WHEN the young, enthusiastic, and determined Eileen Nolan set off in 1962 to share her joy of drama with school students, she could never have imagined the decades of amazing memories, top class productions, and the truly special family of students that awaited her.
Fuelled simply by a “love of doing what I’m doing”, Eileen admits she was never “overly ambitious” and just “followed the road ahead” in setting up the Montfort College of Performing Arts.
“As a child I was known as Papillon (butterfly), as I flitted from one thing to another”, she adds with a laugh. “I always just lived in the moment.”
But her passion and commitment to every nuance of the business, her exacting attention to detail, and insistence on the highest standards both on and off the stage, has ensured the Montforts longevity over the decades.
Today, alongside Trevor Ryan, her business partner of ten years, The Montfort College of Performing Arts is a thriving enterprise with more than 1,800 students, 13 outside studios, and 23 staff, offering the full gamut of performance skills, from vocal and drama studies to dance, acro, and musical theatre.
Their flagship premises in the South Ring Business Park boasts three sound-proofed vocal studios, three multi-purpose dance studios, a vast library of musical scores and drama books, an extensive collection of props, and a room specifically designated to house their 20,000-plus costumes.
“I have been in the Montforts for 39 years,” says Trevor. “I grew up with them and credit everything I have done in my career and my life to the confidence and focus I gained while training with them. As well as being business partners, Eileen and I are dear friends.”
Eileen Nolan’s childhood was steeped in music and drama. Both her parents were actively involved in theatre. Her father, Jim O’Brien, would traditionally be the panto baddie/baron in the Father Mathew Hall, her mum Frances, leader of the Cork Symphony Orchestra, often playing violin in the pit. Her sisters Breda, Mary, Angela and Frances also played instruments.
Sunday afternoons were spent around the piano, making music with her family and friends. Jim was also on the committee of the International Choral Festival and the Cork Film Festival.
With such a pedigree, it is little wonder that Eileen gravitated towards the magical world of theatre after she graduated from Trinity College London.
“I became a peripatetic teacher,” she explains, travelling every day to a new location and visiting the schools in that area. It was a full-on schedule but, Eileen insists, she “never found it tough-going. That’s how I built my business”.
As her drama students qualified as teachers, she brought them along to the outlying schools also. Teachers like Mary Weston, Valerie Horan, and Maura Currivan became an integral part of the successful establishment of the Montforts in those early days.
“I had set up a studio in Greg Hall on the South Mall and was working from there one day when I spotted an ad in the paper which said ‘Classroom for sale in North Cork’. “
She bought the classroom, had it transplanted to the garden in her home in Ballyvolane, and began teaching there in the evenings. That classroom is still being used to this day.
“I never considered any of it hard work. I was simply doing what I loved doing,” says Eileen.
The Montforts started out, in its simplest form, as a group performing choral verse.
“We were performing (choral verse) at a concert, and were asked if we would do a few songs also,” adds Eileen,
The brilliant Cork-arranger Michael Casey did an arrangement for the group, and that was the beginning of a very long and wonderful association betweenhim and the Montforts.
“Michael’s arrangements were always very intricate, but they gave us our distinctive Montfort sound.” says Eileen, who had a gift for inviting collaborators of the highest calibre to work with the group to broaden their innate skill-set.
Alongside Michael, there were internationally renowned choreographers like Larry Oakes and Jimmy Bellchamber, MDs like Jack Murphy, Cathal Dunne, John Donegan, and Ronnie O’Shaughnessy, directors like Fr John Long of Jefferson City, and the late theatrical giant Michael Twomey. All of whom helped shape the Montforts into a spectacular troupe.
“Fr John was a hard task-master but he was such a professional and we learned so much from him, from how to move on stage to the importance of strong eyebrows and fake eyelashes,” Eileen recalls.
Her first production of West Side Story in 1979, which was directed by Fr John Long and featured a host of local talent (including key soloists Sharon Barry, Frank Twomey, and the late great Hugh Moynihan) with some American professionals and a superb U.S choreographer, kicked off a golden era for the Montforts, and put them on the map.
With sensational costumes, slick choreography, unparalleled vocals, and a breadth of vision in each production, The Montforts quickly established themselves as a veritable tour de force and enjoyed prime slots each year in both the Christmas panto and Summer Revels at Cork Opera House.
They were also regulars with Jury’s cabaret, sang at the Gala Launch of RTÉ 2, performed in the UK and U.S, and sang one of Michael Casey’s arrangements with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Family is a word that encapsulates the ethos of the Montforts and that mindset was established from the get-go with the stability of Eileen and Tony Nolan at the helm.
“If Eileen was the face of it, Tony was the backbone,” insists Trevor.
Handsome and charismatic, he was an astute businessman and stage manager, and cherished husband of Eileen till he passed away a few years ago.
“No family came into our home, but our Montfort family were so close to me that Tony and I were quite happy that they were our family,” Eileen says.
“We also have had lots of weddings within the group,” chips in Trevor.
Even now, every single Tuesday, traditionally the rehearsal night for the original Montforts, Eileen meets with past stalwarts including Ronnie O’Shaughnessy, Marie Cotter, Margaret O’Farrell, Margaret O’Sullivan, Deirdre O’Riordan, Deirdre White and Sile Healy, the irreplaceable costume designer and wardrobe mistress for the Montforts for many decades.
An inveterate letter and card writer, Eileen still keeps in contact with many who have crossed paths with her along the way. Former U.S senator Laura Kent Donoghue, whom she met in the US while on a Montforts trip, is still a dear friend to this day and they phone each other every week.
Ex-pupils are scattered far and wide, many of whom have performed on the West End, including Michael McCarthy, Irene Warren and Claire O’Leary (Les Miserables), Hugh Lee (Stones in his Pockets), TV, stage and film actors JD Kelleher and Norma Sheahan, and Virgin Media’s Elaine Crowley.
Many others, like Catherine Mahon Buckley (CADA), Angela Newman (Chattyboo Productions), Irene Warren (The Performers Academy), Valery Niggli (Director of the Zurich Comedy Club), and director/writer Marion Wyatt set up their own hugely successful performing endeavours.
When Trevor approached Eileen a decade ago to join forces as a business partner, she “graciously welcomed him on board”, insisting he was a “gift from the Archangel Michael and the best thing to happen to the business”.
“I would never question the exemplary standard of the teaching,” explains Trevor, “but, coming from a marketing background myself, I could see how the school could benefit from a new website, and a marketing push to get the name back out into the public consciousness.”
The only thing Eileen insisted on was keeping the name. When she had married Tony Nolan, an only son, and moved into his family home, Montfort was the name given to the house by Tony’s mum. “The name is gold!” declares Trevor proudly.
Covid was incredibly difficult for the college. “We shut down overnight”, says Trevor. But lockdown gave them time to explore new ways to be innovative and relevant to the kids. They ran Zoom classes six days a week, and even offered free online masterclasses with stars of West End shows like Hamiliton and Les Miserables.
“We only managed to get these incredible performers because they too were out of work!” admits Trevor.
Next year is the 60th anniversary of the Montfort College of Performing Arts and Eileen and Trevor have plans to celebrate in a multitude of ways.
“We hope to record Michael Casey’s amazing arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Waters with our Musical Theatre group,” says Trevor.
They also plan to host a gala concert in the autumn, recreating some of the most iconic musical numbers and choreography from the Montfort’s best-loved productions like Camelot, West Side Story and Hello Dolly.
Eileen suffered a stroke a few years ago but even that couldn’t quench her spirit and she bounced back as determined as ever.
“She is a visionary, and was always years ahead of her peers,” says Trevor. “Formidable and hugely respected, Eileen Nolan is fair, gentle and kind, and commands a room with her elegant and noble presence to this day. We share a passion for the craft and an innate respect for each other. I hope to carry on her legacy.”
And what a legacy.