OLDER READERS will remember those halcyon days in the 1990s when lunchtime theatre was part of daily life in Galway. It was part of the streetscape itself as merry mischief-makers like The Flying Pigs and The Mad Susans took to the thoroughfares to coax the unwary into the back of The King’s Head.
Shows like Cromwell, the Musical and Religious Knowledge were hilarious flights of fancy that sent punters back to work elated, refreshed, and perhaps with a hazier, more disjointed, view of the subject of the drama. Niggly things like facts or scholarship were never allowed to stand in the way of hearty laughs or a ripping yarn.
Gerry Conneely was a stalwart of that era and he returns to The King’s Head next week with Shakespeare in Connemara, which relates how Shakespeare came to write Macbeth. The inspiration was, Conneely’s play asserts, Connemara. Shakespeare in Connemara follows the Bard's journey west, in the company of boatman Mairtin Óg MacDonagh, through a colourful cavalcade of treason and conspiracy. Here they encounter women of power who inflame imagination and desire, and Shakespeare has his vision of a great soul being assailed by evil spirits.
“I was thinking about the comedy shows that used to go on in The King’s Head years ago, and I wanted to do something in that style,” Conneely tells me. “Also, I used to live near Seamus Mulligan, who many will remember from his time behind the bar in Taylor's. Seamus was a great man for improv and he was very good at doing a Connemara patois. When I’d visit him I’d do various characters combined with that. One night I came up with Shakespeare and then I started wondering why might he be in Connemara so that was the genesis of the play.”
As a veteran of the Galway stage Gerry regales me with a recap of his career; “I grew up in Kinvara and one of the highlights there was the Christmas play and the Christmas concert so I’ve been appearing onstage ever since I was 13. When Punchbag started up and shows were done in The King’s Head I was involved in all that. Then I did this big play, Souper Sullivan, by Eoghan Harris, during the Galway Arts Festival and it bombed.
"I lost a load of money on it and had to head off to the North to earn money to pay off all my creditors. In 2005 I moved back west and got involved theatre again. I had a training company going until 2013 when our funding was withdrawn. My two sons were then finished in college and I decided ‘Feck it, if I am going to be broke, I might as well be enjoying myself’ so for the first time I started writing stuff myself and putting it on.”
One of Conneely’s biggest acting hits was his Christian Brother in Eamonn Kelly’s comedy Religious Knowledge in The King’s Head; “That show was amazing,” he recalls. “We rehearsed it in about a week and a half and none of us had any great hopes for it but it ran, on and off, for nearly two years. It ran solid for almost a year without a break, it became a phenomenon. The people who used to come were local shop workers and they’d come all the time. There were people who saw the show 50 times, the audience would know the lines; it was like The Rocky Horror Show. And Tommy Tiernan, who was in the cast, became famous while the show was running. He got on The Late Late Show and won the Perrier Award at Edinburgh and he was gone from us after that.”
Anyone who meets Gerry knows he is a gifted raconteur. I ask him where this flair came from. “When I was a kid there were two cinemas in Kinvara would you believe,” he replies. “My father liked the pictures himself and when I was about four he’d let me go to them every Saturday night. The rest of the kids wouldn’t be let go until they were seven or eight. I used to spend all Sundays walking around Kinvara with the other kids telling them the story of the films. That’s where my storytelling knack came from.
"And when I was drinking I’d spend my time in the pub telling yarns. During Punchbag’s Dancing at Lughnasa I’d be in Taylor’s bar after every show. One night I overheard a conversation where someone said ‘Did you see Lughnasa, Conneely is in it?’ and the reply came ‘Why would I pay money to see him in a play when I can be listening to him here every night of the week’. When I gave up drinking I decided to develop the storytelling as a gig instead of a pub hobby. I now have five different monologue shows that I sell as home entertainments.”
Besides the influence of film, Conneely’s storytelling skill also came from his father. “He was a ship’s master on sailing boats,” he relates. “My father was old when I was born, he was born in 1902. He used to sail schooners around the coasts of Ireland and England but that way of life died off in the 1930s, the last schooner came into Kinvara in 1936. He then settled down at home and became a part time fisherman and hackney driver. He was a great talker and story teller. Our house was on the quay in Kinvara and the country people would come into our house. It was a kind of visiting house or a ‘cuirt house’ as they used to call it so there would always be a rake of people there. We didn’t have electricity so there was no television or other distractions.”
Shakespeare in Connemara is in The King's Head from 1.15 to 1.45pm from Monday October 17 to Saturday 22. The cast also features Jacky Rowntree, and Neil Barratt.