UCC group bring story of Mac Curtain to life

Tomás Mac Curtain’s death and inquest 100 years ago this week form the subject of a play by UCC Players. CHRIS DUNNE went along to meet the cast and director, as they prepare to perform for some very special guests later this year
UCC group bring story of Mac Curtain to life
The UCC Players play on the Tomas MacCurtain inquest.(front left) Jim O'Mahony in the role of Tomas MacCurtain with the cast and (front right) writer/director Dr Finola Doyle-O'Neill.Pic; Larry Cummins

WHEN UCC Players perform a drama marking the anniversary of the death of Tomás Mac Curtain later this year, they hope there will be some very special guests in the audience: President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina.

Dr Finola Doyle-O’Neill, the first UCC graduate to receive a Doctorate in Ireland’s radio and television history, founded UCC Players back in 2014. The group are made up of staff, retired staff, and alumni.

The mother of five is directing the drama group in Wilful Murder: The Tomás Mac Curtain Inquest.

Performances were due to be held in the Aula Maxima in UCC on March 19, and on March 20 — the actual centenary of Mac Curtain’s death — at the North Monastery where Mac Curtain, who was elected Lord Mayor of Cork in January, 1920, went to school.

Writer/director Dr Finola Doyle-O'Neill with her mum Kay Doyle and her sister Cliodhna Doyle.Pic; Larry Cummins
Writer/director Dr Finola Doyle-O'Neill with her mum Kay Doyle and her sister Cliodhna Doyle.Pic; Larry Cummins

However, they have now been cancelled owing to the coronavirus.

The plan now is that the production will be shown at the Everyman on May 10 — with Finola hoping President Higgins and Sabina will be available to attend there.

Many schools in Cork have also offered to host UCC Players in September.

Finola had a vision when the UCC Players were formed.

“I got this mad notion one Friday afternoon,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be great to act out history?

“I am not an actress, I make a far better director! You could say that I’m an Honorary President of the UCC Players. I appear when I can; the UCC Players have taken my vision for performative history to the stage.”

Members of the Mac Curtain family, from home and abroad, had been due to attend this week’s cancelled performances, along with President Michael and his wife.

Eugene Manley with his nephew Donncha O'Donovan.Pic; Larry Cummins
Eugene Manley with his nephew Donncha O'Donovan.Pic; Larry Cummins

However, Finola would like to assure readers that no-one looking forward to the play will be disappointed.

The historical drama in a courtroom setting portrays the inquest of former Lord Mayor of Cork, who was killed on his 36th birthday — March 20, 1920.

“I invited Sabina Higgins to UCC in December, 2018, to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage,” says Finola. “We celebrated a unique parade of women throughout the ages. Sabina led the parade which was followed by a symposium on the role of women today.

“Sabina loved it so much; she wanted to return to UCC for similar historical events. She was delighted to receive an invitation to Wilful Murder: The Tomás Mac Curtain Inquest,” says Finola.

“When we heard she had accepted the invitation on February 12, all hell broke loose!”

Sabina was due to be accompanied to the performance at UCC on March 19 by her husband, Michael D. Higgins.

“When we heard that the President was attending too, we were really, really, excited!” says Finola.

Sadly, that will not happen, but fingers crossed they can make the Everyman performance in May.

Finola, who has also written an historical play on the women of 1916, called Walking with Ireland into the Sun, which was performed throughout Munster during 2016/17, has done extensive research into the life and death of Tomás Mac Curtain.

“I found the archives of the Irish Examiner were a great source for my research when I was adapting the Mac Curtain inquest re-enactment for stage,” says Finola.

Donncha O'Donovan with his dad Diarmuid and uncle Eugen Manley.Pic; Larry Cummins
Donncha O'Donovan with his dad Diarmuid and uncle Eugen Manley.Pic; Larry Cummins

“I spent nearly all of Christmas going through historical accounts and researching the Mac Curtain inquest.

“The original inquest held in the City Hall had 97 witnesses. I’ve whittled the original number down to 13 witnesses.”

On March 20, his 36th birthday, Mac Curtain was shot dead in front of his wife and son by a group of men with blackened faces, who were found to be members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), by the official inquest into the event.

The rehearsals for the re-enactment were in full swing at UCC and the cast were in full authentic 1920s regalia for a dress rehearsal when I popped into the Boole theatre, UCC, one Friday evening.

“Penneys, friends, and charity shops all came in handy for our clothes, shoes and accessories,” says Brenda Nestor, who is career advisor at UCC and who plays Mac Curtain’s sister-in-law, Miss Suzie Walsh.

“We called in all our contacts and they came up with the goods! We have a real 1920s vibe! It is great to be involved with the UCC Players,” says Brenda.

“We are an amateur bunch who all enjoy doing drama.”

The youngest cast member, Donncha O’Donovan, aged eight, is a second class pupil at Gaelscoil Ui Driscoil, Glanmire, and he plays Mac Curtain’s son, Tomás Og Mac Curtain.

Has he learned all his lines?

“I don’t have any lines!” he says. “I just have to cry!”

And he promptly proceeds to demonstrate. Turning on the waterworks at a drop of a hat; Donnacha is a born actor.

“I cry easily!” he says.

Another actor in the play, UCC graduate David Rowlands, didn’t get his costume from Penneys or from friends.

“My uniform is coming from the UK, says David. “I’m a main witness giving evidence at the inquest and I’m very important!”

Finola, who has artistic and dramatic licence, has included members of her own family to partake on stage and back-stage.

“My mother, Kay Doyle, plays Mrs Walsh, Tomás Mac Curtain’s mother-in-law, and my sister, Cliodhna, is assisting in the stage management. My daughter is helping out too,” says Finola.

“Our producer and stage-manager Brenda Lynch, has proved to be invaluable in helping me as director to adapt the play for stage. She has put in a lot of work and a lot of effort.”

Community choir, Voices of Cork, will add further atmosphere to the proceedings in the Aula Maxima, The North Monastery, and the Everyman when the enactment of the play takes place.

“We are expecting a huge attendance from the general public and there is huge interest from schools to see the play, a centenary event to mark the death of Tomás Mac Curtain, says Finola.

Wilful Murder: The inquest of Tomás Mac Curtain is due to run on May 10 in the Everyman Theatre and is being generously sponsored by Cork City Council as part of their centenary commemoration events.

Tickets will be free to the public. Queries to Nicky Carroll, Cork City Council.

Contact nicky.carroll@corkcoco.ie or call 021-4285207 to find out more.

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