‘It’s a bit like country music, an ignored part of hidden Ireland’

Ireland’s amateur drama season is an eccentric, ambitious concept, with 54 productions touring 37 festivals. And the stories are as good off the stage as on it

On a frigid Tuesday night in Corofin the only faces to be seen on the street are smiling down from election posters with blow-dried optimism. The local world is indoors and the road across the Burren is ghostly quiet. When they talk about “rural Ireland” on the airwaves in Montrose, they are vaguely imagining places like this Clare town in midwinter. Nothing is moving. In the community hall, however, the lights are on. The parking spaces inside are full. And those inside have transported themselves to the sherry-and-refinement mores of provincial England in the 1960s.

The local drama group are in the middle of rehearsing the first act of Peter Nichols' A Day In the Death of Joe Egg. It's a dark and sometimes demanding play, about a couple raising a child with cerebral palsy in a society that is bluntly dismissive of the child's worth or relevance as a human being. It contains long monologues, offbeat comic notes and phrases that are strikingly at odds with contemporary acceptability. The cast and crew have been living it for months. For six minutes, Maura Clancy stands alone on the stage and delivers a broken, uncomfortable soliloquy, moving between heartbreak and hysterical optimism.

“With any character, you have to get inside their heads and know everything about how they feel. This woman has images inside her head of what her child is like,” says Clancy, who plays Sheila, the baby’s mother, explaining how she carries her character through her day-life as a teacher.

“So it is about trying to communicate that. I’ve a theory that it will be easier when there is an audience. It’s all about an exchange of energy. Because when you are standing here in an empty hall and freezing sometimes and looking out to a black hole, it’s like pulling teeth. But you can feel people’s energy.”

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She first came across the play six years ago and got her husband John to read it; both are heavily involved in Corofin Dramatic Society and they wanted to perform it despite the subject matter. Throughout March the production has been on the road for the amateur festival season. Ireland's three-act festival circuit is a phenomenon as compressed and hectic as the mayfly is to the world of angling. Thirty-seven towns host three-act festivals throughout March. Drama groups across Ireland have spent months preparing for it, with 54 productions touring by the end of March. Corofin society appeared at eight festivals before returning to the Glór theatre in Ennis. All groups harbour ambitions of making it to the All-Ireland finals in Athlone.

‘It is sort of a pilgrimage’

The community hall in Corofin is a long way from the large velveteen theatres. And that might be the precise point of Ireland’s drama festival strongholds. It is an eccentric concept that somehow works: an annual deluge of drama, night after night for a fortnight, in small towns and villages, bringing people out of their houses in all kinds of weather.

"It is sort of a pilgrimage. The success of the amateur drama is a bit like country music . . . it is part of a hidden Ireland that is very much ignored in the mainstream and by the Dublin media," says John Travers, chairman of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland.

"People are going to maybe 15 or 20 plays a year and are very well up on their drama in rural areas right around the country. And it is not 'theatre' and dress-suits or in any way snobbish . . . it is just going out to the drama. That's the success of it. And the other thing is that the exposure to drama is important to people. I always remember that Silken Thomas [from Kildare town] did a play a few years ago called Angels in America, which won several audience awards. This was a play that featured sexual themes and nudity in front of a relatively senior and, I suppose, traditional audience. But there was no walking out in protest or what have you.

"I think the staging of these plays is very much a window into the world. And if you put on a play in the town hall, the attitude is very much: feck it, it'll do. But if you have an adjudicator critiquing it and you are appearing at different festivals, then standards are raised. And it is a way into drama too: people like Liam Neeson, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Moya Doherty all came through the amateur drama circuit."

Travers's local drama group, Ballyshannon, are staging Harold Pinter's Old Times this year. By coincidence, they discovered that Pinter had actually performed in the town in 1952 as part of Anew McMaster's repertory company. Over consecutive nights they staged everything from Othello to Lady Windermere's Fan. The idea of a concentrated week of drama began with these touring fit-ups.

It is easy to see its appeal in 1950s Ireland. But the amateur drama tradition has somehow managed to compete with the attractions of the subsequent decades, from television to VCR to wifi. There is still a demand for live performance. However, John Clancy concedes the profile of the audience hasn't really changed.

“One director told me that they went on a day trip recently and they all had the bus pass. There are plenty of young people involved in actual productions, from acting to back stage. The next task is to try and sell the appeal of going to see a play to a younger generation.”

But why should they be bothered? What is there to see or learn? Is there a need for amateur drama now that everyone has access to superb TV drama? In Corofin the question is met with general laughter.

“Well, it brings the most fantastic works into rural Ireland,” Maura Clancy says. “It exposes people to new ideas. People who live in Dublin have the Gaiety or the Abbey: they are exposed to fantastic art and writing. For instance, I am stuck here in Corofin on a week night: How do I get to see Peter Nichols’s fantastic work? Unless I travel to Dublin or London to see the shows? Which I do: I’d go and see the shows when I get a chance. This play, for instance, it asks some really uncomfortable questions about the situation these parents are in.

Melting back into anonymity

Peter Nichols

is such a good writer that he doesn’t say whether it is right or wrong. He gives you all sides of the argument and then allows the audience to walk away and decide from themselves. And I think that’s the point of drama.”

The advantage of performing in a city is that once they exit the theatre, the actors get to melt back into anonymity. It isn't so easy when you join a drama group in a small village or town. One night you are Portia Coughlan or JPW King. But the following day, you are you: in the bank, in the shop, in the dry-cleaners.

Nicola Sheehan remembers standing in line in the local pharmacy, when she felt a tap on her arm. At the time, she was in her first acting role with Corofin. She turned around to find a tiny, elderly woman prodding her with a walking stick and gazing up at her wrathfully. "And she said to me: 'You're that hussy from the play. I am so glad he didn't pick you.' "

A few years ago, Eileen Lahiffe played the role of a woman who abandons her child. "And I was sitting in the office at work and a woman comes in and sees me and gives me a strange look: 'Ah Jesus, you're the one who took that child into Our Lady's in Ennis. How could you do that?' "

There was a scene in that play that required Eileen to slap the child. The moment always caused a ripple of discomfort and suppressed outrage in the audience. The cast could sense it from the stage. But in Castleisland, as soon as the smack was delivered, a voice from the heart of the crowd yelled out: “BIITTCHHH.”

“For a small while that night, I thought someone was going to come up at Eileen,” says Maura Clancy. “They were in love with this small boy, and here is this one slapping him. Eileen’s the gentlest soul you could meet. But she was just brilliant in that role. For years I called her the Siobhán McKenna of Corofin.”

Intensely local

At a festival in Scariff a few years ago, Martin O’Donohue, who plays the lead in

Joe Egg

, met an audience member afterwards whom he recognised as a regular face in the crowd. He asked her what she thought. The woman paused for a second and said: “Jesus, you were very good. And I’ve seen you in a lot of plays.”

He creases up at the memory. “In other words: you were absolute shite in a fair few. People have a lovely way of letting you know.”

The festival season might be intensely local but it’s also cross-Border. Throughout the Troubles, drama groups from the Republic travelled to participate in the established Ulster festivals in Carrickmore, Bangor and Portadown. Ulster groups travelled south as well. “Carrickmore’s festival was suspended for a few years in the early 1970s simply because people didn’t want to travel late at night,” says John Travers. “But both communities have the same taste in drama. The audiences are mixed.”

When civic theatres such as the Hawkswell in Sligo and the Glór opened, there was a vague assumption that the need for amateur festivals would dissolve. And a few festivals did perish. However, the movement is growing louder and stronger. RTÉ’s sponsorship of the All-Ireland season, always staged in Athlone, has elevated the whole scene from its cult origins. Still, its ecosystem is based on collective enthusiasm for staging plays.

“For me, it’s about escapism,” says Nicola Sheehan. “It’s not about work or anything else. It’s something I do for me.” Rehearsals are after work, late in the evening. Stage sets rely on local expertise and volunteerism. It could fall away at the drop of a hat.

The festival season can be gruelling and exhilarating. “You’re tired when it’s over but by the next season, you find yourself back there and thinking of another play. It’s like an addiction,” says John Clancy.

Drama worth seeing

By St Patrick’s Day, Corofin had played six festivals but had yet to earn enough points to guarantee entry to the All-Irelands. They were hopeful that a few late adjudications would go their way.

The drama shortens winters and the actual festival season, through March, is like a passage into the longer evenings. And those involved like to think they are staging drama worth seeing.

Across Ireland, they aspire to professional standards. “Particularly on the production side,” says John Clancy. “God be with the days when you had a sheet of galvanised out back for thunder.” And they are conscious the audience is paying – there is an obligation to reach a certain standard. Or as Maura Clancy puts it: “People are not going to sit there and watch you plebe around. They expect to see something worthwhile. And rightly so.”

The point of it is in that word amateur. They are not full-time actors, directors or sound engineers. The endeavour is based on people stepping out of themselves; it is a leap of faith for the audience to believe the local postman or publican or chef can metamorphose, and for said postman to then convincingly do so in front of their eyes. It's make believe. That's what always brings Martin Donohue back: the few seconds when he is on stage waiting for the final lull in the audience.

“And you might have that fleeting moment just before curtain where you think: Awh, Jesus: what am I doing here? And then you are gone.”