Careers in Cork: Life as a creative? It’s busy, but rewarding

In part three of his ‘Careers in Cork’ series, TIMOTHY O’MAHONY talks to Douglas woman Jessica Courtney Leen, who is a filmmaker, playwright, singer and also director of West End House School of Arts
Careers in Cork: Life as a creative? It’s busy, but rewarding

Jessica Courtney, at West End House pictured with Michael Fassbender and Colm Bairéad. Picture: Marco Conte.

CORK woman Jessica Courtney Leen is a film-maker and playwright who was recently appointed director of West End House School of Arts in Killarney.

She is also a singer and recently worked at Corks 96fm as a Sunday morning news broadcaster. Here, I catch up with her to find out about her career to-date and plans for the future.

The Beginnings of Storytelling

I always loved writing, storytelling, and performing, so that’s what I always wanted to do. Originally, I studied Journalism & New Media in college in UL. I then decided it was time to follow what I always wanted and went to the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin and trained there as an actor.

One of the courses we were taught was called Manifesto where we learned how to write and create our own theatre. This was the beginning of me seeing the many possible ways of producing the stories I write.

I then graduated from the Gaiety and worked as a freelance artist for four years, exploring my writing through theatre. I wrote four plays and brought three of them to the stage in full production.

Two of Clubs and Waiting For Wifi were my first productions and played at Theatre Upstairs and Smock Alley in Dublin before playing at Cork Arts Theatre and Listowel Writers’ Week Festival. Reject was co-written and performed with Aoife FitzPatrick and performed at Smock Alley in Dublin.

I then moved to London for a year and wrote my fourth play , Maybe It’s Me.

Jessica Courtney at the Newport Beach Festival. Picture: Amber Baruch
Jessica Courtney at the Newport Beach Festival. Picture: Amber Baruch

Tough Start

I moved to London to pursue screenwriting but I didn’t know where to start. I worked in a flower shop and a bar and spent my free time working on scripts and entering every competition left and right of me.

There were constant ‘no’s’ and every job I wanted to apply for to work in a writer’s room required a masters in Screenwriting or a portfolio of experience.


I guess my stubborn side came in handy when I heard ‘no’ so often and couldn’t get in any door to get the experience I needed to build that portfolio, because I just thought, OK, well I’ll just do it myself then.

I started attending film festivals in London; went to industry events to make some new friends in the same line of work, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

I eventually had a script for a short film that I loved and wanted to make, so I pulled in every favour I could with all of my new film friends and the community I had gotten to know in Wandsworth, and spent every penny I had on making it. That film was Bronagh, my debut short, which played at some wonderful festivals including Cork International Film Festival, and Kerry International Film Festival. 

It won four awards internationally including 'Best First Time Female Filmmaker’.

My second short Not My Sister was part funded by Cork City Council and premiered at the 34th Galway Film Fleadh. It won Best in Kerry in the ‘Kerry Connection’ category at Kerry International Film Festival and also featured in the ‘Best in Cork’ category in Cork International Film Festival.

Jessica Courtney at the Newport Beach Festival. Picture: Amber Baruch
Jessica Courtney at the Newport Beach Festival. Picture: Amber Baruch

Not My Sister screened at the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival in LA in October, 2022. That was a huge highlight of this career journey for me. It’s easy to forget the milestone moments when you’re working in this industry – you’re your own boss/cheerleader and your week can often be punctuated with rejection emails, so moments like the trip to the Newport Beach are really important to me to remember and be grateful for on the harder days.

Jessica Courtney at the Kerry Film Festival with sister Jennifer watching her short film.
Jessica Courtney at the Kerry Film Festival with sister Jennifer watching her short film.

Stepping in to big Shoes

While working as a freelance artist, I also worked as a drama teacher, facilitating classes and workshops between Cork, Kerry and Dublin. I was mentored for seven years by my uncle Donie Courtney who was the most magnificent drama tutor. I worked very closely with him in the West End House School of Arts in Killarney where he was the Director of the School.

In January of this year, I was appointed to the position of Creative Director of the West End House. While his are shoes I will never fill, I do hope I can do him proud and keep what was his vision for the school alive.

Jessica Courtney at Cork Opera House with Megan Haly at at the Cork Film Festival.
Jessica Courtney at Cork Opera House with Megan Haly at at the Cork Film Festival.

The Joy of Working with Students

The most fulfilling aspect of the work is why the school exists at all, and that is working with local students in Killarney. The school was founded to bring access to the arts to students in nearby schools as well as locals in Kerry.

The difference in confidence and self-belief I’ve seen in these young people over the past year is honestly what dreams are made of. The friendships and creative circles that have been born out of students coming to classes during the school day and in the evenings are a testament to my uncle’s legacy and everything he did as a teacher and creative.

Why I Love the Work I do

The best thing for me about my film-making and being a creative is the people I work with. The joy I get in seeing something that once only existed as an idea in my head come to life for everyone to see on a screen is unmatched as far as feelings go.

But the friends I’ve made in the work I do is second to none. I’ve two incredible women, Megan Haly and Christiane Reicke, who began as crew on my first short film and stuck around as two of my most wonderful friends. They also worked on Not My Sister with me, as did Lori Stacey, my editor for both films, who is as talented as she is kind. I met Jass Foley who shot Not My Sister in 2021 and he has been such a friend and such a support to me in this career.’

Trying to Switch Off can be Hard

The biggest challenge in my work is switching off. There aren’t enough hours in the day and that coupled with a lot of driving can make it tough to hit pause and get some head space.

I’m working on recording my first album at the moment as well as developing a feature film script, so as much as I’d like to throw in other cool hobbies, my hands are fairly full.

My favourite thing to do to unwind is to get lost in a café for a few hours – just coffee and daydreaming.

I love West Cork and have some friends there so, when I can, I head down there to get my fill of beach walks and great music.

I worked at 96fm for two years during the pandemic and up until late 2022 as a Sunday morning news broadcaster. It was my absolute favourite job ever. I worked with the most incredible people who always supported my other life as a creative. I’m forever grateful for the support of the gang in the 96fm newsroom, and everything I learned there. Pearse, Barry, Katie and Mairead were monumental supports to me.

Jessica Courtney with her dad.
Jessica Courtney with her dad.

Hopes and Dreams

My goal right now is to continue to guide our growing creative school community at West End House.

In my own creative work, I’m hoping to get funding for a new short film I’ve written, and to continue developing my feature film script. The ultimate goal is to be making films for a very long time.

The last year has taught me a lot, but nothing more than how wonderful a community can be. I lean into that a lot now, and the glamour of ‘making it’ continues to reveal itself to me as a bit less sparkly. A walk on the beach with a good friend is utter Hollywood for me.

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