It should be well back in swing this week, had COVID-19 not taken it from us, too. All over Ireland, people should be abandoning fireplaces to gather, shivering, at town and country venues, centres of excellence for years. Going through their warm ups, then bringing intensity to preparation that just might deliver an All-Ireland later in the year.
Before you think this is about GAA, you’re mostly wrong (with Denis and Damien’s permission, I have slipped a mention in). No, Athlone rather than Croke Park is the ultimate destination, for this is amateur drama.
It’s a phenomenon across rural Ireland, with dozens of companies, hundreds of actors, and many thousands who long for the Festival nights of February and March. For a week or two, little halls and theatres become the rural Irish version of Cannes as up to a dozen companies arrive to put their plays on for the locals. People buy season tickets, bankrolling the whole operation, for a ringside seat to a variety of genres, themes and locations that would put Netflix to shame.
Groups, having rehearsed since November, perfecting their craft in those dark January nights, are chasing points. The goal is to qualify for the All-Ireland finals, through winning or placing in the nine festivals they can enter.
I first became aware of this phenomenon when I wandered along to a play in Enniscorthy one spring night. I don’t even remember why I went, but it was pretty good, and the craic in Murphy Floods afterwards even better. To me, the group themselves seemed to be all teachers – some had even taught me. Maybe that’s why, some years later, I suggested to my wife, Sandra, that she join.
She had relocated from Dublin to a farm, and while she was from Gorey (not far up the road), most of her friends from home were also away. And she was teaching. So she wandered into the AGM, and wandered home with a place on the committee. They had seen her coming.
There followed some astonishing years where we were part of something genuinely thrilling. Enniscorthy Theatre Group were about to embark on a rare run of success. The groundwork had been done over many years of being also-rans. A deep pool of talent had emerged – much deeper than the talent that appeared on stage. Directors, lighting and sound production; set design and construction.
And they weren’t all teachers. There were barmen, builders, office workers and nurses and even farmers – yes, farmers. Many’s the am-dram company that relies on a jeep and West Wood trailer to haul their set around the country. A shed comes in handy for set construction; some of the sets are astonishing in their detail and complexity. Some farmers act, but the time of year makes it very demanding to juggle calving, lambing, planting and acting.
That first year of Sandra’s involvement saw Enniscorthy achieve the Holy Grail – the Esso Trophy was captured from Athlone. Better again, it was won with a recent play by local writer, Billy Roche, and was the first amateur production of a play which had wowed London’s West End, where it premiered a few years earlier. Poor Beast in the Rain was centred around a bookies on All-Ireland hurling final day, and featured Norma Doyle, daughter of hurling and sheepdog legend Tim Flood.
That was in May, 1996, and in September Wexford ended a 28-year wait to bring Liam McCarthy to the banks of the Slaney.
Norma’s brother, Sean, was a key player, but was injured for the final. Wexford had a man sent off, and afterwards, captain Martin Storey said it was still 15-on-15, because Sean Flood was on the pitch that day in spirit, so the red card only evened the sides.
A line worthy of Billy Roche, who was following in the footsteps of the writer of the first play to win the Esso trophy. But that’s a story for next week.