Sive and the Amateur Dramatic Movement

Sive and the Amateur Dramatic Movement

Dr. Fiona Brennan

The revitalisation of Ireland’s amateur dramatic movement, from the 1930s onwards, had critical implications for the future of Irish theatre and its significance regarding the remarkable success of Sive in 1959 is, of course, legendary.

When Sive was originally rejected by the Abbey Theatre in 1958, John B. Keane turned instead to the town’s experienced Listowel Drama group, which has developed as an impressive, talented outfit during a period when many amateur companies and groups were flourishing throughout Ireland. As competitive amateur drama festivals became established countrywide, to help promote the development of artistic standards, Listowel Drama Group proved very ambitious. Within months of its formation in 1944, the group was performing onstage at the Town Hall, Killarney, during the Kerry Drama Festival, which had been founded a year previously by like-minded enthusiast, Josephine Albericci.

The amateur dramatic movement was developing as a significant training ground for those who would later make the transition to professional theatre. Listowel Drama Group became a force to be reckoned with: group co-founder and playwright, Bryan MacMahon, enjoyed initial success in 1949 when the Abbey produced his play, The Bugle in the Blood. One of the group’s other co-founders, Eamon Kelly – who appeared in all three Abbey productions of Sive between 1985 and 1993 – and his wife Maura, embarked on significant professional careers when they joined the Raidío Éireann Company in 1952.

In 1953 Listowel Drama Group entered the inaugural All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone. The Festival is now an annual prestigious event and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012. Listowel’s first win was in 1954, in the one-act category, with a production of George Fitzmaurice’s The Magic Glasses. However, it was the overall Esso Festival Trophy that the group wished to bring home to North Kerry.

When experienced Listowel producer, Brendan Carroll, first read Sive, he agreed to produce it. He believed that the National Festival had brought fresh impetus to the amateur movement and was convinced that Sive –which premiered at Walsh’s Ballroom, Listowel in February 1959 – might attain All-Ireland glory. By the time the group qualified for that year’s All-Ireland competition, it had enjoyed rapturous receptions at all four qualifying regional festivals in Kerry, Clare, North Cork and Limerick, where the Gardaí had to deal with incredible crowds. Excitement was at fever pitch and hopes were high.

Listowel Drama Group’s All-Ireland Festival success with Sive holds a formidable place in the history of the national amateur dramatic movement. Sive set John B. on the road to incredible and sustained success. Abbey Director, Ernest Blythe, expressed his delight at Keane’s achievement. He acknowledged that the play had allowed the National Theatre to realise an ambition of several years, which was to stage an All-Ireland Festival winning production. Undoubtedly, the opportunity for an amateur ensemble to perform at the Abbey was a source of immense pride and satisfaction for all involved, particularly for Nora Relihan, whose portrayal of Mena Glavin earned her an invitation to join the Abbey Company.

Without doubt, the success of Sive is a credit to the amateur dramatic movement and all those who believed in the theatrical majesty of John B’s idiomatic tale from North Kerry: a tale which exposed Irish theatre to the erstwhile inexpressible dark underbelly of 1950s’ Ireland.

Dr. Fiona Brennan is author of George Fitzmaurice “Wild in His Own Way”: Biography of an Abbey Playwright (Carysfort Press 2005). She is currently working on a history of the amateur dramatic movement in Kerry.

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