Obituary: Declan Burke-Kennedy

Focus Theatre co-founder, playwright and journalist

Declan Burke-Kennedy, theatre co-founder, dramatist and journalist, has died aged 72.

A man of considerable charm and geniality; an independent spirit, who believed the arts were the essence of what makes us human, he was one of the co-founders of Dublin’s influential Focus Theatre in the late 1960s. It was a small but dynamic hub of artistic output, that shook up the city’s somewhat staid theatre culture with its international repertoire and avowedly “method” credo.

While he wrote and directed for theatre, as well as writing novels, he spent much of his working life as a journalist in The Irish Times.

He was born in 1944 in Tullamore, Co Offaly, the third child of Nancy Kidney and Gerry Burke-Kennedy, a bank manager. His time at Clongowes Wood College was an unhappy chapter, but it was also where he met and became lifelong friends with fellow theatre director and TV producer Dick Callanan, who died last year.


From an early age, he was drawn to literature and drama. According to journalist Vincent Browne, who became a close friend of his in University College Dublin, when Declan studied there, he was the most well-read student on campus.


It was there that he met his wife and artistic partner Mary Elizabeth, who would go on to be a significant actor, playwright and director in her own right.

After university, he initially worked as an English teacher in Dublin and Cavan. Despite having an obvious aptitude and rapport with his students, he left teaching for a career in the theatre, a bold move given the limited opportunities the stage afforded.

He is credited with finding the location for the Focus Theatre – the tiny venue on Pembroke Place – which he co-founded with Mary Elizabeth, Dick Callanan and its artistic director, Deirdre O’Connell.

Although front row patrons were asked not to put their feet on the stage during performances, what the theatre lacked in size it made up for in artistic output.

Over the next 40 years, it staged more than 300 productions and launched the careers of many actors and directors, including Tom Hickey, Gabriel Byrne, Sabina Coyne Higgins, Johnny Murphy, Bosco Hogan, Joan Bergin and Tim McDonnell.

The theatre’s signature was “ensemble playing” with actors encouraged to improvise and communicate between the lines, a technique known as the Stanislavski method. It set the theatre apart from the mainstream.

Burke-Kennedy wrote and directed several early productions. Perhaps his most successful play was Day of the Mayfly (1980), which centred on a couple's hapless attempt at an adulterous weekend in a lakeside cottage in Co Cavan.

An earlier work, the Trespasser (1973), which deals with ideas of property and ownership, was unfairly charged with being anti-Republican, perhaps reflecting the political tensions of the day.


A champion of Ibsen, Declan adapted many of the Norwegian’s works for the Irish stage, including

Hedda Gabler

(1970) and

Peer Gynt

(1984), the latter directed by Mary Elizabeth for the Everyman theatre in Cork.

He also won praise for a more intimate direction of Beckett's Happy Days, which critic Alec Reid favourably reviewed under the headline: "Focus explodes static Beckett."

For most of his adult life, he also worked as a journalist; one of his first assignments was as a reporter for Vincent Browne's Nusight magazine in 1970 where he found himself covering the arrival of British troops in the North.

At a barricade near the infamous Divis flats in Belfast, he recalled being offered a gun and asked if he knew how to use it.

In a career spanning more than 30 years with The Irish Times, he worked as a subeditor, assistant sport editor and later on the foreign desk, while contributing articles on a variety of topics.

He enjoyed sailing, particularly on family holidays in Brandon, Co Kerry, and more latterly on Lough Derg, after he moved to Tipperary.

Quiet resolve

At the age of 46 he developed Parkinson’s disease, which he bore with a quiet resolve. Its onset may have prompted the switch from theatre to novel writing. His two published novels,

Robert’s Alibi

(1988) and


(1995), grapple with themes of identity and separation at a time when


was emerging from three decades of bloodshed in the North and shedding the yoke of Catholic dogma for a more pluralist identity.

Declan is survived by his wife Mary Elizabeth, their daughters Ruth, Emma and Niamh, grandson Tadgh and siblings Paul and Helen.