It’s Lent... and that means play time for Cork’s theatre groups

The tradition of drama in our rural communities during Lent still flourishes, writes John Arnold
It’s Lent... and that means play time for Cork’s theatre groups

STAGE CRAFT: Drama groups all over Cork will be putting on plays in venues all over the county in the coming weeks

FROM the point of view of gastronomic delicacies, Cork is famous for tripe and drisheen, crubeens, and spiced beef, especially at Christmas time.

Over the years, I have indulged in all of these Leeside specialties at one time or another. They are as synonymous with Cork as the Fr Matthew Statue, Shandon, and Blarney Castle.

Another Cork ‘staple’ for many generations has been this august publication, The Echo,or D’Evening Echo as ‘twas known to our ancestors. Amazingly though, this newspaper can be purchased nowadays at the crack of dawn when it is on the news stand with all the other ‘Dailies’ - many people I know wouldn’t dream of buying the Echo until the afternoon or evening - old habits die hard.

The paper is great for news, local sport, and everything you’d want to know about anything; but would you ever contemplate chewing the front page as a source of dietary fibre?

Eating a newspaper seems like a farcical culinary practice, but dear readers, copious copies will be consumed around Castlelyons this coming weekend and also for three days later in March.

You see, it’s Lent, and though fasting, abstinence and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes isn’t as popular as in former times, some traditions still linger.

When Lenten strictures were strictly enforced and obeyed, dancing of all kinds, which could be deemed a ‘pleasure-giving’ pastime, was banned for the 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday.

The absence of terpsichorean gyrations meant other forms of entertainment had to be sought. Drama filled a huge void in the Lenten seasons of yore. All over rural Ireland, aye and in towns and cities too, local drama groups came together to stage plays, often in draughty halls, but then the heavy overcoat was a popular fashion item after the war years for several decades.

Locally produced plays gave so many the opportunity to ‘tread the boards’ for the first time. As well as providing entertainment, the drama productions were brilliant fund-raisers. When the idea of building a Parish Hall in Bartlemy was first mooted in 1960, a local group staged the play A Will And A Woman at 26 different venues all over North and East Cork to raise funds.

Thankfully, although Irish society has seen multiple changes in the last half century, the tradition of drama still flourishes. 

The more serious groups enter plays on the ‘Festival Circuit’ all over the country and endeavour to qualify for Athlone, the ‘Holy Grail’ of Amateur Drama in Ireland.

Groups take part in competition whilst others just put on their play locally to provide entertainment. God knows, after two drama-less years it’s great to see the drama scene flourishing again.

So if it’s Echo eating you wish to see his weekend and next, head for the Community Centre in Castlelyons, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Forty years ago, Ray Cooney penned the play Run For Your Wife which was originally set in Wimbledon in London. The central plot concerns a man who finds himself matrimonially tied to two women contemporaneously!

Producer Donal Howard has relocated the play to Cork city so the entire cast are men and women we could meet on Patrick Street or in Fermoy or Midleton.

When an Echo reporter gets ‘a scoop’ with revelations of the man with two wives, the taxi driver involved is facing exposure - both decent and indecent. In order to avoid any of his female companions reading the full Echo story, he eats the newspaper!

What follows is consternation, constipation and a helter skelter of a play that will bring much-needed laughter to the Bride Valley and further afield.

Last weekend, we were in Tallow to see the Brideview Drama Group present Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen Of Leenane. Along with The Lonesome West and A Skull In Connemara, The Beauty Queen forms a famous trilogy of McDonagh plays.

A superb and incisive writer, McDonagh explores themes from rural Ireland - some comic but many dark and upsetting.

The Beauty Queen centres around 40-year-old Maureen Folan and her mother of 70, Mag. Devoted to looking after and ‘minding’ her domineering mother, Maureen still clings to some vestige of a romantic relationship. Could a shortbread finger biscuit be described as sensuous, even erotic? Definitely in McDonagh’s script!

Produced by Jack Ahern and David Murphy, Brideview take this powerful piece on the ‘Circuit Tour’ -they are on stage in Castleisland tomorrow night (Friday) as they attempt to better their 2nd and 3rd places in recent All Ireland Finals.

As Tallow head for Kerry, many others will cross another ‘County Bounds’ to usher in the 40th West Waterford Drama Festival in Ballyduff. For us in East Cork and from all parts of the Decies, St Michael’s Hall in will be the Dramatic Mecca for the next ten days.

I can never visit Ballyduff without recalling the late, great Bill Canning - I think his acting in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest was never bettered. The Canning tradition lives on gloriously and Ger Canning is forever producing challenging and outstanding plays. This year she brings us Rabbit Hole, which sees a couple’s relationship under strain after the death of their child. Ballyduff are ‘on the road’ also on the Circuit and will be on their home stage this night week.

Spoilt for choice is certainly a truism this weekend and it’s one of those occasions when I just wish I had the gift of tri-location. 

I’d love to see the Beauty Queen again tomorrow night and Jim Nolan’s Brighton, staged by Skibbereen in Ballyduff, and also The Quiet Moment which is on stage in Kilworth. Mick Twomey is the Kilworth producer, a play that deals with coming to terms with memory loss - poignant yet quirky and comical also.

Sean Ahern from Dungourney and Mary Flavin Colbert of Ladysbridge were two of the Palace Players cast which captured the All Ireland title a few years back. Then they starred in Tom Murphy’s Conversations On A Homecoming (produced by Kilmeen this year) but in Chapatti Sean and Mary have the stage to themselves. Oh yes, Sean has his dog and Mary her 19 cats, though we never get to see them. The play was recently staged in the CAT Club in Cork city and got rave reviews.

This time two year ago, the Palace Players had this production ‘ready to roll’ on the Festival Circuit when Covid brought all the curtains down. Tipped as one of the favourites 24 months ago, I think it’s an even better presentation now. What is the age of romance? When are two people ‘too young’ or ‘too old’? Well, this superb and evocative play, written by Christian O Reilly, deals with the importance of human contact.

To all and every actor and actress who puts on the greasepaint over the next six weeks to entertain the masses, I say go for it, and in the true Theatrical tradition ‘break a leg’.

I’ve a ‘gig’ meself in Kilworth next week - storytelling and singing - and despite my advancing years and decades of practice, I’m as nervous as a kitten!

So whether you want to eat the Echo or a shortbread finger, or laugh, cry, gasp and shake your head in exasperation, make sure you go and get to see as many plays as you can during this Lent.

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