Pearse Gunn – Cork’s Shakespearean Scholar

The foot of Barrack Street, alongside the South Gate Bridge was home to Pearse, who was educated at St Nessan’s Christian School, the North Mon and the School of Commerce.
Pearse Gunn – Cork’s Shakespearean Scholar

The Tempest ‘Trinculo’ – Ger Fitzgibbon, ‘Caliban’ – Pat Horgan and ‘Stephano’ – Pearse Gunn. Courtesy: Pat Gunn, Cork Shakespearean Company.

On Wednesday, November 23, 1988, I was invited to rehearsals at the internationally renowned Loft, Mulgrave Road, home of the Cork Shakespearean Company.

Climbing up the narrow, steep, well-worn wooden stairs, I was greeting at the top by a bust of their founder, Fr James Christopher O’Flynn, and a poster on the wall of the bard himself, Shakespeare.

As I entered the auditorium, I could hear the sound of the Loft actors busily rehearsing, on this occasion it was the comedy: As You Like It.

L/R: Mairéad Martin, Phebe; Emmett Kelleher, Orlando; Maria O’Callaghan, Audrey during rehearsals of As You Like It. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke 1988
L/R: Mairéad Martin, Phebe; Emmett Kelleher, Orlando; Maria O’Callaghan, Audrey during rehearsals of As You Like It. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke 1988

As I sat in the twilight on one of the long stools in the back, watching the actors on the small bright stage, I was captured by their colourful Elizabethan costumes and voices of eloquence.

After rehearsals concluded, a tall gentleman with Hollywood looks came off the stage and introduced himself to me as Pearse Gunn, the Loft’s chairperson/ director and Shakespearean scholar. This was the start of a lifelong friendship.

Pearse Gunn and Richard T. Cooke taken at the Cork Shakespearean Company exhibition, South Parish Community Centre 2003. Courtesy: Catherine M. Courtney
Pearse Gunn and Richard T. Cooke taken at the Cork Shakespearean Company exhibition, South Parish Community Centre 2003. Courtesy: Catherine M. Courtney

The foot of Barrack Street, alongside the South Gate Bridge was home to Pearse who was educated at St Nessan’s Christian School, the North Mon and the School of Commerce.

On leaving school he found employment in Hipps Ltd, a gentlemen’s outfitters in Patrick Street.

His manager, Leo O’Neill, organised charity concerts and was very well known among Cork variety artists. O’Neill was also the uncle of the internationally known photographer, Terry O’Neill and this gave Pearse his first insight into showbusiness.

He applied himself well to his job and it wasn’t long before his artistic talents came to the fore.

He transferred to the display staff and in that capacity, he travelled all over Ireland and England mounting window displays in branches of the company.

After many years he returned to the retail side of the business and finished his career as manager of their Burtons Branch in Patrick Street. After his retirement Pearse didn’t rest on his laurels; he opened his own sign designing business at his home on Pouladuff Road and was as busy as ever with his theatrical passion.

According to his mother, Pearse’s theatrical side manifested at an early age.

It first occurred one morning in the Holy Trinity Church. He was about four years old at the time and as she was saying a few prayers after Mass, Pearse toddled off, obviously bored with the inactivity, and mounted the steps of the pulpit, turned to the few people left of the congregation and startled them by proclaiming: “People do you love your God?”

His mortified mother quickly removed him from his pedestal but not for the last time. From that point on, his theatrical career was launched.

It wasn’t long before he entered ‘Feis Matthew’ and took elocution lessons from a Mr McCracken, attended James Stack classes in the School of Music and also become a member of the ‘Well Players’ and Toastmasters.

The bust of Fr. O’Flynn - 1988. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke
The bust of Fr. O’Flynn - 1988. Courtesy: Richard T. Cooke

In 1952, he joined the Loft and came into contact with Fr Seamus O’Flynn, becoming a lifelong devotee of Shakespeare and the ‘Priest’ himself.

Immediately, he immersed himself in the methods of Fr O’Flynn and in such a way that he was able to instil in himself an understanding of the range of human emotions crafted into the characters that inhabit the plays of Shakespeare.

Above all Pearse understood what Fr O’Flynn was trying to achieve.

The attainment and portrayal of truth in acting was the basis of his method and Pearse instinctively appreciated this. When he joined the Loft he was fortunate to be part of a group of very talented young Cork actors who became the mainstay of theatre in the city and beyond.

Pearse’s career in theatre spanned over 60 years.

During that time, he played in and directed numerous works of the Bard. Apart from Fr O’Flynn and Eileen Curran, his collaboration and friendship with retired English actor, John Morley, assisted him greatly in the CSC’s successful run in the Opera House from 1971 to 1976. Here he received outstanding praise for his direction of Richard III and King Lear.

A Dress rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream – the last full-length play put on while Fr. O’Flynn was with the Cork Shakespearean Company – 1961 Sean Healy, Gerry O’Reilly, Pat Gunn, Jack Desmond, Bill Spillane. Courtesy: Pat Gunn, Cork Shakespearean Company.
A Dress rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream – the last full-length play put on while Fr. O’Flynn was with the Cork Shakespearean Company – 1961 Sean Healy, Gerry O’Reilly, Pat Gunn, Jack Desmond, Bill Spillane. Courtesy: Pat Gunn, Cork Shakespearean Company.

He was also involved with the productions of Coriolanus, Macbeth and Hamlet. Also, in the 1970s and 1980s he wrote and directed the annual passion play in the Holy Trinity Church.

After the deaths of Fr O’Flynn and Eileen Curran, he became the embodiment of what the Loft was all about. Actors flocked from all over the city, county and further afield just to come under his influence and direction.

Many actors owe their success to his coaching and tuition; there are many others who benefited from his knowledge and wisdom. All who came in contact with Pearce were touched by his humanity, the honesty of his acting advice and his ability to interpret the complexity of human emotions.

In August 2000, after 76 years, the curtains come down for the last time on the Loft and the CSC moved across the road to their new premises in the old Butter Exchange Band rooms.

Pearse continued producing and directing plays until he no longer could and on Friday, December 6, 2019 he took his final curtain call and went to his eternal rest.

(Many thanks to Pat Gunn, administrator/director/Actor, Cork Shakespearean Company for information and photographs regarding this article).

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