The woman who was - ‘fearless’ where the Irish language was concerned

The inimitable Máire Stafford playing one of her many roles in Galway’s Taibhdhearc Theatre.

The inimitable Máire Stafford playing one of her many roles in Galway’s Taibhdhearc Theatre.

Scene: A deserted foreshore. Pier in background, mountains in the distance, sound of sea birds calling, waves breaking on the beach. A beautiful day. Curtain rises on two attractive people holding hands, gazing lovingly at each other.

Man: (Approximate translation from the Irish ). At last. At last. At last.

Woman: We deserve this peace.

Time on our own. Sure Paddy won’t be back to collect us till late this evening.

We have all day together. Our own island, away from all the world. Not another person in sight. No phones. No callers. No children. We are totally alone.

Man: At last. At last.... Time with wonderful you...

(Boy of about five-years suddenly walks on stage ). Look of horror on faces of man and woman. Boy stands blinking in strong stage lights.

Gradually sees audience through the glare. Comes forward for another look. Turns and looks at the man and woman frozen at his sudden appearance.

Boy: Can I go home now Mam? I want my tea. And I’m tired.

Man and woman look at each other, and smile.

Woman: Yes Maeliosa. I’ll get someone to bring you home.

A girl runs out from the wings, and the boy is whisked away. The audience realise that this was not part of the play, but a domestic scene within a busy theatrical family. It rose to its feet applauding and cheering.

The man and woman were Galway’s famous husband and wife theatrical couple, Seán and Máire Stafford. For more than 40 years they played leading roles in the city’s unique Taibhdhearc Theatre which proudly held aloft the torch of the Irish language.

The young boy who walked out on stage was their son Maeliosa Stafford, one of Ireland’s leading actors.

Maeliosa played several roles at An Taibhdhearc as he grew up, and was just starting his second year as a commerce student at NUIG, when Garry Hynes, of Druid, offered him a place in her famous company. His father Seán, offered the traditional advice that most fathers would give: ‘Finish your degree at the university, then start your acting career. You will always have commerce to fall back on, if you need to.’

His mother Máire took the opposite tack:‘ Follow your dreams. Don’t be afraid.. And don’t tell your father I said so.’

Today, 30 years later, Maeliosa is enjoying a brilliant career. With Druid he was involved with the premier productions of the work of Martin McDonagh, including The Lonesome West, which won several Oliver awards on the West End, and was nominated for four Tony awards on Broadway. At present Maeliosa is a Co founder of the award winning Opunksky’s Theatre in Sydney; but he is home for a special commemorative evening at An Taibhdhearc tomorrow. His mother Máire, who died last July, is being honoured by an evening of music, song, an exhibition of her hand-stitched costumes (she was a gifted embroiderer ), and warm, well deserved tributes.

A love of language

An Taibhdhearc was founded in the late 1920s, during the heady years of Irish nationalism, and Celtic revival. Its main founder was the remarkable Dr Séamus Ó Beirn, who apart from his passion for the Irish language, waged a terrible war against tuberculosis in Connemara. He believed that the TB bacteria lodged in the houses where families were plagued by this debilitating killer, sometimes for generations. He controversially burnt their houses to the ground. Doctors attending sufferers in the tenements in Dublin, where TB was at epidemic proportions, wished they had similar powers. They were warned, however, that TB was so rampant, if they introduced Ó Beirn’s treatment by fire, they would have to burn down half the city.

One of the great contributions that Máire Stafford gave to Galway was her dedication to the Féis Ceol an Iarthair, and Féile Scoil Drámaíochta. A generation of Galway boys and girls attending the féiseanna, enjoyed a day off school, and a love and knowledge of the language.

First prize

When it came to the possibilities of the Irish language, Máire was fearless. A natural musician with a love for opera, she translated into Irish Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor which were performed with great gusto and fun. Audiences were amazed. Cosi fan Tutte was taken to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, played to full houses each night, and received a standing ovation.

In 1950 Máire married Seán, a teacher at the Fr Griffin Tech, with a similar love of theatre and Irish. They made a wonderful pair in every way, the original Fred and Ginger of Galway theatre. While Máire, translated, acted, and made costumes, Seán, as a board director, guided the little theatre through the storms and good times associated with such an ambitious artistic project. Their five children will also be there on Friday evening. In fact they are a bit of an acting dynasty.

Ruairi and his wife Sheelagh run the Bog Lane Theatre, Ballymahon, while Fionnuala is in the music business in Kilkenny. Maeliosa is a full time actor, Orfhlaith makes theatrical costumes, while Conall has escaped a theatre career so far.

It was inevitable that as children days were spent trying on costumes, and make-up as they waited for their parents to take them home. Homework was done in the Green Room, to a background cacophony of actors’ lines, music, the smell of paint, and hammering sets together.

Maeliosa remembers once that despite his parent’s long hours at the theatre, he announced one Friday evening that he would like to attend a fancy dress at the Dominican College the following day. He wanted to go as a Roman Centurion. His mother was not a bit phased. She just worked late into the night, making a superb costume, bronzed sprayed, with an exotic plume in its helmet. All his friends were mad jealous. He won first prize, of course.

Tomorrow night is a special occasion for this outstanding family.

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