Maelíosa Stafford was an actor, director, producer, and educator and one of the most influential, successful, innovative, and charismatic of Galway artists.
Theatre was in his DNA: his parents, Seán and Máire Stafford, were memorably described in this newspaper as the original Fred and Ginger of Galway arts. Seán was prominent from the late 1940s in An Taibhdhearc as an actor, director and board member. Máire was an actor on stage, film, and television, a director, playwright, costume designer and creator of countless pantomimes. Maire and Seán were hugely influential in the lives of countless Galwegians; they were nominated as Galway People of the Year and conferred with honorary degrees by the University. Their five children - Ruairí, Fionnuala, Maelíosa, Órfhlaith and Conall - spent a lot of time on and about the stage.
In an interview with Charlie McBride, also in the Advertiser, Maelíosa looked back on those times “I remember seeing lots of shows there as I was growing up. Ag Fanacht le Godot was one that really impressed me…and Mise Raifteirí an File was another, and I always loved the pantomimes. I also enjoyed operas like Cosi Fan Tutte and of course it meant a lot to me coming back to the theatre later in my career to direct Ag Clai Na Muice Duibhe... Other memories I have would be the personalities about the place as well, growing up watching people like Coiril Ó Mathúna. I was too young to have seen Siobhan McKenna there of course though I heard a lot about her but I did see the early Mick Lally!”
An Taibhdhearc was a beloved space for Maelíosa. As well as coming back to Galway years later there to direct Ag Claí Na Muice Duibhe he curated and directed a stellar programme for Taibhdhearc@90. In his interview at the time with Charlie he pointed out: ‘As the first theatre to open its doors in Galway that was doing regular shows, even though it was often on an amateur basis, An Taibhdhearc was important culturally, especially with its championing of the Irish language - which also connected Galway with Connemara. It has a very important place in the history of Irish theatre.’
Inevitably Maelíosa was sensationally theatrical himself. His close friend and schoolmate in Scoil Fhursa and Scoil Iognáid, the iconic Galway sculptor John Coll recalled how when playing football as a goalkeeper Maeliosa’s diving saves were dramatically transformed into fading swan leaps, the pitch becoming an inevitable stage. And he was on real stages too “I did a lot as a child, I was in quite a few pantos…In the 1970s while I was in UCG, I did a few shows; I remember the 50th anniversary in 1978 when I acted in Lig Sinn IgCathu and Cluichí Cleamhnas.’
By then – imagine! - Druid had emerged in Galway. Founder and artistic director, Garry Hynes takes up the story: ‘One winter’s evening in the 1970s, Maelíosa put his shoulder underneath a load of wood that the Druid lads were carrying from T Ó hUiginn in Shantallah down to the Fo’castle in Dominick Street. ‘’Here lads, I’ll help ye with that,” he said.’ Maelíosa abandoned Commerce in college and became a Druid; he went on to contribute massively to the company’s recalibration of Irish theatre, world classics and new writing that was to bring renown to the company and the city, and shake up the Irish theatre world. The opening production of The Threepenny Opera in Druid Lane saw Maelíosa swashbuckling as a glamorous Captain Macheath, and was followed by a progression of memorable roles including his definitive Christy Mahon in Druid’s acclaimed Playboy, his Junior in Tom Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming and Colman in Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West. Other notable Druid acting credits included: A Whistle in the Dark, The Colleen Bawn, The Wood of the Whispering, Carthaginians, Cheapside and Lovers Meeting
He took over as Artistic Director for three memorable years too. As founding artistic director Garry Hynes said this week in a tribute to Maelíosa: ‘He was a terrific character actor and exceptionally talented as a director forging one of Druid’s greatest successes by commissioning and subsequently directing At the Black Pig’s Dyke by Vincent Woods. This production, designed by the late Monica Frawley, got stellar reviews, toured throughout Ireland and abroad and remains one of the most memorable in the Druid repertoire.’
A great success was Druid’s production of Sean Tyrrell’s The Midnight Court, an exuberant musical based on the once scandalous Brian Merriman classic poem: ‘A play to celebrate the rights of women. Rights to wholesome marriage and wholesome sex. An adaptation of Cuirt an Mheáin Oíche.’ Directed with verve by Maelíosa the production featured a galaxy of Galway music icons including Johnny Mullins, Sean Keane, Mary McPartlan and Sharon Murphy. It played in a tent in remote east Clare – “ The Shores of Loch Gréine, near Feakle in Co. Clare and the court of Queen Aeval of Munster.” and triumphantly at home for the Galway Arts Festival of 1992.
Of course Maelíosa as a major Irish theatre artist acted and directed elsewhere too, in many productions with the Abbey, and as co-director with John O’Hare of a magnificent open-air version of Much Ado about Nothing for Kilkenny Arts Festival – ‘A battered Cortina sweeps across the lawns of Kilkenny Castle, halting in front of the wooden parapet in the courtyard’, as Helen Meaney set the scene for us in the Irish Times. With Vincent Woods and Mary McPartlan for Skehana Productions he enjoyably and professionally toured Woods’s On the Way Out to village halls and delighted audiences throughout the country.
The magic of Oz
On tour to Australia his world changed. He met and fell in love with Carolyn, settled in Sydney and co-founded O’Punsky’s, a theatre company primarily focused on staging Irish playwriting in Australia. ‘ I came here to Australia 30 years ago and my life and career has been floating and flirting between both cultures ever since.’ He directed the company’s inaugural staging of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and starred in Faith Healer and The Gigli Concert. He acted in The Cripple of Inishmaan for Sydney Theatre Company and featured in Queensland Theatre Company’s production Dancing at Lughnasa. He directed The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Seafarer and the Australian premiere of The Night Alive . With John O’Hare, one of his partners in O’Punsky’s, now Director of the Gaiety School of Acting he brought Australia and Ireland much closer through valuable artistic and new writing links with the Irish Consulate. Again with John O’Hare he became a skilled and inspiring theatre educator, sharing his expertise and passion with generations of young Australian theatre makers. He also became a regular on Australian film and television, including the series Drop Dead Weird where he was reunited with his old Druid friend Pauline McGlynn.
Another beloved colleague, the great Marie Mullen paid tribute this week: ‘Maelíosa cared so much about theatre, acting and Druid. He was a terrific actor – Junior in Conversations on a Homecoming by Tom Murphy comes to mind and Paddy in I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell by Bernard Farrell. He was such a brilliant comedic talent. He directed a most wonderful production of At the Black Pig’s Dyke by Vincent Woods. We will miss him so much, he was such a positive force.’
Galway will miss Maelíosa. As the photos flood social media this week, his countless Galway friends sharing their memories of good times in his company, on and off the stage, we realise that his passing is a real loss. Maeliosa represented all that was passionate, exciting, authentic and expert in the arts in Galway. Like his parents he was one of the great ones, to whom Galway owes its reputation for arts excellence. Rest in peace dear Maelíosa, you have left the stage too early, but what memories you have left us.