Thirty-eight amateur drama festivals took place in 2019, and would be getting underway again now but for the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these are in rural settings – in small towns and country crossroads halls and community centres.

Typically, festivals mix plays from the confined (more rural and smaller groups) and the open (larger, better-resourced groups) sections over 10 to 14 nights. Taking an average of a dozen nights, with an average of 150 people per night, that is almost 70,000 people attending live theatre across a two-month period. It’s an astonishing thought: a Croke Park-full, dwarfing the numbers going to professional productions over the same period.

These festivals are only possible because of the commitment of an army of volunteers, planning high-standard events on shoestring budgets

Peter Keaveney is one such volunteer. He has been chair of the Glenamaddy Drama Festival committee for decades. He managed to combine that with being part of the group’s own productions for many years. Peter does all this while running a busy farm and agri-contracting business.

“There were nights when I opened a performance in my black-tie suit, went home and calved a cow, and was back in the hall with my suit on for the raffle at the interval.”

It’s important to make these groups feel welcome

Glenamaddy is famous for the four roads that run through it, namechecked by Big Tom in the country’n’Irish classic, and it’s well into the west of Ireland, so some groups are travelling for many hours to appear at the festival. In 2019, Dalkey Players (Co Dublin) Palace Players (Fermoy, Co Cork) Butt Drama Circle, (Ballybofey Co Donegal) and Lislea Dramatic Society (Co Armagh) all participated. “It’s important to make these groups feel welcome. A meal beforehand, a drink afterwards, the social aspects of a festival are central, for the actors and production teams, but also for the audiences who mingle with them after the productions,” Peter says. Groups often combine two performances on consecutive nights when crossing the country, so careful planning and co-ordination is required between neighbouring drama festival committees.

In the early days in the 1960s, the festival took place in the Esker Ballroom, converted for the week or so

Plays performed at the 2019 festival in Glenamaddy ranged from the internationally famous – the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Steel Magnolias – to Irish staples from Martin McMahon and John B Keane.

There are also less well-known pieces. Chapatti is the tale of a dog and cat lover meeting in contemporary Dublin, from the pen of Christian O’Reilly. Eurydice is the reworking of the Greek legend by American playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Peter Keaveney explains that this broad range all takes place in the purpose built theatre in the village. “In the early days in the 1960s, the festival took place in the Esker Ballroom, converted for the week or so.” When dances began to occur during Lent, the venue had to be converted by the local volunteers from theatre to dancehall and back.

The venue can hold 150 people, and it’s full to capacity most nights during the festival

Then the town hall, which had hosted drama productions back in the early years of the 20th century, was refurbished as a bespoke theatre. Peter says the smaller capacity is more than made up for by the atmosphere: “The venue can hold 150 people, and it’s full to capacity most nights during the festival. Lighting and sound are of a very high standard, allowing the groups to show their productions in the best possible surroundings.”

Adjudication takes place immediately after the performance, with the assessment of the performance delivered from the very set the production has occurred in. In general, verdicts are honest but mindful of the amateur status of the performers and production teams involved.

The whole thing is a wonder, and it happens every year somewhere near your fireside.

When the pandemic is over, leave the fire and become part of the phenomenon that is Irish amateur drama. For without audiences, it’s worthless.

Better again, dust off that bucket list, and join a drama group.