IN Cork terms, Declan Hassett is perhaps the closest thing we have to royalty. Playwright, author, journalist, arts advocate, and quintessential all-round gentleman, he is universally loved, and claimed as a friend by so many.
After a lifetime of summers spent in Ardmore, Co Waterford, however, there might be a bit of a tussle as to which county could claim him more!
Declan has lived his entire life in Blackrock, in the shadow of the Rockies home ground, in the former cottage which was rebuilt in 1939 by his maternal grandfather, James Cotter.
But the pull of Ardmore has coursed through his veins since childhood.
“My father grew up in Ardmore, where his father was the RIC sergeant stationed there,” he explains.
Despite spending almost 54 years of his life working in Cork, for Dwyers wholesalers, what sustained Mr Hassett Senior throughout the year were the three weeks each summer he spent with his family in Ardmore.
“Dad would rent a holiday house down there and we would relocate en masse. Literally everything we needed (from brass beds, furniture, to Raleigh and Rudge bikes) would be loaded in the back of one of Dwyer’s trucks.”
Declan’s father didn’t drive, so his uncle would bring all six kids, Declan, his sister and four brothers, to “exotic-sounding places like Goat Island.”
“We kids hated having to leave at the end of the holiday. We used to cry all the way home from Ardmore and when we saw Blackrock Castle, we went into paroxysms of misery,” he adds with a laugh.
One stand-out joyous childhood memory Declan recalled was during the awful polio epidemic of the 1950s.
“We were in Ardmore for the month of August when it was announced that schools were to stay closed for September. We couldn’t believe our luck, and ran out into the street to tell our friends that we weren’t going home to the city at all!”
Like his love for Ardmore, Declan’s penchant for GAA was also formed in the cradle.
“I had to love GAA, given where I lived. I grew up not realising there was any other team bar Blackrock Hurling. I still feel the only real sport is GAA!!”
Pres rugby came a close second, however.
In fact, a Pres rugby match in Limerick was where he met Ann, his wife of 58 years.
Ever the rogue, Declan jokes, “I was about 15 and, as Pres were well ahead at the time, I wisely told her I’d kiss her every time they scored!”
As a youngster, when he wasn’t hitting a sliotar, Declan could be found reading a play script.
“I always loved the idea that words could translate into action on the stage. People became more memorable to me if they occupied a character in a play,” he explains.
He was also drawn to the magic of cinema and, provided he could scrounge the money for the ticket, he loved to go to the Savoy by himself every Saturday at 5pm to watch the mid-evening show with the Universal News, etc, and Fred Bridgeman on the organ.
“Between the short and the main feature, I would go into the men’s loo and wait there till the whole place had been cleaned, then sneak back into the cinema to watch them all again and try to get home before the last bus.”
From such a young age, Declan was sowing the seeds of what was to become not only his career, but his vocation in later life.
His initial vocation, however, was of a more traditional kind, as he spent four and half years in the seminary in Navan, Co Meath, at the Columban Fathers Mission, founded by Cork man Bishop Galvin and Dr John Blowick of Mayo.
“I didn’t regret going in”, he insists.
“However, I didn’t regret leaving, either. I missed female company, including my mother’s.”
“I was showing such prospects that the Columbans were going to send me to Korea. I felt Korea was in enough trouble without adding me to it,” he declares with a chuckle.
So, Declan returned home. And, by a quirk of fate, Ann came home from nursing in Romford, Essex that same week. The year was 1962.
“I was the second youngest in my family and I know that my father would have loved a priest in the family. But, when I left the seminary, he never made me feel I had disappointed him.”
The seminary gave Declan a great grounding both educationally and emotionally. In fact, he credits the advance English studies he did in the seminary with clinching the interview for his first job in The Cork Examiner.
Things were looking up.
“When Ann and I got engaged, my bosses offered me 17% more money to go on a night shift.”
Declan jumped at the prospect.
Twelve years of nights later, however, he pestered Donal Crosbie to get him back on days and, after a period with Evening Echo sport, Declan was appointed Editor of the Echo in 1976.
At that time, he was one of the youngest editors of a daily newspaper in Europe.
“After 10 years as editor, I was wrecked physically and mentally, so they gave me my freedom and my favourite job, as Arts Editor for The Examiner. It was the happiest time of my life”, enthuses Declan.
“I have always loved artistic people. They appreciate what you do.”
In his capacity as Arts Editor, Declan left an indelible mark on the artistic landscape of Cork and was unwavering in his support and encouragement of all artistic endeavours.
During the course of his work, he had many ‘pinch-me’ moments, like his impromptu interview with singer/actor Howard Keel backstage at the Cork Opera House. Or discussing hurling over lunch with Fugitive star Harrison Ford in the Dorchester Hotel in London. Paolo Gavinelli’s Rigoletto in London and Jose Cura’s performance in Aida in an ampitheatre in Verona were precious memories too. However, one of his absolute all-time favourites was the beautiful Cork soprano Cara O’Sullivan.
“Cara was so funny, generous, vivacious, and brilliant. She was such a massive talent,” Declan recalls.
“I genuinely believe had she been in any other city in the world, there would be a theatre named after her.”
Declan’s biggest supporters are the large extended family, of eight children and 14 grandchildren, he and Anne have created.
“We are like an Italian family!” he declares.
“We are very close. We almost know something has happened before it has actually happened! Covid was very hard for us as we couldn’t get together and kiss and hug each other.”
That family closeness helped sustain them all through a very sad time.
“Three years ago, we lost our son David. He was a brilliant sportsman, wonderful character, and larger than life. He was so loved by all our family that when he passed away, he broke our hearts.”
Declan recalls the moment they heard the devastating news.
“Two lovely guards knocked on the door one April day, three years ago, and told us he had died on a city bench. We thought he had died alone but, at the funeral, a man came up to us and said he had been walking past, when he saw David and thought he looked very ill. ‘I was with him when he passed’, he explained to us. And he came to David’s funeral just to say that to us. The kindness in people never ceases to amaze me."
For those fortunate enough to know Declan, kindness is also one of the many adjectives used to describe him.
“Declan was always behind me, giving me encouragement, guidance and suggestions”, says Catherine Mahon Buckley of CADA.
“Apart from his unstinting support of the arts, he is a lovely human being. The world needs more of Declan Hassett!”
“Declan was very encouraging of young and emerging talent”, says Trevor Ryan, Director of The Montforts College of Performing Arts. “He was always honest and kind, never ruthless.”
Director, actor and producer Pat Talbot hails Declan as “a pioneer in arts journalism in the city who single-handedly created and developed the arts page in the Irish Examiner.
"He has been a constant and vital presence in the Arts in Cork, always hugely supportive and inclusive of all arts initiatives. I consider myself fortunate to be a friend of his.”
On retirement from the Examiner in 2004, instead of slowing down, Declan turned his talents to writing books and plays and kick-started a hugely successful new career.
Unsurprisingly, given where he grew up, in his vast library of literary achievements is a book commemorating his beloved Rockies, which was published on the centenary of the foundation of the GAA back in 1984.
And his first foray into theatrical writing was the hugely successful Up The Rebels, written at the behest of the GAA Cork County Board to mark the millennium. The late great actor and director Michael Twomey cast his directorial magic over Up The Rebels.
“I was always blessed with the people who wanted to direct my work”, says Declan.
Pat Talbot commissioned, produced and directed Declan’s play Jack, a profile of former Taoiseach and GAA great Jack Lynch.
“And Michael Scott directed the incomparable Anna Manahan in the first production of Sisters, which did two tours of Ireland before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for five weeks followed by five weeks off-Broadway!” adds Declan.
Anna was also nominated for a coveted Drama Desk award.
“She and I went to New York for the opening night of Sisters. It was genuinely incredible to stand outside the theatre and look up at the poster for my show.”
However, they nearly didn’t make it.
“President Sadat of Egypt was in New York at the time and we couldn’t get a taxi for love nor money, so we arrived for the show in a rickshaw!”
A novel entrance worthy of the play itself.
The New York Herald’s review of Sisters is interesting all these years later, comparing Declan to The Banshees Of Inisherin director: “Sisters is closer to Martin McDonagh than people might think. In Declan Hassett’s writing, you get a nice slice of brown soda bread, but there may be shards of glass in it.”
The late Gerry McLoughlin’s mesmeric interpretation of the two sisters, in a subsequent production directed by Michael Twomey, was another stand-out for Declan.
“Gerry utterly transformed the play with the distance she had between the arthritic, chair-bound Martha, and her sister Mary, the retired school teacher who glided around the stage.
“The two characters in Sisters, Martha and Mary, were always in my head, their stories percolating away,” Declan explains. It was the legendary Manahan who prompted him to write it.
“I hand-wrote the play in a few weeks. Then we read it in her home, with director Michael Scott.”
Now, Sisters is making a comeback to the Cork stage, starring theatre legends Catherine Mahon Buckley and Fionnula Linehan and directed by Patrick Talbot. It will run at Cork Arts Theatre from February 28.
Since his childhood days immersing himself in the vibrant words of a play, Declan still loves the connection between the lines on a page and the reader. His prolific output is handwritten then transferred to computer for editing.
With a deep-rooted love for family, The Rockies, writing and Ardmore, the author of a memoir trilogy and the Cork theatre bible Make ’Em Laugh, and numerous theatrical productions, with another new play, Man And Boy, in development for stage, Declan Hassett shows no signs of letting up.
Sisters opens on February 28 in Cork Arts Theatre. Tickets from www.corkartstheatre.com