there seemed to be an earthiness and detachment about him that was certainly out of the ordinary." He would speak of Yeats, Lorca, Proust, discuss local placenames such as Derrygimla and Ballinafad, read something about the London Philharmonic Orchestra from The Irish Times. "Our lives are the rivers that flow into the sea, which is death," he would quote, translating Gorke Manrique. "There, all the rivers, large, of middling size and smaller are the same when they arrive."
Flynn, now retired, is clearly uncomfortable with this sort of attention as he introduces me to the army of volunteers who run the festival. Teacher Jimmy O'Toole warns that the there "will be no escape". Over in Sweeney's Hotel, the committee's primary school workshop co-ordinator, Eily O'Grady, has lost her voice, but battles on as she organises transport. Chantal McCormick and Jennifer Paterson of Fidget Feet from Donegal have been working on mime, dance and movement with children from Aillebrack, Ballyconneely and Kingstown national schools. Their counterparts in Cleggan, Claddaghduff and Clifden are also participating in preparation's for tomorrow's festival parade.
O'Grady's workshop schedule for one school alone - Scoil Mhuire in Clifden - is breathtaking: still she has time to chat to the children, and compare notes with her peers. "Wonderful, magical," says Olive Carty of Kingstown National School, describing Fidget Feet's performance for several hundred children the previous day. "The smaller ones were sitting at the front, and they were entranced. On the way back, one of the little girls was describing how 'the angel touched me with her feathers'."
If the young generation is central to this festival, the programme for the wider adult community is equally rich. "The late Lar Cassidy of the Arts Council advised us to extend it out," Flynn recalls. The result is a sensitive balance between the esoteric and the appealing. One of the highlights over the past weekend was a screening of Kieran Concannon's documentary Bás Oileán, a film about the evacauation of Inishark in 1960.
John Durning is responsible for a new dimension to the festival programme this year - an art trail around 56 venues and exhibitions in the triangular-shaped town. Alannah Robins has created the hilarious Venus Riding out of several scrap bicycles, hose pipe, a pump and several naked Barbie dolls in the Atlanta Hotel. Venus's "shell" was created in situ in mosaic. "It was raining for 24 hours before, but we all chipped-in to help," says Margaret (Mo) Irwin, a Claddaghduff artist whose retrospective exhibition of etchings in Bridge St has almost sold out. "That sort of community effort is what arts week is all about," she says.
"IT'S ALWAYS A WONDER, every year, you know," says Flynn, as he hands me a bag full of apples which he has picked from his garden overlooking Salt Lake during all the chat. "We miss John Moriarty this year," he adds, recalling how the late writer who died this past summer was always an inspiration.
"Keen as a laser beam, delicate as a fern leaf, alive to the curvature of water over rock, John had both the eye and ear of his revered Darwin, and that naturalist's gift of description, combining with John Donne's subtlety of spirit," Lilliput Press publisher Antony Farrell wrote in a tribute; and Lilliput's publication of Moriarty's autobiography, What the Curlew Said, will be marked by writer Tim Robinson as part of the festival programme in Clifden's new Station House Theatre tomorrow.
Moriarty always wrote in longhand, Farrell noted - as did John McGahern. And Flynn warns of the risks posed to creativity by new technology in his foreword to the Clifden Anthology: while "data technology" has its "good points", we "cannot allow the imagination to be swamped" by it, he says. He quotes from a text to a famous etching by Francisco Goya: "Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of wonders."
The Clifden Community Arts Week continues this weekend with music, readings, and a grand-finale parade involving schoolchildren, asylum seekers, community members, Fidget Feet, Whirligig Theatre Company and others, tomorrow at 8pm. www.clifdenartsweek.ie
Festivals for children in October:
Sonas, Louisburgh's community initiative, opens on October 13 with a "special treat" for adults by Stephanie Troy, funded by the Mayo Arts Office. Highlights include Instant Orchestra with Nico Brown on October 17, and Navan Dragon with Armagh Rhymers on October 19. All family shows and a multitude of workshops cost just 3 a head. Intercultural Ireland will be celebrated in a Sonas festival "finale" on October 21.
Baboro International Arts Festival for Children opens in Galway on October 15, with Irish premieres of Kling Klang by Danish company det lille turnéteater, and Corryvreckan by Scottish company Ydance. Cups and Crowns, puppeteer Miriam Lambert and a visual art dimension are also part of the busy programme. See www.baboro.ie.
Dance teacher Carol Langstaff from North America, Pete Molyneaux from Galway Youth Theatre and performers Niko Brown and Martin Brunsden are among participants in what Leo Hallissey describes as a "vibrant programme" for young folk at this year's Connemara Sea Week on the "whale and dolphin" theme in Letterfrack, Co Galway, from October 19-29. For a full programme, tel: 095-41034 or 095-43443, or see www.ceecc.org.
The 10th annual RoolaBoola Arts Festival in Castlebar runs from October 22-29, with Japanese Anime and a Ukrainian show, Paperworld, plus three visiting companies from Denmark. Tel: 094-9028886 or see www.thelinenhall.com.
Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, hosts a new children's theatre festival, Flip Flop, from Oct 20-25 with theatre, workshops and a focus on writing for and by children. See www.paviliontheatre.ie/flipflop.