DruidGregory and the Importance of the Arts

Sitting outside for an hour or so on a frigid autumn evening has never been so fun. I’m serious! Druid Theatre Company’s run of plays by Lady Gregory has come to an end, finishing with three performances of Hyacinth Halvey in Ballyglunin Train Station, on the Sunday before we entered Level 5.

Commissioned by Galway 2020, the ambitious programme came at a good time. Stradling the line between mild autumnal nights and the creeping chill of winter, and just before the clocks make their annual retreat backwards, the plays were performed at various witching hours, at twelve locations across the county of Galway.

Druid on Tour

As part of the Educational and Community strand of the tour, Druid took the decision to put on Tom Murphy’s first play, co-written with Noel O’Donoghue, in a number of locations, including The Little Mill in Tuam. I was there on a cool Sunday evening, for a performance re-scheduled due to bad weather.

We have all become used to re-scheduling, from dental appointments and driving theory tests to weddings, so it was no big deal to move around plans a little (sure, what else would I have been doing, really?), in order to take in one of the most scenic parts of Tuam, transformed by theatre trickery into a stage set.

Incredibly well-managed by the Druid front-of-house staff, the audience was asked to remain in one place, where there was plenty of room to socially distance ourselves from each other, until the whole number of 15 had assembled. Then we were gently ushered to the well-spaced seats on the green parallel to the Miller’s Cottage and directly facing the Little Mill.

It was genius location for the play, which takes place outside a dance hall, the opening scene depicting two young women testily bickering about whether they should go in to the dance or wait a few minutes more for a very late date.

When they do go in, the date appears with a friend, having been hiding around the corner the whole time, embarrassed that they don’t have the money to pay entry. From there it’s a matter of getting the sheckles together by various means, encountering a number of familiar small-town characters as they do.

Although well-known and esteemed actors from the company showed up in supporting roles, the principals were given to the younger, less experienced members, a great way to give them a turn in a lead role while being supported by their more seasoned peers.

At DruidGreogory in Ballyglunin Train Station

It really did go to show that there are no small roles; every actor inhabited their part, from John Olohan as the nuisance drunk, Garrett Lombard as a flashy wannabe Yank and Rory Nolan playing the churlish bouncer.

Much of the cast returned for the second performance I had the fortune to experience, this time from the railway tracks of Ballyglunin Train Station. Lady Gregory’s Hyacinth Halvey was performed here, another exceptional location that made brilliant use of the surroundings, which were enhanced for the play by a minimal but very effective set and selection of props.

I came away from the production feeling all the better for it; a play such of this full of broad characters performed with relish by professional actors of great training and skill proves quite the tonic. But that’s one of the functions of the arts; to create wonder and to inspire, to transport you to different times and places and to take you away from regular life, if just for the length of time it takes to tell the story.

This week droves of eager musical enthusiasts should have descended on the hall of St. Jarlath’s College, to take in this year’s Marian Choral Society’s annual musical during the mid-term break. Along with the college operas, MCS’s show is not only a long-standing marker of the beginning of the festive season but a highly anticipated production known for its calibre that punctuates the town of Tuam’s association with dramatic arts and music.

It is sorely missed this year, as are the gigs that should be being played in pubs throughout the town. As are the exhibitions that should be held in our many suitable spaces, and the musical performances in the cathedrals. Consumers of the arts are feeling their absence sadly, but the performers themselves, both professional and amateur must be aching to be getting back in front of an audience.

Like the country is being divided in two factions many times over – keep the schools open under Level 5 or close them, allow restaurants and small businesses open or close them with the rest of the so-called non-essential services, like hairdressers, even the wear-a-mask versus the don’t-wear-a-mask brigade – there is also a divide over the allowing of elite sport like the GAA continue while the arts has been largely shuttered for months.

Although this has become a highly sensitive time, with the feeling on personal attacks on liberties and well-being being acutely felt, let’s not reduce ourselves to crying tit-for-tat. The GAA has, I’m sure, brought solace and meaning to fans’ lives.

Having live theatre and gigs in controlled environments, or broadcast on TV would doubtless to the same for others, but when we’re all supposed to be in this together it would be to go down a slippery slope to start attacking other people’s hobbies and interests as inferior or of less value than our own.

Ballyglunin Train Station

What we should be doing is supporting each other, trying to see life from each other’s perspective. We should be shopping almost exclusively locally, and using local services. We should be listening to other people’s concerns rather than shouting them down without consideration.

The so-called non-essential things in life can prove to be lifelines, but because their impact is not universal they can be pushed aside as insignificant by those who aren’t directly involved or enjoyed by them.

It’s up to us, during this sabbatical from normal life that we’re calling Level 5, to imagine life through a different lens, something that can be done easier than you might think. Supporting sports and supporting the arts aren’t mutually exclusive, as many fans of both will agree.

This year we will miss the musical, the operas, the carol services and quite likely school nativity plays. We will miss seeing sports fixtures live and cheering on our teams. Without a crystal ball I can’t predict how 2021 will go, but it may be worth making a collective New Year’s Resolution to support the extra-curricular interests of our communities, as well as the local businesses.

Tom Murphy is one of Tuam’s most respected sons, as well as Leo Moran from the Saw Doctors and great sportspeople like Frank Stockwell and Sean Purcell. Let’s allow a new generation of playwrights, musicians, actors, and sports stars to flourish both professionally and at the top tier of amateur level. With our support, they can and they will.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 04 11 20

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