Looking back on 80 years of the Western Drama Festival in Tubbercurry

The Western Drama Festival in Tubbercurry is now gearing up for its Oak anniversary, that’s 80 years of showcasing some of the best amateur drama Ireland has to offer.

nd much like the humble acorn, this festival has continued to grow, since its founding in 1943, into a strong and mighty event with branches all over the country and roots firmly placed in the South Sligo town.

In the lead up to the Western Drama Festival (which runs from March 3-11), chairperson Brendan McGowan caught up with The Sligo Champion to discuss the festival’s rich history as the first of its kind in the country, how its founding led to the development of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland, and what people can expect in the upcoming events.

“In 1942, St. Brigid’s Hall, which is the home of the festival, was built in Tubbercurry,” Brendan said.

“It was a fine facility at the time, but the people were wondering how to make best use of it.”

This is when four enterprising young gentlemen, Matt J Devine, Dr John A Flannery, Sean O’Dowd and Alfie Rochford, came up with the idea of a festival in 1943 and by 1944 the first in a long-standing annual tradition was held.

“This was not just a first for Tubbercurry, but it was the first of its kind in the entire country,” Brendan said.

From these modest beginnings a festival circuit was born and today there are 37 Drama Festivals throughout the 32 counties.

The initiative of those Tubbercurry founders established the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland (ADCI) and the first All-Ireland Drama Finals in Athlone in 1953.

“All this sprung up from the first festival in Tubbercurry, within a year or two there were more such as in Ballyshannon, Newry, and Cavan, and within ten years all those festivals came together to form the Amateur Drama Council with Matt J Devine as the first chairman,” Brendan said.

Today the all-Ireland festival still runs each year in Athlone and is now called the RTÉ All Ireland Drama Festival, with confined all-Ireland festivals also being held at various counties each year.

The Western Drama Festival is also a competition for amateur groups where an assigned adjudicator will give feedback and guidance to those taking part.

“The groups are all amateur, but I say that word very loosely,” Brendan said.

“That’s because these amateur productions are very professional, especially those who get to the finals in Athlone, I have witnessed shows on the festival circuit that have been much superior to a professional production.”

The winners of regional festivals such as this one will then go forward to the all-Ireland final and Brendan says there is a distinction made for a confined section of less experienced groups.

“It’s like in football with a premiere division and a first division, the confined section allows less experienced groups to qualify,” he said.

With such a wealth of talented amateur dramatic groups throughout Ireland, festivals such as this give people the chance to witness some of the country’s best productions each year.

“This festival has sprung a massive national amateur drama movement, there isn’t is a parish, town, city, or county in the land that now does not have a drama group or festival of some sort,” Brendan said.

“This season starts in February and runs right up until the all-Ireland is complete in May.”

Brendan says that when he tells people it is the 80th anniversary of the festival, they say well surely there has not been 80 festivals in Tubbercurry. However, he then reveals there has been plenty more than that.

“We actually run two festivals with a full festival in March and a one-act festival in November, this means all in all there’s been about 123 festivals in St. Brigid’s Hall since it started,” he said.

Tubbercurry was also the host of the confined All-Ireland drama finals on three occasions, in 1985, 2002, and 2017.

There’s very little that can stop the festival from taking place bar a few anomalies such as the Big Snow of 1947 or the year of Foot and Mouth in 2001.

“During Covid we still managed, the first lockdown came when we were two thirds through the festival and in 2021, we had a one-act festival,” Brendan said.

Brendan says that Tubbercurry is ‘a town of firsts’ having the first festival and the first chairperson, and has ensured their involvement in council since its inception.

“Since the Amateur Drama Council was founded 70 years ago Tubbercurry has had unbroken service and there has always been a member from here on it in some shape or another,” he said.

“The council has about 15 members nationally and the Western Drama Festival is represented all the time.”

While not an actor himself, Brendan is a native of Tubbercurry and has had a great love for the festival since he was a child.

“My parents were very involved in amateur drama and when any of my siblings were capable enough to sit quietly they brought us to the theatre for the drama festival,” he said.

“We looked forward to that as much as Christmas and I have been going ever since.”

Brendan says that the festival touches every part of Tubbercurry and is recognised as one of the major art events of South Sligo.

“So many people look forward to it and we get tremendous support locally and from outside the region,” he said.

“We have a loyal and knowledgeable audience who appreciate drama and theatre, they know a good production and a bad production when they see one.”

Brendan also wished to highlight the ongoing support from the local business community and the sponsorship they have received over the years.

“Sponsorship is our lifeblood, together with the box office. Sponsors can give anything from €50 to €1,000 and there are different things like an ad in our programme, a mention on stage, or to be a partner,” he said.

Brendan understands the value drama brings to a community and stated that nowhere on earth is there an amateur drama scene as vibrant as can be found in Ireland.

“That’s irrefutable, after the GAA it is the second biggest movement in Ireland with amateur status, so many festivals, groups, and audiences,” he said.

“It’s a great movement to be a part of and it’s like one big family, you go to festivals and meet and chat with people, the friendships you make are brilliant.

“You couldn’t count the amount of people who have been involved in the Western Drama Festival and I am hopeful it will continue for another 80 years and beyond.”

This year’s festival will feature nine groups over nine days from Clontarf, Donegal, Dublin, Mayo and Wexford and will include a varied programme with comedy, drama, and in your face theatre.

The adjudicator for this year’s festival will be the well-regarded director Martin Maguire who is known for successful productions of Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet that have toured throughout Ireland.

He has performed in The Abbey, Gate, Project and Olympia theatres as well as many venues around the country and has taken roles in Ros Na Run, The Clinic, The Tudors, Corp Agus Anam, Fair City and Glenroe. He is also known for appearing for many years as Bran in RTE’s children’s TV show The Morbegs.

Martin is a former chair of Castaway Actors Agency and has been associated with the Gaiety School of Acting for more than 25 years, he has been a regular adjudicator for many festivals throughout the country.

Offically opening the festival is TV producer, writer, director, and Tubbercurry native Dearbhla Walsh.

A longstanding friend and patron of the festival, many may know Dearbhla from her recent work on the Irish drama comedy series Bad Sisters.

Dearbhla Walsh is an Emmy, IFTA and BAFTA award-winning director. In 2009, Walsh won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, starring Claire Foy.

She also directed a feature adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot for the BBC, starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench. Other TV director credits include The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Tales from the Loop, Penny Dreadful, The Tudors and Marvel’s The Punisher, along with Shameless for Channel 4, Traitors for Channel 4 and Netflix and The Silence for BBC .

The Western Drama Festival takes place in St. Brigid’s Hall Tubbercurry nightly at 8pm from March 3 to 11.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 086 455 3395 or in person at St. Brigid’s Hall, Tubbercurry.

The full performance programme for the nine day festival is as follows.

Friday March 3rd: Lifford Players, Co. Donegal presents:’ When Elephants Collide’ by Edward Flanagan.

Saturday March 4th: Salmon Eile, Co Kildare presents: ‘ The Pitchfork Disney’ by Philip Ridley (strictly over 18s, not for the faint hearted).

Sunday March 5th: Glenmaddy Players, Co Galway present: ‘Proof’ by David Auburn.

Monday March 6th: The Ray Leonard Players, Co Mayo present: ‘Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ by Jimmy Murphy.

Tuesday March 7th: Ballyshannon Drama Society presents: ‘Delicate Balance’ by Edward Albee.

Wednesday March 8th: St Patrick’s Drama Group, Co May presents: ‘ Dear Frankie’ by Niamh Gleeson.

Thursday March 9th: Butt Drama Circle, Co Donegal presents: ‘Darkness Echoing’ by Shaun Byrne.

Friday March 10th: Clontarf Players, Co Dublin presents: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde.

Saturday March 11th: Wexford Drama Groups presents: ‘The Father’ by Florian Zeller.

Tickets are priced at €60 for the seasons, €12 nightly, or €10 concession.

The overall sponsor for the festival is the Davy Group.

Each night of the festival also features sponsorship from a variety of local businesses and individuals:

VISIONBUILT and North Connacht College.

Brennan Undertakers and the Family Resource Centre.

Burke’s Motor Works and Brett’s Pharmacy.

Barry’s Pharmacy and JBG Security.

Murphy & Sons and Cllr Martin Connolly.

Rockford Gallagher and SMS Motors.

McCarrick & Sons and Trade West.

Achonry Farmers Market and Surlis’s SuperValu.

Cawley’s Hotel and Paul Morahan Electrical.

For more information on the Western Drama Festival Tubbercurry visit: http://www.westerndramafestival.com/


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