Awards-Laden Thurles Drama Group Bids For Festival Glory In Athlone

The sparkling excitement in the bright and cosy home of Tom and Margaret Purcell in Main Street, Littleton, last week, was akin to what you’d experience in Semple Stadium, Thurles, on the eve of Tipperary senior hurlers appearing in the All Ireland Final at Croke Park. No hats and colours-yet but you had no doubt but that important creative work was in progress.

The sparkling excitement in the bright and cosy home of Tom and Margaret Purcell in Main Street, Littleton, last week, was akin to what you’d experience in Semple Stadium, Thurles, on the eve of Tipperary senior hurlers appearing in the All Ireland Final at Croke Park. No hats and colours-yet but you had no doubt but that important creative work was in progress.

For the Purcell home had been invaded by over a score of invited guests from the 45 years old Thurles Drama Group who will represent the blue and gold of Tipperary in the 60th annual RTE All Ireland Drama Festival in Dean Crowe Theatre, Athlone on Monday, May 7th. Brian Marjoribanks is the Adjudicator for the All Ireland Festival which is under the auspices of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland. There are numerous Festival Fringe events throughout the Festival week, May 3rd-11th, including entertainment by the band of the 4th Western Brigade on Thursday, May 3rd, and Friday, May 11th. A Drama Festival Exhibition should evoke many memories.

“Since last September everybody has worked very hard for this”, said Margaret McCormack- Purcell, our charming hostess, (attired tonight in striking red and black), at a unique and convivial Press Reception in her home to announce details of the All Ireland preparations. And all the visitors were loud in their praise for the generous hospitality of Tom and Margaret, whose daughter, Roseanna, is with the Gaiety School of Acting. Margaret as a young actress was with the Brendan Smith Theatre Academy, Dublin, and played in “The Playboy Of The Western World” on the same professional stage at the Olympia Theatre as the late, great, Siobhan McKenna. Quite an acting coup at the time as Siobhan was a mega star then” She was the best at the time and it was a great experience for a student actress”, said Margaret. Margaret was also in in “Juno And The Paycock” by Sean O’ Casey at the Olympia Theatre and played alongside TP McKenna, Barbara Brennan and Jim Bartley, “Bella” of “Fair City” renown. Three years ago Margaret received her Masters in Drama and Theatre Studies at St. Patrick’s, Dromcondra.

There is a very impressive array of silver cups, bog oak trophies, plaques and trophies on display on the kitchen table, prizes which have been won in this season alone at festivals all over Ireland from the County Tipperary Festival in Holycross to Claregalway and Mountmellick.

Margaret McCormack-Purcell is the lady with the vision, insight and dedication that has inspired the enthusiastic and richly -talented Thurles thespians to reach the highest heights to bring the highly polished Thurles production of Conor McPherson’s wonderful dark comedy, ”The Seafarer”, to festival glory in Athlone. The play may be seen on this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May, 3rd, 4th and 5th, in Scoil Ailbhe at 8pm nightly. This is a great opportunity to support the cast in their quest for All-Ireland honours and to enjoy one of the finest performances ever by a drama group on the Thurles stage.

The Festival in Athlone was formally launched in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, last week and representing Thurles at the glitzy launch were Margaret McCormack-Purcell(Director) and former Chairman and cast member, Liam Ryan. The attendance included Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Minister, Mr Jimmy Deenihan, Abbey Theatre Chairman, Dr. Bryan McMahon, (son of the great writer and playwright, Bryan McMahon), the Head of Drama in RTE , the Chairman of the Festival Committee in Athlone, Billy Nott, and the Chairman of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland.

The nine groups taking part in the festival include a number whom Thurles have already beaten en route to the finals and Cornmill Theatre Group, Carrigallen, County Leitrim, previous All-Ireland winners in 1998 and 2005, are interestingly, also staging “The Seafarer”.

Thurles have won the overall award in Holycross, (where they received unprecedented and heart stirring thunderous applause and a standing ovation), Mountmellick, Charleville and Claregalway. In Holycross recently they won the Dr Morris Memorial Cup for Best Tipperary Play and the Hanafin Cup for Most Entertaining Play. They also won the Most Entertaining Play award in Claregalway and Kilmuckeridge and the Best Audience Play in Kilmuckeridge.

They won Best ensemble Acting Award in Kildare. In Charleville they won “Best Lighting and Sound Award with the first class technical team of Sean O’ Dwyer, Andrew Farrelll, Kevin Kirwan, Gerry Taylor and Dean Rossiter.

Liam Ryan was Best Actor in New Ross and Best Supporting Actor in Claregalway. Chairman, David McElgunn, was Best Actor in Claregalway and Best Supporting Actor in New Ross. Pat Loughnane was Best Actor in Charleville. Matt Tracey was Best supporting Actor in Holycross, Kilmuckeridge and Charleville. Donal Ryan won Best Supporting Actor in Kildare. Margaret McCormack- Purcell was Best Director in Mountmellick, Holycross, Charleville and Claregalway. Anne ‘O Dwyer and Tom O’Shaughnessy won Best Set Award in Charleville and Claregalway.

Thurles Drama Group is now one of Ireland’s best officially, as they are in the top nine groups in the country in a year which saw 36 Festivals held nationwide. Quite an achievement -no matter what happens in Athlone.

The wonderful cast, who have enthralled thousands all over Ireland under the Direction of Margaret McCormack-Purcell, are Pat Loughnane as James (“Sharky”) Harkin; Liam Ryan as “Richard Harkin”; Matt Tracey as “Ivan Curry”; Donal Ryan as “Nicky Giblin” and David McElgunn as “Mr Lockhart”.

Mary McLoughlin is Stage Manager and Set Design is by Anne O’ Dwyer. Set Construction is by Thomas O’ Shaughnessy and Lighting is by Sean O’Dwyer and Dean Rossiter. Sound Design is by Andrew Farrell(18) and Kevin Kirwan.

Catherine Murphy is in charge of Costumes and Make Up is by Greta Murphy. The Stage Crew comprises Tom Bourke (15) son of Anne O’ Dwyer and Bill Purcell(14) Margaret McCormack- Purcell’s son, and Brid Ryan, Mary Condron, Joe Barry, Jimmy Cleary, Dick Ryan, Breda Sammon, Anne-Marie Smee, Donal Taylor.

The Officers of Thurles Drama Group are DavidMcElgunn (Chairman), Pat Loughnane (Vice/ Chairman), Anne Marie Smee (Secretary), Aoife Whelan(Treasurer), Geraldine Delaney(P.RO.) and committee members, Brid Ryan, Joe Barry, Hugh Ryan, Kevin Kirwan, Denise Hanley, Matt Tracey.

This is the first appearance of Thurles DG in the All-Ireland since 2003. They won the Confined Section in 1988 and qualified for the Open All-Ireland that year also and Anne O’ Dwyer won the Best Stage Manager award. There were other appearances also in Athlone to which Thurles are no strangers.

“We are now in the top nine from 37 groups in Ireland and we are fourth in Ireland on points in the Drama League. It’s a great honour to be there as the standards are very high. This is a special year of celebration also as they are celebrating 60 years of the Festival and RTE are the main sponsors. We have not been out on stage since March 23rd in Claregalway when we took six awards and the pre -Athlone performances will help us to tighten up the production. We hope to have good support at the shows in our old home in Scoil Ailbhe to send us off on our dramatic way to Athlone on Monday next, May 7th. ”We have a great cast and crew, as you saw for yourself in Holycross at the Tipp festival. It’s an honour for us and for Thurles just to be there with the best. So, wish us the best.” Break a leg, folks!

The huge crowd of theatre enthusiasts in the Purcell home of the failtes that night included Joe Barry and Brid Ryan who have been with the group from the beginning. And we also met two of the famous “Lughnasa Babies”, Tom and Bill, who are older now, of course. Sin sceal eile.

The other plays in the Festival include “Jerusalem” by the Silken Thomas Players who include Patricia Lowry of Holycross who teaches with Margaret in St. Michaels’ NS in Holycross and who is wished well also. Other groups include Prosperous, Cornmill, Kilmeen, Bunclody/Kilmyshall, Estuary Players, Dublin, Ballyduff DG, Corofin.

A big contingent from Thurles and other parts of the country will be in Athlone to support the Tipp folks. And the Gala Awards presentation will take place on Saturday, May 12th, in the Radisson Blu Hotel, Athlone. Tiobraid Arann abu ! Doggone- even the dog world - specifically, The Purcells’ pet, ”Tatters”, is in full voice for Thurles! Other canine mascots over the years included “Tatters The First” and “Joxer”.

There was a little nostalgia in the air on the night as memories were recalled of Drama Group members of the early years. People who served in the beginning included Breda Audley, Kevin and Eileen Maher, Flan Quigney, Dan O’ Brien, Mary Daly, Antoin O Briain and Muiris O Cleirigh on set construct ion, Sean Gardiner, Matt Long. PJ Broderick, Declan Breathnach, Dick Shanahan and so many others, including some who have passed on(RIP).

Over the years also Thurles have built up a good relationship with other drama groups in the area, including Moyne, Loughmore, and Holy cross/Ballycahill and all, I’m sure, will wish Thurles well in Athlone. And support has come also from Mr. Donal Duggan, Festival Director of the County Tipperary Open Drama Festival at Holy cross where the local group last week staged again their festival play, ”The Memory Of Water”, by Sheelagh Stephenson.

Meanwhile Kevin Ryan, son of Thurles- born Drummer, Seanie Ryan and Pamela Ryan, has written a thesis on “The Seafarer” for the Journal in the Texas University where he is engaged in pursuing Irish Studies. One of his fellow students is from South Tipp, incidentally. Small world! Seanie Ryan, and his son, Kevin, saw” The Seafarer” in the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, last Sunday week , after reading in the “Tipperary Star” about its astonishing success for Thurles at the County Tipperary Open Drama Festival in Holycross. “It’s a great play”, said Sean and Kevin who wish Thurles Drama Group all the best in Athlone.

Meanwhile, you do not have to travel to Texas to see the wonderful, awards –winning production. It will be staged in Scoil Aillbhe, Thurles, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 3rd, 4th and 5th, at 8pm nightly.