Irish amateur drama exploded in the 1950s – a decade usually recalled as “drab” and “dark”. In fact, one of the reasons the movement flourished was because of the inspired timing of festivals during the drabbest parts of the calendar.
Lent was a long six weeks at the time: dances were banned, and young people had few outlets for meeting and entertaining themselves.
Rural drama groups sprung up around the country and filled the social void. Local festivals were organised for those barren weeks in February and March, and people flocked along. In 1952, the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland was formed. They held the first All-Ireland Drama Festival in the Sportex Hall (Athlone) the following year. The festival catered to one and three act plays, with two categories in each – open and rural (the latter for smaller groups).
The big leap forward was in 1959. A new sponsor, Esso, came on board. A new venue – the just-renovated Dean Crowe Memorial Hall – was gained. Like it’s predecesor, it was in Athlone, slap-bang in the centre of the country. With no motorways, the joke was that it was equally far from everywhere. This was certainly true of the first winners of the Esso Cup. They came from Listowel, and were premiering a new production from a local playwright.
The play was Sive; the playwright was John B Keane. It was a sensation, and the amateur production was brought to the Abbey Theatre, where both the play and its presentation stood comparison with any professional production.
Sive is a powerful piece of drama. Sixty years on, it still speaks to us. In fact, this month it speaks to us more than ever, for Sive, the titular character, is the illegitimate child of a single mother. They live with her aunt and uncle who control the decisions that will shape Sive’s life.
While Sive may not have been born in a mother and baby home, the stigma attached to single parenthood still dominates her life. Her grandmother, Nanna, has little status in the household or in society. Looking back now, it’s revealing that John B Keane could confront such issues in a play that won the All-Ireland drama festival, and took the Esso Cup home.
John B Keane was only one of a golden generation of playwights, who hailed from all corners of the country. Along the western seaboard alone, Brian Friel (Donegal), Tom Murphy and MJ Molloy (Galway) and Bryan McMahon, a fellow Kerryman, held a looking-glass up to the Ireland they lived in and wrote about.
They were following in the footsteps of Synge, Shaw and Wilde. The Behans and O’Casey were recounting life in Dublin. Beckett was a contemporary, but exiled in London. The tradition extends back through the centuries. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School For Scandal was shocking London theatregoers in 1777 – the year after the US revolution, and before the Act of Union. Oliver Goldsmith was at his peak that decade.
The tradition continues through to this day: Pat McCabe from Cavan, Jim Nolan and Billy Roche in the south east. Dubliners Marina Carr and Conor McPherson – the former with her midlands plays, the latter with The Weir – set plays in rural contexts, just like Synge a century ago.
Then there is the extraordinary Martin McDonagh. A London native with an Irish voice, his Connemara trilogy of plays were bawdy successors to Synge and John B Keane. He has gone on to film success with In Bruges and the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, like Beckett before him; bringing an Irish sensibility to the world stage.
Has McDonagh emulated the success of John B Keane on the stage in Athlone?
Tune in next week for the answer to that.