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The Local: A love poem to the Irish pub

Kilkenny Arts Festival 2023: At Sheridans in Ennisnag, a large cast is rehearsing for a play about the bar’s role in Irish community life

Between the elastic nature of time and the slippery tricks of memory, it can be hard to realise that not everybody shares the same sense of a past. We are in Sheridans of Ennisnag, on the banks of Kings river in Co Kilkenny, where a large cast is rehearsing for The Local, a new play about the pub. One of the oldest family-owned and family-operated bars in Ireland, Sheridans is one of those classic spots with a welcoming bar at the front and a large function room to the rear. There is such a strong sense of stories lingering between patterned carpet, mini stage and dance floor, between red banquettes and dark-wood bar, that you can only wonder at what would come to pass if these walls could talk.

Sheridans is built, like the church opposite, at a crossroads. I was told once that churches, particularly those that usurped pagan sites, were often to be found at crossroads, not only because they were meeting points but because they were hinterlands, too: they took a certain independence from being of neither one place nor another. Either way, the local rural pub is definitely at a crossroads now: the days of piling into cars to drive for a pint are long gone, as are indoor smoking and the vital role of the public payphone.

These and many other strands in the skein of recent Irish history are the subject of The Local. Set in 1992, it gives eloquent voice to those pub walls, layering in multiple stories. “I wasn’t even a wicked idea on the part of my parents then,” says Kyle English, who plays Deckie, alongside a cast of 19 who are a mix of professional, local and community actors. It is an approach that Asylum Productions, which has created the play alongside Once Off Productions, Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Watergate Theatre, took with its award-winning Big Chapel X, in 2019. It creates a unique sense of energy as the cast workshops lines, approaches, inflection and action.

English was born in 2001. We tease out our different memories of the changes Ireland has experienced in the three decades since the era of the play and the 22 years of his own life. There was the boom and then there was the crash. Like many of his friends, he doesn’t drink, something that would have marked him out as unusual in the 1990s. He witnessed marriage equality and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But there were other seismic changes before those: 1992 was the year of the X case – after the High Court prevented a raped 14 year old from leaving the country for an abortion, the Supreme Court established the right to travel. Swinging back and forward over the years, with the help of our smartphones, we work out that divorce wasn’t legalised until 1996 and that smoking was banned in workplaces, including pubs, in 2004.


I watch as Éanna Grogan sits at the bar in a skirt. His character, Seánie, reaches to shake the hand of the priest, played by Michael Morris, stalking the bar like a self-satisfied messiah. His hand is ignored. After a few passes the director of The Local, Dónal Gallagher, agrees that Seánie’s quiet look of hurt surprise is the best. It is actually so powerful as to be heartbreaking. How is Seánie’s character being described, I ask Medb Lambert, one of the play’s writers, wondering about the complexities of naming and labelling. “He’s in the script as ‘Seánie who wears a dress’,” she says. “That was the language that was available back then.” Later, Seánie will muse on his dead mother, who be believes is haunting him in the guise of a bird, bringing all the poetics of alcohol-fuelled despair to the lines.

The dancer Cindy Cummings is choreographing some numbers, and there is a warm sense of recognition among those of a certain age as particular songs come on. In another scene a 10-year-old girl plays pool, ignored by the adults. “The pub was the epicentre of Irish culture,” says Emma O’Grady, who wrote the play with Lambert and Clare Monnelly, a process that took 2½ years. “This is the seventh draft so far,” Lambert says, adding: “We have a folder in a shared drive. It’s called the Knicker Drawer. Only we’re allowed to see what’s in it.” Much of the writing took place during Covid, when, as O’Grady says, “We didn’t know if there would be a pub ever again.”

All the action takes place in Sheridans’ function room, which has seen everything from christenings to 21sts, family reunions to funeral teas. Christy Moore has played here. The audience will sit among the actors as mini stories thread throughout the space, linked by communal set pieces. Shannon O’Doherty plays Sinéad Caffrey, one of a group of bright teenagers heading off to their debs. She sits quietly, working on lines in a corner when not needed for the rehearsal, as she is also presenting a play she wrote herself at Carlow Fringe Arts Festival.

Patrick McDonald, who plays Wooly, comes by, and there is a conversation about their lines, as well as one about the best taco fries. With such a large cast, co-ordinating rehearsals is tricky; O’Doherty stands in for absent members here and there. “Acting is totally new to me,” says McDonald, who has just completed a multimedia PLC course in Kilkenny. “And I absolutely love it. It’s a passion now.” He has a monologue, which he says is daunting. “I have to be tense and anxious – which I am, but acting it is different.”

Warm, rich, poignant, eloquent, messy, chaotic, nostalgic, funny, devastating and real, The Local is a love poem to the local pub and to a particular period in Ireland’s recent history. It is also a clear-eyed view of the flaws and fractures at the heart of a community that the pub has long played such a strong role in creating, and shaping, for good as well as ill.

The Local is at Sheridans in Ennisnag, as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival, from Thursday, August 10th, to Saturday, August 19th. Tickets are sold out; a waiting list is available