FOR MOST Galwegians, Little John Nee was largely synonymous with the spirit of the Galway Arts Festival in its early years.
Those who lined Galway’s streets on that wonderful Saturday afternoon in 1988 when Gulliver was paraded through the city centre will never forget the obnoxious little character who proceeded the Footsbarn drums, haranguing us all to hide our dirty faces and to take our ugly selves off the streets, as our filthy smelly presence was nothing but the highest of insults to the Queen of Lilliput, who was following him in all her grandeur.
Indeed, can those who were lucky enough to be at the Late Late Breakfast Show in the Warwick Hotel ever forget the sight of the dapper little Frenchman who stood at the bottom of the stairs, the steps of which were lined with wide eyed children, as they all drove a bus down the Champs Elysées, careful not to turn right as the Frenchman assured them that if they did the bus would fall into the river Seine and they would all get very wet?
Little John became so much an essential part of the Galway cultural landscape in the late eighties and early nineties that when the story went the rounds he was leaving the city, there was a real sense of loss abroad in the streets.
Thankfully, Little John never really left Galway. He did, however, move in other artistic directions. He featured in many festivals up and down the country, played the part of Postie in the TG4 silent comedy series Fear an Phoist and made many appearances in several films including Neil Jordan’s High Spirits.
His most important and significant contribution to Irish cultural life to date is undoubtedly his one man show The Derry Boat which was first produced in Ramelton Town Hall on July 3 1998 as part of the Errigal Arts Festival.
A play of the people, for the people, by the people, The Derry Boat is the quintessential play of the Donegal emigrants to Scotland and of their fears, aspirations, suffering, loneliness, and confusion. The stark reality of their hopelessness is underlined in Deckhand Harry Deeney’s song:
“Well the women all pray, but the men get drunk/ The women all pray while the men get drunk/ The Derry Boat it’s a curse/ The cows smell bad but the people worse.”
Since that first performance the show has travelled up and down the country. Driven by Little John’s genius, versatility, and energy it has thrilled and entertained audiences wherever it was performed, managing never to lose sight of the tragic fate that was the Donegal emigrant’s lot.
As a result of Little John’s appointment as Artist in Residence in Donegal, the work has reached a new dimension as it has been published along with two other plays – Rural Electric and The Mental – in a book published by An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny entitled A Donegal Trilogy.
In publishing the printed version of the play, An Grianán has not only allowed the reader a chance to enjoy the work of Little John Nee, the writer, but given those who have seen the show a deeper understanding of his versatility and genius as a performer, and the power and energy he has added to the written word becomes evident.
The text of the three plays is preceded by a wonderful photographic essay of Little John at work by Paul McGuckin; a wonderful foreword by Donal O Kelly which with contributions by Traolach Ó Fionnáin and Patricia McBride and Kate Brown make The Donegal Trilogy a delightful publication the work of a man whose work is truly for the people, of the people, and by the people.
Thank you, Little John.