Theatre legends of Cork, take a bow...

Jo Kerrigan remembers some of the great Cork servants of the stage from days of yore
Theatre legends of Cork, take a bow...

YOU know, when this epidemic is over (and it will pass), we will have a great sense of freedom and celebration, which will manifest itself in all kinds of joyful events.

An Tóstal was just such an event, back in 1953, when it was conceived as a celebration of Irish culture in all its forms. It marked the end of wartime privations, but also the emergence of the Republic as a free country in its own right.

One of the strongest developments from An Tóstal was indigenous Irish entertainment, and the decades that followed saw an incredible flowering of all kinds of theatre in all kinds of groups and companies across the country.

Here in Cork we were particularly fortunate in having such luminaries as Aloys Fleischmann, Joan Denise Moriarty, Dan Donovan, James N. Healy, and so many more, who between them created a glowing world where professionals and amateurs, indeed every adult and child living within reach of the city, could become part of the dramatic scene in any number of ways.

James N. Healy deserves a special place for the incredible work he achieved, those he inspired, and the legacy he left to his native Cork.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Group staged every single one of the great classics, including the rarely-seen Utopia Ltd (featuring that wonderful baritone David McInerney, who sadly left us only recently), and happily blended paid professionals with an enthusiastic chorus of members drawn from shop workers, factory staff, students, and anyone with a love for singing.

They moved from the old Opera House to the Father Mathew Hall to the Palace, and imbued all those legendary locations with the unforgettable tunes and lyrics.

Healy even took G&S to schools, staging annual performances at CBC among others, and thereby awakening a love of the drama that would never be lost.

He also found time to stage other great musicals like The Student Prince, Lilac Time, and Die Fledermaus. Frequently he travelled to London to see productions there, assiduously taking notes and observing every nuance, every angle, to bring back and apply at home.

It is for his work with the plays of John B. Keane that we should most remember James N though. When Dublin loftily refused a lowly Kerry playwright, Healy seized the opportunity, founded the Southern Theatre Group, and made history.

The late great Michael Twomey created the role of Carthalawn the tinker in Sive, and never forgot the audience reaction to that chilling atavistic beat of the bodhran. “We would start the drumming way back near the dressing rooms, and slowly progress towards the stage, getting louder and louder. When we arrived, the whole place erupted with applause!”

Every new Keane play thereafter was a success, with sell-out seasons in Cork, followed by countrywide tours. They not only did the west coast of America, but finally — and probably more of an achievement — Dublin, where a previously unbridgeable gap had existed.

A generation grew up with a passion for Keane, and even now, we all have our special favourite. Michael Twomey’s was Many Young Men of Twenty. He was in the first production, while wife Marie joined him in two later revivals; he directed it for Everyman in 2006, and his granddaughter was in the 2017 revival, directed by Catherine Mahon-Buckley. That’s what you call family continuity!

Flor Dullea, now coming up to 86, and with a lifetime of vivid memories, joined the company for Sharon’s Grave, and created the role of Jack Conlee. 

“I loved that role,” he declares, slamming his hand down on a press cutting that shows him face-by-face with Eamon Keane who played evil cripple, Dinzie.

“It was such a dramatic play, you could hear the audience gasping when we appeared in the dark doorway, this huge shape twice as high as you expected.”

Life, he admits with a burst of laughter, was never the same again once you’d joined the Southern Theatre Group.

His real favourite, though, was The Year of the Hiker, which premiered in 1963, which Keane actually dedicated to Dullea. “He said my portrayal of the son Joe (who has to become man of the house while still a child) simply couldn’t be bettered.” Audiences loved the drama as the Hiker reappears after 20 years.

Everyone wanted to see the next Keane play by Southern Theatre Group. Busloads of U.S tourists made it part of their must-do lists. Soon, touring was added to its seven-week summer season in the city, with the company heading off on a Friday afternoon to Waterford, Clonmel, Limerick, Ennis, and all the coastal resorts of West Clare. Even Dublin’s noted insularity yielded, and they played to packed houses at the Olympia. Then came an invitation to tour America. “It was James N who organised that,” says Flor Dullea. “What a man he was, and what he did for Cork!”

Of course, travelling had its perils. One night, half the cast were still trying to deal with a car breakdown 20 miles from the theatre, but somehow the curtain went up on time. Another weekend, four of the cast travelling in James N’s car suffered a puncture near Nad Bog. They put on the spare and headed on at speed to Tralee, arriving with minutes to spare. Only afterwards was it discovered that James N’s briefcase, with the envelopes containing everyone’s pay for the weekend, had been left behind on the roadside.

“Well, there was nothing for it but to head back and hope for the best,” recalls Dullea. “And do you know, that briefcase was still sitting there at the side of the road!”

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