History of the West Clare Drama Festival

The idea of holding a Drama Festival was first mentioned at a meeting of the Doonbeg Guild of Muintir na Tire and a sub-committee of three was set up to examine the proposal. That sub-committee first met on Sunday, October 22nd, 1961. A letter from the Secretary of Boher Guild of Muintir na Tire, Streamstown, county Westmeath, provided information and helpful suggestions about the organisation and running of a Festival. The sub-committee was expanded to a six person management committee; Micheál Aghas, Jack Downes, Joe Hurley, Murt McInerney, Tom O’Gorman, and Fr. Patrick Taaffe, C.C. Other committees were established to look after various tasks; Reception and Reservations, Programmes, Stage, and Catering. It was to be a truly community, co-operative effort.

“The West Clare Drama Festival” (its official title) was formally opened by an tUasal Sean O’Ceallaigh, T.D., on Sunday, March 18th 1962.

“Big attendances enjoyed the Festival during the week and general indications are that the event, organised as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Muintir na Tire, will be an outstanding success.” So we were informed by “The Clare Champion” of the following Saturday.

Five groups from West Clare staged three-act plays. The Cooraclare Dramatic Group presented the first performance – a very moving production of “Autumn Fire” by T.C. Murray. They were followed by the O’Curry Players in “Nano”, Kilrush Players in “The Money Doesn’t Matter”, St. Patrick’s Dramatic Society, Slaveen in “The Down Express” and Kilkee Drama group in “Home is the Hero” by Walter Macken. The Kilkee Group won the Canon Hayes Memorial Trophy.

The admission charges were adults 3/6 (22c) (Bookable), 2/6 (16c); children 1/- (6c); Season Ticket 10/- (63c).

Traoloch O’hAonghusa, Producer, Taidhbherc na Gaillimhe, was the adjudicator and he proved to be a tremendous asset. He was completely unselfish with his time and talents. He enthusiastically discussed drama and drank tea with the members of the groups into the early hours of the morning. The fee for his labours was the princely sum of £27.15 (€34.48) including expenses! It was pre V.A.T. and very much pre-Euro! He returned in November to run a Drama Course and came back to adjudicate in 1963 and 1969. Tá sé imithe anois ar slí na firinne. Go ndéana Dia tróchaire ar a anam macanta, flaithiul, uasal.

Participants have come from all over the country from Dundalk and Cork, from Arklow and Mayo, as well as from Kerry, Sligo, Kildare, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick, Galway and Dublin. Friendships have been built up over the years and the familiar faces appear on stage and are to be seen enjoying the craic at the festival club.

You have to be totally dedicated and more than somewhat mad to get involved in Drama but, when I tell you that these crazy people have presented to date almost 400 different full length plays and almost 200 different one-act plays – the works of authors such as Shakespeare, Chekov, Pinter, Srindberg, Lorca, Williams, Eliot, Wilde, Cronin, Yeats, Kavanagh, Synge, Lady Gregory, O’Casey, Macken, D’Alton, Robinson, Sheils, Murray, McCarthy, Molloy, Leonard, Friel, Bolt, Shaffer, Simon, Tomelty, McMahon, Murphy, Farrell, Moliere, McDonagh, Roche, Carr and our great friend John B. Keane and others, you realise how wonderful they are and what entertainment they have provided for us.

The total cost of the first festival was £178.03 (€226.05). Attendances have naturally enough fluctuated over the years. Local groups and John B. Keane plays tend to draw bigger houses and keep the show on the road but also a number of generous people have consistently been supportive and they have, in a special way, ensured the survival of the venture through some lean years – as well as the years of plenty when their subscriptions were ploughed into equipment. “Their names, my dear child” as the Bird O’Donnell would say “is wrote down in the Book of Life in red letters like blood”. They are to be found in the Patrons & Sponsors’ Lists in the festival programmes.

The Clare County Council, too, have been generous and a special word of thanks is due to P.J. Kelly, M.C.C., who prompted us to ask in the first place and then facilitated the response; to the County Manager Joe Boland who has, in so many ways made this county a better place – fad saol cuige – for making provision for the grant aid and to the Councilors for their wholehearted co-operation. The Arts fare better in this county than in many others. Thanks are also due to our County Librarian, Noel Crowley and to Siobhán Mulcahy, Clare’s Arts Officer as well as her predecessors. For many years Golden Vale, through the good offices of Stephen O’Brien, sponsored the prizes for Best Actors and Best Actresses in the various sections. Later Bank of Ireland, Kilrush was a generous sponsor. The Perpetual Trophies were provided by local and Kilrush business people.

Catering for the groups before each performance, at the beginning, was in the capable and generous hands of Mrs. Kitty Igoe. Indeed her famous charm and wholesome meals were among the attractions of the Festival for the members of the casts who return to Doonbeg year after year. Even President Hillary was impressed! Her late, popular son Seán, assisted her for many years and since his death in 1999, her granddaughter Caroline carries on the tradition of generous hospitality. Madge Hayes looked after the adjudicators who always departed somewhat more rotund than they were when they arrived. The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Committee have ensured the smooth running of the event over the years

Lighting and stage equipment have been built up over the years from the six biscuit tin floods with 200 watt lamps and two dimmers given to us by Padraig de Barra in the early years to the thousands of euro worth of floods, fresnel mirror spots and modern lighting controls and an up-to-date sound system. The refurbishment of the hall in 1998 and the new seating have added greatly to the comfort of audiences. The Minister for Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera provided a grant towards the upgrading of the stage lighting during 2001.

As is always the case, the bulk of the work falls to the Secretary. The Festival has been fortunate in having two great Secretaries, Tom O’Gorman up to 1970 and Cissie McMahon since then. There is splendid so-operation, and work is shared and enjoyed by all members of the Committees.

The Festival is a member of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland and has participated in nominating groups to take part in All-Ireland Finals (rural/Confined) since 1968 and to the All-Ireland Finals (Open) in Athlone since 1973.

On March 14th, 1982, the 21st West Clare Drama Festival came to a close with a performance of “Peg O’ My Heart”, presented by Carrick-on-Suir Drama Group before a full house which included Uachtaran na hEireann, ár gcara agus as gcomharsa, An Doctuir Padraig O’hIrighile.

It was a heartwarming and happy occasion to mark “the coming of age”, a fitting celebration of Twenty-One Years of a wonderful variety of plays – a unique spectrum of Irish Drama and many works by authors from abroad.

The 2001 Festival, had been scheduled to take place from Saturday, the 3rd to Tuesday, the 13th of March, featuring a splendid variety of plays. Unfortunately the threat of Foot and Mouth Disease resulted in the postponement and scaling down of the event to five plays in all – four in competition from Kilrush, Ennis, Castlewood (Cratloe) and Doonbeg. The winning group was The Ennis Players who presented “The Lonesome West” by Martin McDonagh. The Best Actress was Margaret O’Leary from Castlewood, while the Best Actor award went to John Keane from Doonbeg. Torch Players later treated us to a splendid performance of “The Gingerbread Lady” by Neil Simon.

In 1968 Traolach O hAonghusa wrote to the Committee: “Ar scath a cheile is ea mhaireann na daoine – especially in the field of Drama. Only those who have direct contact with the presentation of stage entertainment can fully appreciate the immense difficulties, the heart-scalding frustrations and, yet, the wonderful sense of both satisfaction and achievement that are part and parcel of theatrical endeavour. Intense labour leading to immeasurable reward is the lot of anyone who is so fortunate (or so foolhardy!) as to become involved in Drama.

“The Art of Drama includes such a diversity of components, all highly advantageous both to the participating individual (whether he be author, producer, actor, stage manager, committee member, programme seller or member of the audience) and to the community, that the full benefits deriving therefrom are incapable of assessment. Successful operation in the theatrical field would daunt all but practical idealists. Faith in their own vision and in their people, combined with unlimited capacity for hard work and co-operation, are basic requirements. Though their aims may be local and immediate, assuredly the results of their efforts will be felt far beyond the confines of their own district and future generations will continue to reap the reward of present activity. The prospective harvest is so immense that it behoves everyone to be a labourer.”

“Doonbeg has ploughed a good field, has sown the best of seed. The patient, careful attention required by a growing crop is in capable hands. God willing, the harvest will be bountiful.”

The harvest has indeed been bountiful and we are confident that the next fifty years will be in capable and talented hands.

While we look back with great satisfaction at the achievements of the past fifty plus years, we remember with great affection, and not a little sadness, those who helped to make the festival what it is. We look forward with hope for the future and pass the torch to a new generation who will make it even more successful.