The little miracle that saved Galway Arts Festival 1985

The opening scene of Ale, presented by Ils Comediants, at Galway’s Leisureland, in August 1985.

The opening scene of Ale, presented by Ils Comediants, at Galway’s Leisureland, in August 1985.

It seems laughable today but in 1958 Archbishop John Mc Quaid of Dublin, obsessively monitored Irish life to the extent, that he did not have to ban a film, book or play outright, it was sufficient for his secretary to make it known that the archbishop had wondered if that (name of film, book or movie ) was the sort of thing a good Catholic should witness.

His disapproval even stretched into the lyrics of a song. Radio Éireann, as it was then, had played on its popular Hospital’s Requests programme, Cole Porter’s ‘Always True to You’.

‘But I’ m always true to you darling, in my fashion,

Yes I’m always true to you darling, in my way.’

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole tells us, in his sometimes depressing and hilarious book,* that the presenter of the programme, Tom Cox, was summoned to the office of the controller of programmes, Roibéard Ó Faracháin, a poet and playwright associated with the Abbey Theatre. Cox heard the most dreaded words in Ireland at the time: ‘The Palace has been on.’

The palace referred to the archbishop’s mansion in Drumcondra. It evoked the palatial home of a feudal aristocrat or even a monarch. Ó Faracháin told Cox that ‘His Grace is concerned at the somewhat eh, circumscribed morality of the song. Indeed he believes that it advocates the proposition that a limited form of fidelity is somehow acceptable.’

The next time ‘Always True to You’ was requested by a listener, Cox played an instrumental version by Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra.

Blown away

There were many lessons learned by Ireland’s arbitrary censorship system that could put the fear of God into festival directors. Twenty-seven years after the Dublin debacle Galway watched with growing alarm at the jousting between the youthful founders of the Arts Festival and the much respected, and former mayor, Cllr Bridie O’Flaherty.

At the time the Galway Arts festival was growing both in prestige and creativity. Its directors were encouraged to go to the festival at Avignon to see the highly innovative theatrical troupe Ils Comediants. It is no exaggeration to say that when Ollie Jennings and Padraic Breathnach saw its performance in the south of France, they were blown away; but not before they invited them to Galway for the following August festival.

These extraordinarily versatile actors, presented in Galway a play, Devils, with enormous energy. Actors ran through the narrow streets of the city, accompanied by loud, rapid drum beats, with fireworks (sometimes emanating from their bodies ), exploding in all directions. It appeared that the entire population ran screaming before these mad devils, or screamed chasing them. It was difficult to say what direction this immense crowd, both thrilled and frightened by the noise, smoke and scary costumes, were turning, but it was constantly changing directions in confusion for several hours.**

Apart from their fee there were two conditions that Ils Comediants asked the Galway directors for, before agreeing to come here. One was that all the cast had separate rooms with showers, and, secondly, that their play Ale (life? ) should be performed first for five performances. They cheerfully said there was a ‘little nudity’ but nothing serious, and they needed a large hall for its presentation.

Ollie and Padraic reserved the Burrenmount hotel for the entire cast, and booked Leisureland, with its immense seating capacity, for five nights, for presentation of Ale.

Naked Spaniards

The play Ale, which was about the creation of the world, starting with a brief Adam and Eve sequence, was presented in the week before Devils. No one knew anything about Ils Comediants, and three days before Ale was to open there were only 200 seats sold for the entire five-night run. Then, as Ollie describes it, a miracle happened.

A journalist with the Irish Independent, Frank Khan, while discussing the festival programme with Pat Reid, festival publicity officer, heard there was some nudity in Ale. Khan phoned Cllr O’Flaherty, who was also on the board of Leisureland, a public swimming and family leisure centre, and asked whether she was aware that there were going to be naked people in Leisureland. Bridie threw the proverbial fuse; and said words to the effect ‘over my dead body’.

Galway woke up the next day, and were amazed to read that naked Spanish people were coming to Leisure land. The city was both startled, and delighted. It was rumoured that the Leisureland event would be cancelled. The Arts Festival said it faced ruin if the play was cancelled. Bridie spoke about the immorality of it all, and that Leisureland was a safe place for families. Families should not have to endure the sight of naked Spaniards.

There was to be a showdown meeting between Cllr O’Flaherty, the acting city manager Peter Kearns, and Ollie Jennings. In the meantime of course, tickets were selling fast and furious; and the day before the play opened, all five nights were completely sold out.

Ardent supporter

Ollie was late getting to the meeting, and apparently when he did arrive he felt the atmosphere was friendly. Peter Kearns puffed on his pipe, and Bridie looked on young Jennings as a student who meant well. She also understood that the nudity was fleeting, and that every seat in the house had been sold. On mature reflection it would be a foolish thing for a politician to close a play which was already a sell out.

In the event Bridie O’Flaherty became an ardent supporter of the annual Arts festival, which has become an international event; and regularly appeared with Ollie in its promotion.

As for the nudity it was a very brief affair. In fact it was riotously funny. At least one photographer, the legendary Stan Shields, anxious to get his sensational pictures taken to catch the evening train for next day newspapers, was waiting after the event, for it to happen. ‘I didn’t see a damn thing’, he said, ‘I was getting my camera ready and it was gone…’ (readers will probably see more on this page today ).

Frustration

At least good humour and common sense saved the Galway Arts Festival in the summer of 1985; but back in medieval Ireland the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1958, the year that Fintan O’Toole was born, was not so enlightened.

The festival had been designed specifically to highlight three of Ireland’s greatest writers, James Joyce, Samual Beckett and Sean O’Casey, but all three failed to avoid either the archbishop’s censoring eye, or its festival backers who funked some content because they feared the material could be contentious. Hilton Edwards was to direct Alan MacClelland’s adaption of Joyce’s Ulysses which was unceremoniously dropped. The festival board felt that ‘adverse publicity’ which had followed the expression of disapproval by McQuaid, made the production ‘inadvisable’.

Sean O’Casey, whose new play ‘The Drums of Father Ned’ had also been dropped because he refused to make alterations, had a similar response: ‘The dropping the plays will be a subject of ridicule all over the world.’ O’Casey subsequently banned the production of all his plays in Ireland during his lifetime.

In protest at the archbishop’s interventions against O’Casey and Joyce, Samuel Beckett withdrew three mime plays and a reading of his radio play All That Fall from the festival. Within a few days the entire festival would be ‘postponed’, in effect abandoned. McQuaid never even made a public statement, yet he effectively forced the abandonment of what was supposed to be an international showcase for Irish Theatre.

Giving one of his impromptu rhetorical performances in McDaid’s pub in Dublin around this time, Brendan Behan informed his listeners that ‘Ireland is a village in Trieste with James Joyce, Devon with Sean O’Casey, Paris with Sam Beckett and all tied together…so an elderly, degenerate, proselytising umbilical lasso known as the Archbishop of Dublin. Ireland is a figment of the Anglo-Saxon imagination, her vices extolled as virtues, and her glorious memory perpetuated by Boss Croker and Tammany Hall. Ireland is a lie, a state or place non-existent….’

Behan bitterly reflected the frustration of an entire generation, a frustration that had to be one of the contributing factors that led to an astonishing 1.8 per cent of the entire population leaving the country in that year alone.

NOTES: * We Don’t Know Ourselves - A personal history of Ireland since 1958, just published by Apolla Book, on sale €30.

** It is argued that Galway has never been the same since. Ireland’s famous street theatre Macnas, grew out of the Ils Comediants’ experience. Those wild Spaniards, and that unforgettable midnight-rollercoaster, made an indelible impression on Galway memories.

 

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