When Darach Ó Tuairisg was small, in the mid-1980s, his mother would leave him and his sister to explore Galway’s Taibhdhearc theatre until the early hours of the morning. Deirdre Ní Thuairisg was front-of-house manager at the Irish-language national theatre, which was founded in 1928, and part of her job involved spending time with the cast and crew after performances.
“We’d be perfectly happy playing with the costumes and the props until 1am sometimes,” her son says, laughing. “We loved it,” he adds, remembering the magic of it all in a playhouse associated with some of the greats of Irish theatre, including the actor Siobhán McKenna, the writer Walter Macken and its first artistic director, Micheál MacLiammóir.
Little did Ó Tuairisg know then that he would be managing the same arts space, on Middle Street in the city, almost 40 years later, as founding director of Fíbín theatre. And though much is being made of the impact of the Oscar-nominated film An Cailín Ciúin on the Irish language and the arts, Fíbín is among the companies that have been reinventing approaches to the language in multimedia settings over the past 20 years.
The Connemara company was awarded a contract in 2021 to run the Taibhdhearc for three years. In the past 18 months, Fíbín has opened up the latterly largely dormant building to new audiences with a wide-ranging and ambitious programme. During last September’s national culture night, for instance, Fíbín sa Taibhdhearc transformed Middle Street into a dreamlike pop-up Gaeltacht, with a series of surreal performances.
It also marked the opening of a new coffee house in the theatre, which, along with Plámás and Conradh na Gaeilge’s premises, now provides an informal venue in Galway city for caint as Gaeilge.
The theatre’s manager, Becky Ní Éallaithe, who is a musician and sean-nós dancer from Indreabhán, has been organising sean-nós workshops and drama camps for children during school breaks, while producers such as Pearse Doherty have ensured there is regular live music. Síomha, Eleanor McEvoy, Sam Amidon and Ceara Conway are among musicians booked for coming weeks, and a play about MacLiammóir opens on Tuesday.
It would have been common knowledge that Micheál MacLiammóir would have taken a walk along the Liffey quays and met a sex worker
Wáltsáil Abhaile, by Antoine Ó Flatharta, who devised the long-running TG4 series Ros na Rún, is billed as a spiritual homecoming, taking MacLiammóir on a “dreamlike journey” through “time and place, reality and fantasy”.
The now ageing actor and director, played by Caitríona Ní Mhurchú, stops on a dark night for a “small pleasure” but is denied this by a young garda who escorts him home. “It would have been common knowledge that he would have taken a walk along the Liffey quays and met a sex worker,” the play’s director, Stephen Darcy, says, referring to MacLiammóir’s time back in Dublin, when he and Hilton Edwards moved from Galway to found the Gate Theatre later in 1928.
“The script has a Dickens Christmas Carol approach to looking back over one’s life,” Darcy says. “So MacLiammóír meets Oscar Wilde, almost meets the singer George Michael, and encounters Patsy Cline. This is not a biography – it is a type of reimagining, and the garda is a time traveller who is asking him pointed questions about decisions he made.
Why did MacLiammóir change his name and his identity, when he was born Alfred Lee Willmore to an English family with no Irish connections, and then reinvent himself as a native Irishman from Cork?
“For instance, why did he change his name and his identity, when he was born Alfred Lee Willmore to an English family with no Irish connections, and then reinvent himself as a native Irishman from Cork?” Darcy says.
MacLiammóir “lived with a mask on”, and that influenced the director’s decision to cast Ní Mhurchú in the role. “There was the practical challenge of finding a large male actor with Munster Irish, and then Ní Mhurchú is a wonderful actor with beautiful Munster dialect,” Darcy says.
The cast of four also includes Ben Morris, Caoimhghín Ó hEoghusa and Daithí O’Donnell (who is no stranger to Fíbín, having played in the company’s productions of An Triail and Stair Wars).
Those two productions are part of an impressive body of work that Fíbín has staged with its now departing artistic director, Philip Doherty. In the early months of Covid-19, when theatres and cinemas were closed, Fíbín used its premises at Baile na hAbhann, about 30km to the west of Galway, in Connemara, to stage Fiach, a “drive-in-drama” written and produced by Doherty.
Inspired by the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and An Toraíocht, and starring Fionnuala Flaherty and Dara Devaney, it provided surtitles for audiences who may not have been fluent and had been starved of live theatre and music.
The theatre company had only recently bought the Baile na hAbhann premises, a former pub with four acres around it close to the headquarters of TG4. Pota, the cafe it has leased out, is already attracting favourable restaurant reviews (including a four-star write-up from The Irish Times last year).
We spend six months doing our funding applications, just like everyone else. This must be the only industry where you get paid less for working in two languages!
“We had initially been based in my bedroom, with one van which we used to tour summer colleges and the like,” Ó Tuairisg says. “We finally got an office in Coláiste Chonnacht Irish-language summer college, in An Spidéal, and then at Seanscoil Sailearna, in Indreabhán, but it was great to acquire our own dedicated space.
“I think we are one of the only theatre companies with land around it,” Ó Tuairisg says, recalling the growth of the company born of a 45-minute puppet show, An Gabha agus an Gasúir. It was directed by Rod Goodall and staged at Coláiste Chonnacht 20 years ago.
In 2008 Fíbín Media was founded to meet a demand for children’s content for both TG4 and RTÉ, but Ó Tuairisg says it didn’t really start producing until 2016. A new studio, complemented by postproduction facilities and production offices, opened last December. Fíbín Dramaíocht employs five full-time and eight part-time staff, and Fíbín Media employs 20 people, with 15 more due to come on board in the next six to eight months. A television production being filmed is employing 50 people.
“We are committed to the Irish language and, apart from our work for children, our appeal is to the 25- to 40-year age group of festivalgoers,” Ó Tuairisg says.
The company’s new artistic director, Muireann Kelly, is associated with the National Theatre of Scotland and founded the contemporary Gàidhlig theatre company Theatre Gu Leòr, in Glasgow.
Fíbín’s main sources of funding are Ealaín na Gaeltachta, the joint arts-development venture involving Údarás na Gaeltachta, Foras na Gaeilge and the Arts Council. “We get a small amount from Galway City Council for our presence now in the city, and An Taibhdhearc is owned by Roinn na Gaeltachta,” Ó Tuairisg says, referring to the Department of the Gaeltacht.
While there would be a perception that there is an endless stream of money for arts in the Irish language, “the pot is very small”, he says. “We spend six months doing our funding applications, just like everyone else. This must be the only industry where you get paid less for working in two languages!”
There are challenges out here that city-based arts companies wouldn’t have to deal with
One of the conditions of managing An Taibhdhearc was that the company would be free to make decisions without having to consult constantly with its board. It had been an open secret that the board’s structure had at times proved challenging for artistic directors in the past, meaning that An Taibhdhearc ran an average of only three productions a year, plus the Christmas pantomime, as Gaeilge. “We have to have full autonomy in what we can do,” Ó Tuairisg says. “So we staged 12 original productions last year, along with a lot of live music, from techno to traditional to sean-nós.”
While the company aims to “reactivate” Middle Street, there is also a new energy in south Connemara. An Spidéal now has a regular programme of live performances at Stiúideo Cuan, the creative arts and music centre founded by the composer, fiddle-player and pianist Charlie Lennon and his daughter, the fiddle-player Éilís Lennon.
“There are challenges out here that city-based arts companies wouldn’t have to deal with,” Ó Tuairisg says. “We use our rural location to our advantage when it comes to people who might want to work for us rather than commute into and across Galway, but accommodation and transport is an issue when it comes to recruiting cast. However, I think the success of An Cailín Ciúin is going to widen the platform for Irish-language arts. And the Arts Council is also advertising for a head of arts in the Irish language – albeit for the first time in its 72-year history. That has to be another very positive step.”
Wáltsáil Abhaile is at An Taibhdhearc, Galway, from Tuesday, March 21st, until Saturday, April 1st