Cork actor and playwright: ‘Lighthouse stay inspired my play’

Cork writer and performer Irene Kelleher’s new play opens at Cork Midsummer Festival, this month. COLETTE SHERIDAN finds out more
Cork actor and playwright: ‘Lighthouse stay inspired my play’

Irene Kelleher who wrote "A Safe Passage". Picture:  Marcin Lewandowski ©

WHEN playwright and actor Irene Kelleher and her husband were given a voucher to stay in a lighthouse shortly after their wedding in 2016, little did she know she would end up writing a play that was set in one during stormy conditions.

Now that lighthouse-keepers are defunct, as automation has taken over, some lighthouses have been transformed into luxury accommodation where people can stay.

Irene and Denis O’Sullivan pitched up at the lighthouse on Clare Island off the coast of Mayo. While there, in rainy weather, Irene found herself perusing the books in the building. She came across a journal written by a former lighthouse-keeper and what stayed with her was his statement that he hoped not a soul would come near him the whole time he was stationed at the rock.

“I just thought that was fascinating,” says Irene.

“I was thinking about him and wondering why he wanted to be alone and isolated. It got me thinking about lighthouse-keepers.

“Around the same time there was a fabulous documentary, The Great Lighthouses of Ireland, on RTÉ. So I started becoming interested in lighthouses. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking I was going to write a play about a lighthouse-keeper.”

 Irene Kelleher and Seamus O'Rourke in "A Safe Passage" by Irene Kelleher. Makeup by Maeve Readman. Picture:  Marcin Lewandowski ©
Irene Kelleher and Seamus O'Rourke in "A Safe Passage" by Irene Kelleher. Makeup by Maeve Readman. Picture:  Marcin Lewandowski ©

Irene, originally from Ovens, was on tour with her play, Gone Full Havisham, when the first Covid lockdown happened.

“I decided to take time out in March, 2020, to try and write a draft of the lighthouse play that was on my mind. Having read the journal of the lighthouse- keeper, I wanted to stay in a lighthouse to write it. I stayed in Galley Head lighthouse, close to Clonakilty. Now, it’s a lighthouse that’s on land, not an island. But it still felt very poignant to be cut off from the rest of the world.”

Irene met Gerald Butler, a former lighthouse keeper who has written a book called Light keeper. Irene became friendly with Gerald, who is the house manager at Galley Head.

“He was so helpful and supportive. He read the first draft of my play and I listened to his stories. He had been stationed for a long time at Fastnet Lighthouse. I had the time to really form the story of a lighthouse-keeper. 

"I wasn’t sure at first whether it was going to be a one-man show. But it’s actually a two-hander, set in 1979, the year when lighthouses started becoming automated. It was a time of huge change, with machinery and technology taking over the lighthouses.”

In Irene’s play, A Safe Passage, which will premiere at the Firkin Crane as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, the time is New Year’s Eve and the lighthouse- keeper, played by Seamus O’Rourke, is on his own.

“He hears a voice from the rocks outside. He sees a young woman standing pretty much on a cliff edge. She is dressed in black and has the look of a Goth. There is a storm raging. He brings her inside and the safety door closes.

“So these two characters are essentially locked in together for a few hours. They’ve never met before.”

It’s a promising premise for a play. Irene describes it as “a mystery, a kind of ghost story”.

Irene plays the young woman. With funding from the Arts Council, she was able to hire Geoff Gould of Blood In The Alley Theatre Company to direct the play. The company is producing it.

Geoff, who runs the West Cork and North Cork Fit-Up theatre festivals, is also the dramaturge for the play, having offered his observations and advice.

It’s a new and welcome departure for Irene, who is used to producing her own plays. (She has written and staged six plays in all.)

“This is the first play that I’m not self-producing. It’s a role I never wanted. It was completely a means to an end. But it’s too much to be the producer as well as the actor and writer. It’s stressful and hard to focus 100% on any one role. I’m definitely better at writing and acting than producing.”

Over the last two years, Irene’s play has gone through many drafts. “Geoff was involved from the early stages. We did readings online over lockdown. It was great to be able to hear the play. Words can be beautiful on a page, but when you hear them read, there is often the need to make changes.”

Fin Flynn, formerly of Corcadorca and recently appointed as manager of the Cork Arts Theatre, is producing A Safe Passage.

“Fin comes with so many years of experience. She’s a wonderful producer.”

Sound designer Cormac O’Connor is also on board, having worked on all of Irene’s shows.

Did Irene find staying on her own in the lighthouse in which she was writing spooky?

“It was quite eerie and it definitely suited the play. I just had that line from the journal. I didn’t really know what was going to come out. The landscape was inspiring and it’s even better on a windy or stormy day.”

Irene didn’t find out any more information about the lighthouse- keeper who wrote in the journal.

“In a way, that was good. It allowed me to be really imaginative.”

When she is writing a play, she usually starts with a character. Somebody said to her that she is obsessed with social outcasts and misfits.

“I never really saw that until that person said it to me. This play is about someone who has cut themselves off. I’m interested in that.”

As for the role of the Goth who comes on the scene, played by Irene, all will be revealed...

A Safe Passage is at the Firkin Crane from June 17-21.

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