Thirty years of mayhem and magic

MACNAS, noun: the frolic-like behaviour of a young calf let out to grass for the first time after being kept inside all winter; joyful abandonment; dalliance; wantonness.

It is hard to believe that Macnas is 30 years old. It seems to be one of those organisations that stays forever young. It was set up by Ollie Jennings, Pádraic Breathnach, Tom Conroy and Pete Sammon. They had been greatly influenced by a number of groups who had come to the Galway Arts Festival, such as Footsbarn, 7.84, Els Commediants etc. They decided to form a company to create spectacles that would be a kind of amalgam of all these groups but with a unique ‘Galway Accent’.

They declared “We interpret the word ‘community’ in the broad sense. We are interested in pastimes, games and rituals of our community in the west. We wish to create dynamic visual spectacles, using and exploring these popular forms of visual entertainment. Our spectacles will be created in the community, in large outdoor family spaces. We hope to make fun and have fun on a grand scale and between ourselves.”

Their earliest projects included a parade at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair, a parade to St Nicholas’ around Christmas time that involved the children of the Parochial School, and going “On the Wran” with Bishop Casey around Westside.

To realise large scale projects required money which they did not have, but they received a grant from the Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation to stage a parade and a mock football game during the Connacht Gaelic Football final in Castlebar in 1987. Most of those involved in Macnas were ‘arty types’ and had never been to a football game, so they had to be brought to games and also trained in how to play. They approached members of the Galway three-in-a-row team to take their photographs, and then they made large heads of them all, as you can see from our photograph.

A parade through Castlebar with these large heads kicked off the show. Jon Kenny acted as an old style photographer but a pyro flash of powder blew up in his face and he had to go to hospital. There followed The Big Game, a choreographed game of manic football between ‘Galway’ & ‘Mayo’ that went on just before the senior match. A lot of people thought it was the minor match, some thought the GAA was being slagged.

Rod Goodall was the bishop [dressed in Bishop Casey’s robes] who threw in the ball. Just before the off, he realised that he had left the ball behind him in the truck so he had to run to collect it. The huge crowd arriving for the final separated ‘like the Red Sea’ as they saw this mad bishop running towards them. He got back in time. The ball was in fact a helium filled balloon, and when he threw it in to start the game, it just kept going up and up, and this started the laughter. The actual ball was then thrown in. A Mayo forward had a sleeve ten yards long pulled off him before scoring a point. Galway got a free and a three-man human pyramid was set up in front of the kicker. A Galway forward who missed easy chances had his eyes tested by an optician at half time. When the second half started he got the ball and went into slow motion – everyone else stood still – and he rolled in Galway’s first goal. A terrible foul on a Mayo player prompted his mother to come on and swing her handbag at the Galway culprit. As ‘Bishop Goodall’ celebrated a Galway victory, he got a vicious clatter from a Mayo player. It was hilarious and the crowd loved it.

In addition to seeing the Connacht Final, the 35,000 people present had been rewarded with a unique, original and entertaining show into the bargain. Macnas were up and running.

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