Saturday, 23 February 2013

Early Drama Groups and Ballyshannon Playwrights

Early Drama Groups and Ballyshannon Playwrights

Ballyshannon Amateur Dramatic Club

This blog briefly looks back to early generations of actors and playwrights who laid the foundation for what is still today an important part of Ballyshannon life. The drama movement in Ballyshannon can be clearly traced back to the 1880s when Bernard Kelly of the Port, the first nationalist Member of Parliament for South Donegal, was a member of The Ballyshannon Amateur Dramatic Club and indeed Kelly also wrote poetry. Kelly is buried at St. Joseph’s on the Rock, just beside the Rock Hall which was a popular venue for plays and concerts. No doubt the drama movement goes back much further but records are scarce.

John McAdam and the Rock Hall

John (Pa) McAdam, editor of “The Donegal Vindicator,” produced countless plays in the Rock Hall. He was responsible for the old Dramatic Club who staged “The Colleen Bawn” and “Ara-na-Pogue” in the Rock Hall around 1904. He was an all round producer who taught  the local actors how to talk, walk and more importantly stand still. He devised the costumes and painted the scenery and even acted  parts in the plays.

John (Pa) McAdam was recalled by Gerard Sweeny of The Commercial Hotel in his memoirs:

Pa McAdam, the proprietor of The Donegal Vindicator, a fat little man, usually spent a while each day in our kitchen, with his back to the range, particularly in winter, warming himself. Smoking a big fat cigar, hands in pockets, moving up and down on his heels for exercise, and telling all the news and receiving plenty from the kitchen staff. ---- He was a wonderful character. 

In April 1914 the Ballyshannon Amateur Dramatic Club produced “The Shaughran” with the following cast: A.J. Reaper, P.J. Stephens, Cecil Stephens, J. J. O’ Dowd, Patrick Croal, (father of Premier Players’ producer Patsy Croal), J.J. Stephens, James Kelly, Bernard Brady, Miss E. Stephens, Miss S. Croal, N.T., Miss Bella Lynch and Miss O’ Daly.

The Rock Hall was officially opened on the 25th March 1892 and for many years was the mecca for drama, dance and variety and is recalled with great affection by older residents of the area. It also became a cinema for some time before the days of the Erne Cinema and the Abbey Cinema which both came on stream in 1946.

De La Salle Brothers

In January 1914 the De La Salle Brothers produced “Benson” with the following cast: P.J. Munday, E. Higgins, J. Higgins, W. McGinley, J. Martin, F. McLoughlin, M. Walsh, P. Monaghan, John Cleary, (afterwards producer with the Premier Players founded in 1932), G. Kelly, W. Ward, H. Dolan, Luke McGinley, John Daly, T. Stephens, J. McGowan, Alby Munday and Mrs. P. Connolly. The De La Salle Brothers had only arrived in Ballyshannon in 1912 to open a primary school.


D.V. Stephens

Ballyshannon produced at least three playwrights in the early decades of the 20th century. D.V. (Vincent) Stephens was producer and scenery designer in early drama productions in Ballyshannon. Later in life he organised the Bundoran Drama Festival. His play, “To Whom this Glen”, took first place for manuscript at Cork Drama Festival. He also wrote a radio play entitled “St. Columcille.” Vincent Stephens was also responsible for publishing Canon Maguire’s history of the town called, “Ballyshannon. Past and Present.”

Thomas Ward and the 98 Hall

Thomas Edward Ward of Market Street was a well known Ballyshannon poet and artist who wrote and produced “The Child of the Tempest” in the ’98 Hall. He also painted the scenery. Among the cast were: E.D. McAdam, L. Weir, S. Lee, S Martin and P. Ward. Thomas Ward published 2 books of his poetry. He lived in what is now Sean Ógs bar and the family at one time also owned what is now McGrath’s Bridge Bar. The following is an extract from his poem entitled, “Eventide” (Written in the Harbour Ballyshannon)

Nought but the rippling of the Erne breaks the silence here,
A holy peace reigns over all, the skies above are clear,
Yet clearer are the waters that silently doth flow
Beside the purple meadows where the blossoms gently grow;
Where faded sunbeams scatter their rays out far and wide,
And a clank of weary oars sound o’er the silent tide.

The 98 Hall was built in memory of the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion. It was officially opened by Belfast politician Joe Devlin who was a leader of The Ancient Order of Hibernians (A.O.H.). To commemorate the 150th anniversary of 1798 a plaque was designed by Phil McGroarty, monumental sculptor, from Rossnowlagh . The plaque was unveiled on the front of the building on the 27th December 1948 by Martin Bernard McGowan a former T.D. for Sligo-Leitrim.  

Ms. E.D. McAdam

Miss E.D. McAdam of “The Donegal Vindicator” newspaper who had acted in Ward’s play also wrote a play entitled; “The Hearts of Tyrconnell.” She produced the play to packed audiences in the ’98 Hall. Amongst the cast were: Miss McAdam, Mrs. J.J. Kilfedder, Miss Bella McAllister, Miss May McAllister, J.J. Kilfedder, W. Gallagher, P. Darcy, Danny Downey, B. Lyons and Matt Gilfedder. She was following in the footsteps of her father John (Pa) McAdam, both in drama and also in the newspaper business.

The Ballyshannon Players in the 1930s

Eighty years ago the Rock Hall was the major venue for drama and variety shows in the town. The Ballyshannon Players regularly performed plays by George Sheils including a three act comedy called “The New Gossoon”. The cast included; Mary Monaghan, Ignatius O’ Gorman, Harry Brady, John Cleary, Lily Daly, Seamus Martin, Meg Gillespie, Jim McFadden and Patsy Daly. They certainly gave value for money as along with Sheil’s three act play, a one act farce called “The Duplicity of David” by J. Bernard McCarthy was performed on the 6th January 1933. The cast included Mary Monaghan, Alby Munday, Tommy McGuinness, Mary Fox and Paddy McShea. Audiences got great value for their money in those pre-television days as there were also singers and dancers accompanied by a small orchestra on the programme. The night concluded with The National Anthem.

Modern Times in the Abbey

The Premier Players reached the pinnacle of amateur drama in 1961 when under producer P.J. (Patsy) Croal they won the Open All-Ireland Final with “Old Road” achieving professional standards. There have also been successes in All-Ireland one act competitions. Soinbhe Lally who resides in Rossnowlagh, is a prolific author and has also written plays which have been successfully performed. Amongst her plays have been “The Dark Daughter”, “Donalbain” and a number of plays for national radio.

Jim and Ailis McIntyre, relatives of Thomas (Tommy) Ward, a playwright named above, are currently members of Ballyshannon Drama Society, a group who won the All-Ireland Drama Final for “Steel Magnolias” in 2011. The drama movement still thrives in Ballyshannon and has a proud history with the Annual Drama Festival in the Abbey Centre every March.

Next Blog:  Ballyshannon Links to Two Unusual Olympic Games” will be posted on 9th March.

The Gathering in Ballyshannon: Google “The Gathering in Ballyshannon” for more details of special events you might like to attend later in the year. Lots happening in Ballyshannon in the summertime including:

Music Festivals----------Ballyshannon 400 celebrating the granting of a town charter in 1613---- The Commemoration of the Kildoney Fishermen’s victory on behalf of the people in 1933.

Ballyshannon Musings:  Please let people with an interest in Ballyshannon and surrounding areas know about this site, particularly people who are not living locally and those who are abroad. The site is called Ballyshannon Musings and there are a number of back issues available on the internet. Copy this link and forward The site can be located on the internet (or by connecting to my Facebook page). New items will be posted every fortnight on Ballyshannon Musings during 2013, the year of “The Gathering”.

New Local History Book: “Ballyshannon Genealogy and History” by Anthony Begley has newly researched history on the Ballyshannon area in the 19th and 20th centuries including fishing, sport, tourism, social history, flora and fauna, The Independence struggle, The Emergency, buildings, townland history and lots of reminiscences. Contains 500 pages with much material on how to trace your roots. All the gravestone inscriptions in the 3 local cemeteries are recorded and indexed for ease of location. Includes history of all the parish of Kilbarron and the local parts of Mágh Ene parish (formerly Innismacsaint parish).

Available from The Novel Idea Ballyshannon/The Four Masters Bookshop Donegal Town 

or can be ordered on line from   A limited number of hardbacks also available. Enquiries welcome.

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