In Leitrim the show goes on and Séamus O’Rourke is at the centre
Playwright and actor discusses how his homeland and its GAA is so central to his life
Séamus O’Rourke starring in the Quare Land. Photo: Leitrim Observer
We are bottom of division four.
The only thing we are good at
is smuggling and sayin’ nothing.
Well one of them is going to stop.
Help a Leitrim person this Christmas.
Bring back smuggling!
We want a hard border.
- Leitrim Hard Border, Séamus O’Rourke
In the winter of 1985, Séamus O’Rourke discovered that he was practically an exoticism in New York. He was an Irish carpenter who had genuinely apprenticed in the craft. He was 20-years-old then and the only thing tethering him to home, besides a deep attachment to Carrigallen, was his commitment to Leitrim football.
He’d had his best championship that summer, going fullback on Sean Lowry, the Offaly All-Ireland winner now playing with Mayo, in a narrow defeat. He spent that winter in the Bronx marveling at the coldness, the extravagant food culture and vaguely wondering about returning home to play football.
On site one day, a Galway man who had briefly worn the maroon became impatient, wondering why O’Rourke would be arsed flying across the Atlantic to get beaten in the first round of the championship. It’s only Leitrim. It didn’t matter.
O’Rourke is talking about the realities of playing football with Leitrim in the era that he did. It was a strange time
Nobody outside the county got why the game mattered. O’Rourke played for Leitrim thoughout the 1980s, lining out in county minor teams for four successive years and playing minor, junior, under-21 and senior in 1983.
He was finished by 1989: still just 26 but with crocked knees and a dismaying realization that those around him were running faster than he was.
“When I said I was taking a break, no tears were shed. And I thought to myself, yeah, this is it.”
The experiences of his immigrant winter in New York lay in the cold storage of his mind for decades, resurrected when, as a full-time actor and dramatist, he put together a sometimes funny and caustic sketch about the well-worn shuttle-life between Manhattan new builds and McLean avenue night haunts which formed the basis of the experience for working class Irish of his generation.
It’s instantly relatable to contemporary audiences and says a lot between the lines and through the silences within his delivery:
Play Dirty Auld Town in the Shamrock bar
See how many times you can play it in a row.
I can’t get the plumb-bob to stop swinging up here on the 70th floor.
Some day the whole lot is going to fall.
There’s no whins or thistles in Central Park.
Sure that’s not a field at all.
At the moment, O’Rourke is touring with his new play, And Thank You. There’s a small billboard for it outside the hall in Carrigallen, a pretty town within a stone’s throw of three of the four provinces, with a monument to Thomas Clarke on the main street and, on this lunchtime, the inescapable Ed Sheeran playing on the sound system in the Kilbrackan Arms.
O’Rourke is talking about the realities of playing football with Leitrim in the era that he did. It was a strange time: the knockout era meant that more often than not, Leitrim were a one-and-done summer phenomenon. In the entire decade of the 1980s, the county had three championship wins: two against Sligo and one against London.
Their brightest memories were of defeat. In 1983, for instance, they ran Galway to two points (1-8 to 1-6) and then watched on as Galway kept going the whole way to that September’s infamous final. For Leitrim, there was a consolation in having run an All-Ireland calibre side so close: it was an achievement.
Against that, O’Rourke remembers a sad afternoon in Ballinamore when they played Fermanagh in the league. Peter McGinnity was winding down a superb career around then. “But he beat us on his own. A crowd of us were playing under-21 around then too. And someone had had a birthday the night before. Fellas had been out. And we all as a team and a county had lost complete confidence in what we were doing.
“It wasn’t a big thing to be playing for your county. We had this saying that it was harder to get off the Leitrim team than on it. And after that game, one of the boys said, ‘Peter McGinnity got the ball at the start of the game and never gave it back to us’. But I remember feeling very sorry for the supporters who came that day. They deserved better.”
O’Rourke left school at 15 to do his carpentry apprenticeship but because the local drama was such a natural part of the community, he found himself drawn to it
When O’Rourke was picked for Leitrim as a teenager, his father would often say to him, as he was heading out the door on the Sunday morning: ‘I suppose ye think ye are going to win today.’
“With a wry smile on his face,” O Rourke laughs now.
It was a remark loaded with conflicting emotions – frustration, resignation, pride and maybe, deep down, a fearful hope that they actually would. It may also have been as close as his father could come to actually saying, the best of luck: the impossibility of straightforward communication between fathers and sons of his generation would become another theme he would later explore in his drama.
But O’Rourke had, in the beginning, the unassailable confidence of youth: he was full sure his Leitrim teams would win.
“We were convinced, yeah,” he says.
“And something happened in Leitrim in the early ‘80s and that was a man called Tony McGowan. Tony was secretary of the Leitrim board and he was the greatest optimist that God ever put on the planet. He genuinely thought we would win the Connacht championship. And we should have. We got to the minor final in 1982 and Galway beat us by a point and we missed four open goals.
“But Tony was also responsible for bringing PJ Carroll into the county as manager, which was a fairly radical decision then. And then they both decided there was another step to go and brought in John O’Mahony. So a few people with that ambition and optimism, in a county where it was hard found, was important. It was an on-going mission for those guys to get Leitrim to where they felt it could go until they won the Connacht title in 1994. And it might be that that win coincided with the standard in Connacht dropping at that particular time. But you beat what’s in front of you.”
That comet summer came a few years too late for O’Rourke. He wasn’t even 30 that year: it was easy to imagine himself out there on one of the all-time fabulous GAA occasions: Leitrim playing Dublin in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final.
But he never felt he had missed out. By then, he had already plunged into the world of amateur drama. The Carrigallen players have a tradition of drama production going back to the 1880s. O’Rourke left school at 15 to do his carpentry apprenticeship but because the local drama was such a natural part of the community, he found himself drawn to it.
“I had this huge big gap when I finished playing county football. Because it had taken up so much time. There was a perception that amateur drama was just for bankers and school teachers.
“In this town, it wasn’t like that you had the postman and mechanics and farmers – and I think that’s the way it is in most drama groups now. I was a carpenter and that was welcome. I had access to a van! And that was welcome. I got the tiniest part in that year’s production, God’s Gentry. I had never been on stage before.
“And the buzz was ... amazing. In some ways comparable to football. In some ways more individual but football is also individual. But once I was in I was kinda smitten.”
And he discovered he had a talent. He had a strong, laconic voice and is a physically big man. The following year, he was given a leading role in The Honeyspike, a revival of a production that Carrigallen had toured to enormous acclaim in 1975. The Irish amateur dramatic circle is at once obscure and intensely popular. By the time the recession took a grip in Ireland, O’Rourke had summoned up the confidence to write his own material. His first play, Dig, was performed by Carrigallen in 2005 and came third at the All-Ireland drama finals in Athlone. Like much of his material, it was drawn on local experience.
“In a way, it’s about football. It is about three fellas digging a grave for a local character. Two of them are my age and had sons who played football together. One of them died in a strange accident. And the play is all about, I suppose, young fellas trying to live up to their fathers. I have this theme running through my plays. It’s a thing we do where neighbours will dig the graves of someone who dies. If it’s someone well known, 40 or 50 will turn out and it can be great fun.
“But a few months beforehand, a neighbour died who didn’t have that many connections and people maybe felt there was no need to go out and dig the grave – part of it is being seen to be doing it. So myself and my brother and another fella were there this lonely winter evening. And there is a great scenario for a play right there. The people who have all the answers, the parents … maybe they are standing in the way of the younger ones growing up.”
In 2012, O’Rourke was working for a local firm. The west of Ireland was still blitzed from the recession. Business was steady but not hectic. “I knew I was kinda surplus to requirements. And I decided to make a jump for both our sakes.” He had a play under production with Livin’Dred in Cavan and made a spur of the moment decision to commit to theatre full-time. “It was all I had going. And it was stupid, looking back. But it worked out.”
He built up a steady following, cult in the first few years but his material can now be sourced on RTÉ radio shows and he acts in both his own plays and for other theatre groups. And he has tapped into something. A recent sketch touching on Brexit and the thriving black trade along the shadowy border regions is played for laughs but only to a point.
The pace of life and language and landscape of Leitrim can all be heard clearly in O’Rourke’s pieces and running through it all is an acknowledgement of the resilience and independent mindedness that informs the county. There isn’t the kind of overt anti-establishment streak often reflected in Donegal voting patterns. Instead, there’s just a get-on-with-it spirit.
“I think that in rural Ireland we have always felt quite far removed from Dublin and Leinster House. I don’t think that has changed … there is an independent sense of we will do what we have to do. Someone said to me after the crash: probably what will get rural Ireland back is cash. Everything will be done for cash. There was a lot of people sitting on a good bit of money on the time. They had accumulated quite a lot of hard cash. And that would help the shops and everyone else. The one place it wasn’t going to help was the government.
“We kind of worked our way out of it ourselves. Because of the way politics works and votes, they aren’t going to listen to what we want in Leitrim. So people make ends meet whatever way possible. I know there were and are people whom you would have to call criminals; they were doing this in a big way. I don’t think there will be a wall built.
“But I think one of the reasons that piece took off is that there was a lot of talk at the outset. But then people realized that nobody knew what they were talking about. So this thing made as much sense as anything. And maybe in two years time we be saying how silly we were to be laughing at something that, it turned out, had horrible repercussions. But right now, nobody understands what could happen. But Leitrim ... it’s an untouched place in a way. People are not too opinionated. We let sleeping dogs lie here. And take people as the find them.”
It’s a terrific time for the county team too. Right now, this weekend, the Leitrim senior footballers have the best scoring record in Ireland. They are two for two and sitting on top of division four. O’Rourke hopes to be in the crowd in Carrick when they host Antrim on Sunday.
“We were a 10 and 11 point team there for years. Awh, there’ll be a huge crowd,” he says warmly. “A lot of these boys now are in college and playing with lads from other counties. They know they can play against these lads. So why should they, just because they put a Leitrim jersey on, become an inferior footballer?”
It’s an old, burning question. The show goes on.