It was to have been a case of lights, curtain, action in Rossmore all this week when the annual drama festival was due to get under way, being as popular today as it was back when it started in 1956
THE curtain was about to go up on the 59th West Cork Three Act Drama Festival in Rossmore. which has rightly earned itself the tagline of being ‘the friendly festival’ since it started all those years ago, but unfortunately the coronavirus intervened and led to the cancellation of the 2020 edition.
The event is as much about the high calibre of acting performed nightly as it is about the entire community coming together to pull it off, not to mention all the fun had along the way, and life-long friendships formed.
The tradition of acting in the area dates right back to the '30s. A local group was officially set up and started performing in a local shed in 1946 before St Mary’s Hall (the current theatre) was built in 1948 with the best of facilities of the day.
In 1955 an ad was put in this newspaper for groups to perform in the hall and the festival was born out of that the following year under the guidance of Fr James O’Donovan.
Groups participated from all over West Cork at the time including the legendary Kilmeen group, Skibbereen, Barryroe, Ardfield, Ballinspittle, Reenascreena and more with intense rivalry between parishes.
During the '50s and '60s, it ran during Lent with 20 shows mainly on Friday and Sunday nights with many performances by ICA and Macra members, as well as drama groups.
For a few years in the 1960s the festival did not take place as the advent of television and ‘lounge bars’ drew patrons and groups away.
But a concerted effort was made to drive the festival on with exceptional results, and 1974 was the first year that groups outside the county performed and the first year that only three act plays were performed.
Around this time the stage was extended and a new lighting system installed at the cost of £5,700, which was effectively the price of a good farm at the time.
The investment paid off, and crucially in 1976 the festival earned nominating status to the rural and urban All-Ireland finals in Loughrea and Athlone.
A further £20,000 was invested into the hall in 1979 which put them in a great place going into the 80s. In 1982, historically Rossmore was the first venue outside of Leinster to host the All Ireland One act finals and in 1983 they had further distinction of being chosen to host the Confined Three Act All Ireland finals of 1983.
Jack Lynch opened a festival in 1979 on the same day Christy Ring died and John B Keane opened the festival in 1983.
Fast forward to 2012 and a sum of €440,000 was spent renovating the theatre to include tiered seating for 300, an hydraulic stage which can be raised and lowered and new ensuite changing rooms as part of an extension to the building.
The tireless, and entirely voluntary, committee invested €260,000 with the help of the community and they also had Leader funding. The theatre is now used all year round by many groups including local school children.
It would be a risky business to start name calling all those who have made the festival the success it is today as there are hundreds, and everyone from the ushers, to the caterers, cleaners, parking attendants, technical crew etc have a vital role to play.
However, all agree that the late Paddy Keohane who chaired the festival committee in the 1970s and led the festival and theatre into participation in the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland (ADCI) All Ireland one and three act drama circuits must get a mention.
This year’s chair is Andy Mahon; director Ian Flavin, secretary Catherine Deasy and PRO Aine de Roiste.
Ger Finn, a former chair and director of the festival, is now, in his own words, a ‘foot soldier.’
Describing why drama in West Cork is so popular he said: ‘Drama is an urge, it’s a bug. Once you contract it though it’s terminal, but it’s a pleasant disease and you get to reap a lot of rewards!’
Those are of course incredible friendships, confidence and life experiences.
To be part of the ‘club,’ all that was needed was commitment, he said. ‘A spoonful of talent is helpful!’ he added.
Eileen Kingston who was PRO for 14 years remembers it as ‘one of the happiest times’ of her life. Outside of the acting side of things, it was like a reunion for the audience, she said year after year. Some even had their own seats!
Not surprisingly the hilarious stories from down through the years are many – and not all are printable.
During one festival when there was an Australian adjudicator delivering his appraisal on the play that had just been performed, a leg could be seen dangling from the roof above him trying to locate a stepladder (which had been removed).
This incited much merriment in the audience to the perplexity of the adjudicator who could not see what was going on.
Another time the set belonging to a drama group from Wexford never arrived so when the drama group arrived with no set it was a case of ‘all hands on deck’ by the actors and Rossmore locals to rapidly create something. As the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’.
Another time another Wexford group didn’t get out of Rossmore for three days after their play was performed due to being snowbound, but they were consoled in the festival club, hot whiskies and West Cork's infamous hospitality.
Aine de Roiste said: ‘The Rossmore festival club is renowned across the amateur drama community for its conviviality, memorable stories, ‘noble calls’, late night black pudding, banter and a fast and furious siege of Ennis .'
Ger and Aine point out the festival isn’t about money making, but costs are high so to get sponsors and audience support is crucial to underpin its security and the community has never been found wanting.
Some say the word amateur should not be associated with the festival at all.
Writer Alice Taylor summed it up best when she said: ‘The festival brings the cream of Irish drama into the heart of West Cork. For over 50 years top class drama groups performing a huge variety of plays have graced the stage of this fabulous theatre. This festival is an enrichment of the entire community and we are so blessed to have it in our midst.’