The Dramatic History of Athboy

There is a long tradition of the dramatic arts in various forms in Athboy as there is in many parts of rural Ireland. As far back as April 1935 Athboy Boys National School came second in a drama competition in the Mansion House in Dublin for schools with fewer than 100 pupils.

Athboy Dramatic Group, 1950/ Back Row: John Farrell, Tommy Mahon, Andy Cullen, Matt Moore, Ollie Bird, Michael Coleman, Dan Fay. Front Row: Joan Dempsey, Carmel Cullen, Kathleen Coleman
Athboy Dramatic Group, 1950. Back Row: John Farrell, Tommy Mahon, Andy Cullen, Matt Moore, Ollie Bird, Michael Coleman, Dan Fay.
Front Row: Joan Dempsey, Carmel Cullen, Kathleen Coleman

However, evidence of local dramatic endeavours go back even further than. The Meath Chronicle printed an advertisement for a “Concert and Dramatic Entertainment” in St. James’ Hall Athboy on Monday 17th March 1928. It promised a play called “Heaps O’ Money”, “a comedy in two acts by permission of the author, also songs, set dancing and comic sketches by a straight man and a comedian, followed by a laughable farce”. No performers names were mentioned so it is unclear whether it was a local production or a travelling troupe.

The earliest performance of a production of clearly local origin that I have found was a Pantomime, “The Babes in the Wood”,  which was performed to full houses in the Catholic Club Hall in January 1943. The Catholic Club Hall was also used as the Courthouse and is now the Macra Hall. According to the report in the Meath Chronicle on 9th January 1943 the production was locally written, some of the songs were written by Professor Ryan and the music was played by the orchestra from the Musical Society. These included Mrs. Keating, Mrs. T. Newman and Prof. Ryan. Mrs. Ryan and Miss Stokes were responsible for the costumes.

Source: Athboy Macra na Feirme
Eamonn Cassells has had a hand in countless productions.

Eamonn Cassells, a stalwart of Athboy’s dramatic productions, remembers that his sisters Maureen and Sheila were in it. He also remembers them practicing for their parts in the choruses at home in Gillstown. The stage was at the street end of the hall, with the audience in the rest of the hall and in the balcony which then contained two wooden doors which could be opened out fully. Hair, makeup and costumes were put on in Keenan’s house next door (Tom Keenan was a teacher and the “Teachers’ houses” were on Upper Bridge Street) and in hairdresser Mrs. Coffey’s house across the road.

The following year, 1944, the Pantomime was “Barnacle Bill” and the cast included John Farrell (a Westmeath man who ran the Farrell’s pub that is now Inn Moderation), Tommy Mahon, Michael Coleman, Michael Dunne playing the dame, Miss Castles, Miss Martin, Mrs McClaughrey (a well-known and accomplished singer who lived in Clonleeson House in Drewstown/Girley). The songs were arranged again by Professor Ryan and the dancers were trained by Mr. and Mrs. P. Medlar who were Irish dancing teachers.

The coverage of the 1944 Pantomime in the Meath Chronicle says that this was the second production in its kind in Athboy so the 1943 “Babes” production was the first. The Chronicle also recorded that the cast included “several veterans of the dramatic society”.

I think this is a reference to “Athboy Dramatic Class”, a group which performed W. B. Yeats’ “Caitlin Ni Houlihan” and a two act comedy by Seamus MacManus called “Bong Tong” on the 17th and 18th March 1945. I have not found any information about earlier performances but from the words used by the Chronicle it appears they were active.

According to local woman Maureen Phelan (a font of local knowledge!), the Gaelic League produced plays in Irish as part of their Irish language classes before the Pantomimes started.

Collier, The Robber
The front and back page of the programme featuring the main cast and an add for Gorman’s grocer.

Pantomimes continued with “Collier the Robber” in 1945 and “Who Killed Cock Robin?” in 1946, again with substantial local script and song-writing, and they seem to have ended here. Athboy’s pantomimes seem to have been produced by “Hexagon”. I have not found out who this person was.

Rev. Fr. Irwin, CC, who came to Athboy in 1935, was involved in all of these Pantomime productions and may have started them. He was also involved with the Drama productions. Fr. Conway and Fr. O’Connor later become involved. Mrs Castles, who lived where Stauntons’ Pharmacy is now, took part in several productions.

Professor P.J. Ryan and his wife came down from Dublin to direct and performed in the pantomimes in the 1940s. Fr. Irwin may have gotten them involved. Maureen remembers that they also taught music in the Courthouse, lived on the Navan Road in Dublin and stayed in Cullens while the shows were on. On “The Babes in the Wood” program Prof. Ryan’s qualifications are listed as A.R.C.M. or Associate of the Royal College of Music and R. M. S. M. or Royal Military School of Music.

Athboy Drama Class travelled to St. Finian’s Hall in Killyon in July 1945 to present “The Rale McCoy” supported by “Athboy Pantomime Troupe”.

The Drama group also performed “The Bugle in the Blood” by Bryan MacMahon at the  Meath Drama Festival in Navan in March 1955 where they won the 3-act Rural section. John Farrell won best actor.  Eamonn remembers going to the show in Navan.

In March 1950 St. James’ Church Choir produced the four-act play “The Message of Fatima” in the Cinema, another tremendous undertaking. It was produced by Mr. Tom Keenan N.T. and Mrs. Keenan. The cast, containing many school-children, included Deirdre Keenan, Dolores Maguire, Seamus Flynn, Patricia and Beda Reilly, Carmel Cullen, Kathleen Coleman, Josephine Newman, Ursula Doyle, Joan Dempsey, Michael Coleman, Hugh Tierney and Mrs. M. Brennan, M.Cassidy, M. Doherty, N. Doherty, E.V. Flynn and K. Sweeney.  Dr. O’Brien-Moran sang the tenor part and Miss E. Keating was the organist.

The sequence of events is a little unclear after this because the Meath Chronicle reported in April 1957 that the “recently-formed Athboy Musical and Dramatic Society” had just delivered 3 productions:  “Trial By Jury”, a one-act Operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Valiant”, a one-act drama by Holworthy Hall and Robert Middlemiss, and the Children’s play “May Day” by Sinead De Valera.  Regardless of the name and age of the society this was another huge undertaking and and one that seems to have been very successful.

Rev. P. Deegan and Mrs. Olive Rice produced “Trial By Jury”. The large cast included Mrs Tennanty (a daughter of Val Vousden, a professional performer), Miss Carmel Cullen (possibly making operatic history as the first female player of the “Lead Counsel” according to the Chronicle), Michael Coleman, Tony Doherty, Eamonn Cassells, Frank Ennis, Joan Dempsey, Kathleen Coleman, Nan Mitchell, P. Reilly, N. Sweeney, C. Leavy, P. Ennis and F. Oakes.  The members of the Orchestra included Mrs. Newman (cello), Misses K. Casey, A. McCabe, and Mrs. S. McEntee (violins), Fr. Deegan (piano).  Messrs. M. Doherty, T. Keenan NT and P. Sheeran were responsible for the lighting and state management and Mrs. Keenan did the makeup.

Paddy Murray, a Sligoman who was the Headmaster in the Vocational School, produced “The Valiant”.  Paddy had great experience from his days in Tubbercurry (Tubbercurry’s Western Drama Festival has been active for over 70 years). The cast was Miss Rita Sheehan, Dan Fay, Frank Garrahy, M. Mooney, C. Leavy and Paddy Murray himself.

Mrs. Medlar and Miss S. Lynch N.T. produced the Children’s play “May Day” and the cast included Mrs. Marie McCormack, Nancy Ennis, Bernice Keenan, Doreen McElhinney and 6-year old Valerie Newman.

These productions seem to have marked the start of a very successful run for the Dramatic Society which included performances in Drama Festivals in Navan, Roscommon, Loughrea and Athlone.  Eamonn remembers them hiring a cattle lorry from Smiths in Rathmore to transport the sets.

All-Ireland Winning Drama Troupe
Athboy’s All-Ireand winning drama troupe.

The Dramatic Society’s finest hour was in 1959 when they won the Rural Section of the All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone with Frank Carney’s play “The Righteous are Bold”. Paddy Murray produced it. This was a tremendous achievement. In order to get to the finals in Athlone a play has to be nominated by a Drama Festival and Athboy were nominated from Navan Drama Festival.

They performed “Red Wine of Youth” in the 1960 Roscommon Drama Festival. “Red Wine of Youth” was written by James McCormack from Fordstown and Athboy Dramatic Society premiered it. Roscommon Drama Festival ran from 1960 until 1980, so Athboy performed at the inaugural festival.

They also performed “Red Wine” in the Royal Ballroom in Connaught Street – a building that has been gone for many years. Paddy Murray again produced and the cast were a familiar list of Joan Dempsey, John Farrell, Eamonn Cassells, Michael Coleman, Kathleen Coleman, Tommy Mahon and Dan Fay.  Stage and lighting were by P. Farrell, Frank Garrahy, Owen Murtagh and Frank Holland.  Miss G. Hiney was the secretary.

They produced “Shadow and Substance” in 1961 in which Joan Dempsey and John Farrell both won gold medals for acting in Athlone and “Autumn Fire” in 1962 which they took to the Roscommon Drama Festival.

“Traveller to the Night”, which they performed in 1963, may also have been written by Jaem (James) McCormack.

Joan Dempsey, Eamonn Cassells and Michael Coleman all won scholarships to the Brendan Smyth Academy of Acting for their performances during these years.

Pat Farrell was the stage manager during this time and was very good at the job. Eamonn remembers him constructing a cottage set, and squeezing Bovril down the sides to make the brown marks that were often seen on those old cottage walls. Eamonn also remembers that the girls who worked in Noonan’s Solicitors office used to type up copies of the scripts.

Athboy Dramatic Society’s introduction in the very impressive program from the 1961 Roscommon Drama Festival says that the society was formed 25 years ago and had been presenting plays every year since then. This would mean they were formed in 1936. This may have been a slight exaggeration.

Incidentally, one of the Adjudicators for the 1961 festival in Roscommon was Barry Cassin, who adjudicated at many Macra Drama and Light Entertainment competitions in my memory. Godfrey Quigley also adjudicated at many amateur drama competitions at that time.

Eamonn thinks Michael Coleman also produced plays including “The Far Off Hills” ,“The Paddy Pedlar” and “Muldoons Oriental Cafe”. This may have been before Paddy Murray started producing which would probably have been in the early 1950s.

There may have been a gap in 1964 because the Meath Chronicle reported in 1965 that Athboy Dramatic Society were hoping to stage a comeback and that Mr. Coleman would be the producer. The next production may have been the Athboy Antics Variety Show in March/April 1966 which was followed by “The Mummy and The Mumps” a 3-act farce, in December.

A programme from the 1968 "Athboy Antics".
A programme from the 1968 “Athboy Antics”.

Michael Coleman (my father) produced and wrote “Athboy Antics” with Eamonn Cassells and Father Liam Murtagh C.C. , from this until the early seventies.  As well as performing to great acclaim in St. James Hall they also travelled to perform.  They competed in the Player-Wills Group Talent competition in Kilnacrott and which was a precursor to the John Play Tops of the Town and Tip Tops competitions. One of my earliest memories is of seeing Dad playing Fagin in a scene from “Oliver!” in an “Antics” show in St. James’ Hall and being so terrified that Mam had to bring me home. This must have been about 1970/71.

Athboy Macra na Feirme ran many variety concerts after this but I remember seeing only one other local drama production in the town until Athboy Macra revived the Pantomimes in 1988 with “Dick Whittington and His Cat”. Eamonn Cassells again produced, the cast included Adrienne Darby, Sarsfield Donohoe, Clare Higgins, Angela Smyth, Angela Mahon, Jackie Leavy, Tom Fallon, John Rennick and Declan McGlynn and it featured the children from the Cassells School of Dancing. It was Paul Doherty’s first outing as the Dame, a role he has played in every Panto since.

“Dick Whittington” was followed by “Babes in the Wood” in 1989. During the final rehearsal for “Babes” there was a fire in a house in Athboy and Eamonn remembers the entire cast leaving the rehearsal to go up the street to watch the fire. After this, there may have been a bit of a gap as producing annual pantomimes was too much for the Macra club along with all of their other activities. Pantomimes did continue but they gradually became separated from Athboy Macra until Athboy Pantomime Society took shape and continues producing pantomimes every second year to this day.

Athboy Macra’s first play was a production of “Waiting Night” in the Royal Ballroom as a club fundraiser sometime in the mid-1960s. The actors included Red Cassidy, Mary Donegan (now McKenna), Ann Fitzpatrick, Patricia Wright, Leo Wright and Seamus Monaghan and Frank Garahy produced it. The club’s first entry into the Macra’s national one act drama competition was “Spring” and the cast included Josephine McDonagh, Charlie Smyth, Eamonn Cassells, Josephine Bryan and a very young Martina Brady (now Browne).

The club have reached the National Final several times and won the title with the third act from Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in 1983. The cast of “Plaza Suite” were Josephine Priest, Charlie Smyth, Anthony Leavy and Angela Smyth. This was the only play I remember seeing in Athboy during these years.

Over the years a selection of the plays Eamonn produced for the club included “Teenage Troubles”, “Next”, “On the Outside”, “Bus Stop”, “Percival the Performing Pig” and “Deeply Regretted By” . “Deeply Regretted By” was Maeve Binchy’s only play and Maeve wrote to the club thanking them for performing her play when she heard about it.

Charlie Smyth also produced several plays for the club starting the year Eamonn Cassells got married. Charlie’s plays included “The Lads”, “On the Outside”, “Cup Final” in which John Daly played a wonderfully camp Producer, “Nudes in Waning Light” and “Lovers – Winners” on two different occasions.

In recent years I have produced some plays for the club including “The River”, “A Night Out”, “Lovers – Losers”, “Pizzazz”, “Womberang” and “A Marriage Proposal”.

While few of these productions have made it onto the stage in Athboy other than the All-Ireland winning “Plaza Suite”, they have been performed in large and small venues all over Ireland, from the Arts Centre in Roscommon and the Belltable Theatre in Limerick, to one particularly memorable stage in Rolestown which had no wings and where we had to ask some of the other competing teams if they would leave their flats up so that we could make our entrances from behind them! I also remember another very old but properly equipped stage in a hall up a mountain outside Clonakilty. The hall was beside a pub that didn’t open until after Mass on Saturday evening.

Eamonn also produced and wrote for Athboy ICA’s dramatic and variety competition entries. Charlie wrote and produced “For the Want of a Screw” for the ICA and brought them to the All-Ireland in Drumcondra.

Some time towards the end of 2001 Eamonn Cassells decided that he wanted to produce “The Righteous are Bold”. So he did.

As a result of the interest generated by “Righteous” Athboy Drama Society was reformed and, in the years since 2002, has produced several great Irish, English and American plays including “Autumn Fire”, “Plaza Suite”, “The Weir”, “The Space Between the Years”, “Blithe Spirit”, “The Field”, “Juno and the Paycock”, “Dancing at Lughnasa”, “Arms and the Man”, “Sive” and, most recently, “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

The case of that first production were Fergal Fitzpatrick, Mary Jo Needham, Tim Lodge, Martin McGovern, Anne Fitzpatrick, Charlie Smyth, John Daly, Margo Cooke, Mary Donohoe and myself.

Eamonn Cassells, Charlie Smyth and I have produced plays for Athboy Drama Society and actors new and old have performed to a very high level including Anthony Foy, Brenda Rice, Paula Ennis, Jillian Ennis, Declan Cassells, Betty Beirne, Cathal Donohoe, Veronica Donohoe, Charlie Smyth and Gerry Cooke, who made a memorable appearance as the Bishop in “The Field”. While audiences have varied in size they have all been happy with what they have seen on stage.

While Eamonn Cassells remembers Pat Farrell’s stage management with admiration, in the modern era John Daly’s work as stage manager has been one of the highlights of many productions, and outstanding backdrops have been painted John’s twin brother and local artist Frank Daly.

Eamonn Cassells has a very simple method for casting his plays. He picks them from his vantage point in the gallery in St. James’ Church at Mass on Sunday! It was from here that he spotted Fergal and Anne Fitzpatrick in late 2001. He phoned Fergal to offer him a part and asked he asked Fergal if Anne would also play a part. Fergal’s advice was to phone again after dinner that evening at which time Anne would have had a glass or two of wine. This approach obviously worked because Anne went on to play a number of roles in Drama Society productions.

So, over the decades hundreds of people have taken to the stage in Athboy in a variety of dramatic undertakings. They have been supported by many musicians, makeup artists, hairdressers, costumiers, stage managers, directors and an unending stream of willing audience members. Long may it last.

The cast of Athboy Drama Societies 2015 production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

With thanks to Joan Dempsey, Eamonn Cassells, Maureen Phelan, Mary Donohoe and many others.

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