Driving force behind success of Siamsa Tire


MARTIN WHELAN: Martin Whelan, who died on February 10th aged 52, was chief executive of Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre, and is acknowledged as the driving force behind its success.

He presided over the growth of Siamsa Tíre from a voluntary community-based group to a professional performing company with its own theatre in Tralee, a staff of 22 and a turnover last year of €1.336 million.

Martin Whelan was born on June 19th, 1949, in Finuge, Lixnaw, Co Kerry, the son of Stephen and Kathleen Whelan. On completing his secondary education at St Michael's College, Listowel, he enrolled as a student in the agricultural faculty at University College Dublin. He graduated with honours in 1971.

He then became a teacher at Causeway Comprehensive School. When Siamsa Tíre was formally established in 1974 he was appointed manager, his interest in folk theatre and organisational ability making him the obvious choice.

Siamsa Tíre was the brainchild of Father Pat Ahern, who devised a series of performances by Siamsóirí na Ríochta in 1968 based on the old-time impromptu entertainments that were performed by neighbours in each other's homes in rural Ireland. Such was the public response that he was encouraged to devise an entire show and thus Siamsa Tíre was born. When Siamsa Tíre Teoranta was formed in 1974, Father Ahern was appointed artistic director, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1998.

With Father Ahern, Martin Whelan implemented a plan to foster the development of Irish folk culture. Deeply committed to the preservation of rural traditions and folklore, he envisaged Siamsa Tíre reflecting "Ireland's great wealth of music, dance and folklore on stage, through vibrant, colourful theatrical entertainment".

Siamsa Tíre's performances, combining music, mime and dance, were initially confined to summer seasons and were staged in rented premises. Twenty two performances were staged in the 1974 season, attracting audiences totalling 4,160. By the summer of 2000 the number of performances had grown to 135 and attracted 43,662 people.

In 1978, the theatre began operating on a year-round basis and during the 1980s was housed in a converted cinema. As audiences grew, Martin Whelan turned his attention to raising the funds necessary for a permanent home for the company.

Eventually a custom-built theatre and arts centre was built and opened its doors in 1991. Martin Whelan personally oversaw the building of the new theatre and ensured that it was completed within the specified budget.

The complex incorporates a 355-seat auditorium and a spacious performance area with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. There are two exhibition spaces and a large foyer which doubles as a venue for small-scale performances and recitals. The centre presents a variety of events including professional and community theatre, music (classical, traditional and jazz), ballet, contemporary dance, opera and the literary arts. This reflects Martin Whelan's inclusive approach to the arts which has made Siamsa Tíre a thriving regional theatre.

In line with the company's origins, the heart of Siamsa Tíre is a five-person core group of full-time professional performers augmented by local artists trained in the unique Siamsa style and idiom. Training takes place in the theatre and in the Tithe Siamsa (folk academies) developed by Martin Whelan. These are located in Finuge and Carraig in Corca Dhuibhne.

Martin Whelan managed tours that took the company to Australia, Britain, Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy and Spain. Siamsa Tíre participated in several World Expos, most recently in Hanover, in 2000.

Martin Whelan encouraged talent at every level. He attached great importance to developing the educational dimension of the company. This resulted in the establishment of classes for children at the Tithe Siamsa where hundreds of boys and girls have been introduced to the Siamsa disciplines in dance and music.

He also negotiated the process of validation by the National Council for Educational Awards of a diploma course in folk theatre studies at Siamsa Tíre. Last year, he was instrumental in the launching of a degree course in folk theatre studies by Tralee Institute of Technology.

Despite his extraordinary commitment to Siamsa Tíre, he found time to serve as a board member of Music Network, the body responsible for regional music development. He was also a member of Kerry County Council environmental strategy policy committee and was active in his local GAA club.

In keeping the folk tradition of north Kerry alive, Martin Whelan made a major contribution to Irish culture. He brought energy, integrity and vision to his work and was an inspiration to his colleagues and to the wider theatre community. He had a great sense of humour and was universally liked.

Martin Whelan is survived by his wife Marie, children, Murt and Triona, brother Michael (Bernie), and sisters, Marie and Margaret.

Martin Whelan: born 1949; died, February 2002