Jim Carney’s RTE Radio Interview with Kitty Lardner 13/02/1996.
Transcribed by Helen Tully
J.C. For this week’s programme it was my pleasant task to visit the lovely historic town of Athenry to meet Kitty Lardner.
One of the great traditions in Irish life for as long as anyone can remember is that of the amateur drama movement. Because of its enduring popularity it still is of special appeal to audiences young and old any time of the year in town or country. Not even the advent of television in the early 1960s could quench the spirit of amateur drama and in more recent times, of course, many community groups have specialised in staged musicals. However, as was famously said once upon a time “the play’s the thing”.
For close on half a century Athenry Drama Group had flourished under the guiding influence of one of the amateur drama movement’s most distinguished figures and greatest achievers, the actress, producer and director, Kitty Lardner.
K.L. I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my life because even in our school days drama was very important. We had our annual play, usually the music hall type of plays, in town and we also had the travelling repertoire companies including Anew McMaster’s, which was a great influence. We had the great advantage at that time that before ever we did Shakespeare at school we had seen Shakespeare (plays) several times. So there was a very, very strong local tradition going back long past the time that I can remember, in fact past the time that nobody remembers very well.
J.C. And even back to school days, Kitty, you really liked it.
K.L. Oh, we loved it, we loved it and, of course, even at that time when the annual play came off you had to have a concert with it. You see you didn’t do it with the play, you had to have a monster concert and a laughable farce as well as a three or four or five act play and, of course, children out of the school sang or danced or something and that was the big highlight. St. Stephen’s night was a great night for it. And that was one of the great highlights. And then the repertoire companies coming around especially McMaster. We trooped down every night when we could rattle up the nine pence or whatever it was.
J.C. The modern generation simply couldn’t be expected to appreciate just what the visit of a McMaster would mean to a town in provincial Ireland, Kitty.
K.L. Not at all, they wouldn’t have an idea, not an idea. Because they have never known that kind of thing and they are looking at things every day on the television and every night and they are dulled, I think, they are really dulled. It was such an event; it didn’t happen very often and it was a great event.
J.C. He brought renowned actors and actresses with him. It was said that the playwright Harold Pinter once acted in Tuam.
K.L. Harold Pinter acted here and Hilton Edwards and MacLiammour because they were with him in their young days and Harold Pinter, of course, was with them several times. Charles Mitchell was with them and Godfrey Quigley, I think, did a spell with them. Harry Pinter didn’t mean a thing to anyone at the time. They were something to look forward to and they were marvellous and he was a wonderful actor himself.
J.C. And a famous booming voice.
K.L. Oh, a marvellous voice, a marvellous voice. You know you were transported altogether into a different world, completely transported. I know that before I got as far as doing Hamlet at school, which would probably be in sixth class or thereabouts, I had seen Hamlet five times before we ever did it at school. I thought it was the greatest thing ever, and Romeo and Juliet and the Merchant of Venice. The only one we hadn’t seen was Julies Caesar, I think.
I thought it was an extraordinary thing for a rural community. He did the Yeats version of Oedipus Rex here in town. It ran without a break from beginning to end. It was about two and a half hours long. He got packed audiences for it. You wouldn’t get people nowadays to sit that length and listen.
J.C. As a long time actress and director, Kitty, you could appreciate, perhaps, better than most, what the line learning must have been like for McMaster and his company.
K.L. Yes, but then of course we always took it for granted that they were doing nothing else; they hadn’t to mix it up with an ordinary everyday. Anyway, we didn’t feel they were ordinary everyday people. They were a class apart, a breed apart, and we thought they were marvellous, really marvellous and they were.
J.C. To what extent, Kitty, did that nurture and feed your love of theatre?
K.L. Oh, it must have because it introduced me for the first time to theatre apart from the local ones and I suppose we saw something there that we wouldn’t see in the local ones. You got an idea of the techniques and that kind of thing from it. He was a great technician as well as being a great actor.
J.C. For those people who wouldn’t know Athenry, the town, that well, Kitty, where did McMaster put on the plays?
K.L. In the Town Hall, what is the Town Hall now. They travelled quite a lot, of course, in those days and he found this was one of the best places for audiences, considerably better than Galway, strangely enough. Sometimes he came twice a year to Athenry and it was a big event. The people loved it. They thronged in from all round the country and packed it every night. It was so different, very different.
J.C. There was, of course, a long, long tradition of drama and concerts and entertainment here in Athenry.
K.L. Oh, there was, there was. I think I have a record there of some performances. We don’t know exactly when it was. It must have been in the pre-war times.
J.C. That cutting is probably from the Connacht Tribune.
K.L. It must be the Connacht Tribune. I don’t know the date of it, unfortunately. I must try and find it out sometime or other.
J.C. I’d like just to go over it briefly, Kitty. It says “on Monday night an interesting play entitled “A moment of Peril” was presented before a crowded house. The company have attained well deserved popularity owing to the great success of former plays, which were carried out successfully under the management of Mr. James Lardner who was an artist of the highest merit. The aristocracy of the surrounding districts were in attendance and the large number of automobiles, which arrived, was strong evidence of the great popularity of the company”. The review goes on to mention Mr. M. Morrissey, who holds a leading place in the company, and who gave a splendid rendering of “Come back to Erin”. To a persistent encore he gave a comic selection.
Miss Daisy McKeown was at her best and sang with great merit, ‘Nellie Bligh’. Mr. James Payne danced a hornpipe and in response to an encore gave some exhibitions of jig dancing. Mr. T. J. Daly was loudly encored upon concluding his favourite song “A Long way to Tipperary”. Mr. Thomas O’Neill, who was the lucky possessor of a splendid baritone voice, produced loud applause by his delivery of “In Old Ireland Where the River Kenmare Flows.” He also sang “Farewell “, which was loudly applauded. Mr. James Lardner fairly held the audience in roars of laughter with a comic entitled “Father papered the Parlour”.
K.L. That was his masterpiece.
J.C. and was unable to retire from the enraptured audience until he contributed another side splitting comic, “My Old Grey Coat”. Now Kitty, James Lardner, he was your uncle, I believe.
K.L. He was, yes, yes, and that was his famous masterpiece.
J.C. You really enjoyed hearing that review again.
K.L. I did. I had forgotten that was in it actually, because I know he brought out a bucket and brush for papering the parlour and I know on one occasion I was told he sprinkled all the people in the front row, the parish priest and everyone. The water was slashed down on them. That was his masterpiece.
J.K. The other names, Kitty, they are hardly that well remembered – it goes back so far – Mr. M. Morrissey, Ms. Daisy McKeown, Mr. James Payne and Mr. T. J. Daly.
K.L. James Payne, of course, was Norman’s father; you might know Norman, the musician. James is dead now a few years, not very long. Norman comes home from America regularly; he brings tours, American tours. Martin Morrissey lived across the road there. He was a brother of Miss Julia Morrissey who was engaged to Liam Mellows, across where Jimmy Nolan is now. Daly, Tommy Joe Daly, they had a public house; they were down opposite where the old Barracks used to be. Daisy McKeown’s name is very familiar to me but I don’t remember Daisy McKeown as a person. I wouldn’t remember those at all, of course, in that particular performance.
J.C. James Lardner, your uncle, is mentioned there. Your father, Kitty, was Larry Lardner, a tremendously well known and well liked character here in Athenry, going back a long time.
K.L. Yes, he was. His mother had a public house, this was a pub here. From very early on he was deeply involved with the G.A.A and he was involved in the Volunteers. He joined the volunteers in 1913 and he was on the Executive Council of the volunteers and he was Liam Mellow’s second in command during the Rising.
J.C. You grew up Kitty with an awareness of how important a figure Liam Mellows was.
K.L. I don’t know if I felt that he was important because he was somebody that was mentioned that they knew in the family, you know. I knew he was important historically and that but they were all people that were mentioned when I was a child; they were ordinary people mentioned around. They are not ordinary people now but at that time they were well known. Liam Mellows lived next door here while he was training the volunteers. He lived in the house next door, which belonged to Broderick’s, Sean Broderick, the T.D’s mother.
J.C. If your father, Larry, was number two to Liam Mellows, then he was very heavily involved in that movement at that time.
K.L. Oh, he was very heavily involved. He was very, very heavily involved and he was all during the preparations and even in his notes there I see that as early as 1913 and 1914 he was involved with Pearse making the arrangements for later on, at meetings in Dublin and that kind of thing.
J.C. There is a very old faded photograph, Kitty, captioned “Main Body of Two Thousand Five Hundred Irish National Volunteers Athenry June 29th 1914”.
K.L. That’s right. That was down in Kenny Park. Now that was a very, very big gathering.
J.C. Now, even before that, Kitty, you have a fine photograph of the Athenry De Wett’s team from 1903. Your father Larry is in the front and some Kennedys there and they were uncles of yours, were they?
K.L. My mother’s brothers, Patrick Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, they are both dead now. Patrick’s daughter lives here in town. A certain amount of the drama moved down in his daughter, Rosemary Kennedy who appeared in plays with us. She gave me some of those photographs, I think there. She runs The Irish Theatre and Ballet Company in London, very, very successfully.
J.C. We laughed earlier, Kitty, you and I, at the thought of what an Athenry football team today or hurling team if they were called De Wett’s. What feelings that might engender?
K.L. No, (Laughs). DeWett was a Boer and, of course, he would be on the wrong side now in Africa. As I said to you they should be calling them the Nelson Mandelas nowadays. (Laughs) But at that time they were Boers. They were all right you see; they were on the right side.
J.C. To go back to your father’s days as a volunteer, Kitty, there is no doubt but he lived a dangerous life.
K.L. Oh, he did, he did, he did. It was very hard on people at the time because even in my childhood, as far back I can remember, one of the most vivid recollections was a Black and Tan raid. My mother and my grandmother, both grandmothers of course, had quite a time, because there were constant raids. All those people were liable to disappear now and again.
There was one famous occasion anyway my mother said, I think it was when he was later in Wormwood Scrubs. They came in of a Sunday evening after a walk. She was getting the tea and someone called him; somebody came to the door and said “are you there, Larry?”, and he went out and he came back and he took his hat, of course everyone wore hats. He said “I’ll be back in a minute” and he wasn’t back, I think, for fourteen months; he was in jail at the time. (Laughs) She thought that was very funny. It wasn’t funny at the time.
J.C. Even in moments of crisis there was a sort of black humour about their movements, Kitty. I mean you have in your possession a very famous menu from The Royal Hotel, Lincoln. When you showed it to me first I didn’t grasp the sarcasm of it that the Royal Hotel was the sarcastic name for Lincoln Jail and the menu was for Christmas dinner, Christmas Day 1918. Tell me about that.
K.L. Yes, well they were all in jail that time and I think they had a fairly free hand. At least they weren’t too confined. I think they got together quite a good deal. Apparently some of the wits made out this menu, very French sounding names and all that kind of thing and as you can see there are very spectacular signatures on it.
J.C. Now Eamon DeValara, perhaps, the best known but I notice there as well, Toirealach Mac Suibhne, Terence McSweeney, the later lord Mayor of Cork
K.L. who died on hunger strike.
J.C. and your father, called in the Sunday Independent at the time, Lorcan Lardner but that should be Larry Lardner, of course.
K.L. These were all very prominent men. That Peader de Loughrey was a later Mayor of Kilkenny, I think, and P. Culavet, that’s Brennan, I think, Cotter. Sean McGarry. Alister McCabe, he was the last of that group to die, I think.
J.C. Now when the Sunday Independent wrote about that story and indeed it is titled “This is the strangest meal Dev never ate”. They wrote about it in 1966. They talked about prison escapes that the men were involved in, swapping their heavy boots for canvas slippers so that they would not make much noise. That was an extraordinary eventful time, Kitty. Was there a danger at the time that you father would not survive that because some of the people who sat down to that famous dinner on Christmas Day 1918 didn’t survive?
K.L. Oh, there was every chance they wouldn’t survive. I’m sure for one reason or another a lot of things could happen to them, an awful lot of things could happen to them. They were all, I suppose, in a certain amount of danger and especially anybody who tried to escape. I mean that was an extraordinary escape and I believe it was that Peader De Loughrey who made the key. I think he was a blacksmith or something like that. I think there is something about it in that news item, who made the key. They got a copy of a warden’s key.
J.C. Many years later, Kitty, an interesting present sent to the house from DeValera, a prayer book “Leabhir ár nAthair”.
K.L. Well, they had that actually. That was the prayer book they were using in Lincoln, a prayer book in Irish. Dev signed it in Lincoln in 1919 and later he was back in Athenry in 1952 or 1953. He was staying down in The Railway Hotel. I sent it down to him. He signed it again. I never met him.
J.C. You certainly grew up though, Kitty, with the making of history.
K.L. Oh, I suppose we did, we didn’t realise it at the time, we didn’t realise it, you don’t realise those kind of things, you know. The older people probably did realise they were making history. A lot of them, I don’t think, looked at it like that. It was just something that had to be done at a particular time and it was done.
J.C. Kitty, there are few people more closely associated or identified as the archetypal Athenry person then yourself. Were you born and reared here in the town?
K.L. I was and my parents were born and reared here. My father was born here in this house. My mother lived out at Newford, out on the Galway road. Her people were working out there for Goodbodys who owned all the land, which is now the Agricultural College. Her father worked for them. I was born down in Northgate Street. I think my father’s people originally came from Mayo. My mother’s people were from Co. Meath; they came down working here. I think his father was probably born here too.
J.C. Now after Lincoln Jail and the time of the Troubles and all that, what sort of life did your father settle back into here in Athenry?
K.L. Well, he was an Auctioneer and he settled back into the pub. This was a public house, you know. He was running the pub and he carried on an auctioneering business. He was always very much involved, of course, with the G.A.A. He was Secretary of the show here, oh, I couldn’t tell you for how many years. Later on it was taken over by Stephen Jordan. But he was always involved in everything and anything that was going on. He was one of those kinds of people.
J.C. But died at a relatively young age.
K.L. Fifty two. Tragically, very quickly, within a matter of days. Something that doesn’t happen nowadays, a ruptured appendix, but it was too far gone before he went to hospital, it seems.
J.C. An extra burden placed, of course, naturally on your mother’s shoulders.
K.L. Yes, yes, it was very hard for her. We eventually moved here to this place and we gave up the public house. We sold the licence for £200.
J.C. You would get more for it today.
K.L. (Laughs) Yes, indeed, but anyway it was a bit much to manage.
J.C. Well, ahead of you, Kitty, lay a life in amateur drama and never a moment I suppose, when it wasn’t a labour of love for you.
K.L. I suppose (Laughs). There were odd moments when there was not much love in it, when you would love to get rid of it all for a while but that wouldn’t last very long. You would find yourself saying “what will we do next. I wish to God this was over and I’ll take a rest and then you begin to think what should we do now?” But, it was, I suppose, it was, it was a wonderful interest and it took over but I think for an awful lot of people in town that happened. I’m sure there must be fifteen or twenty people in this town who, year after year after year, have been involved in some capacity or other.
J.C. Well, you have directed in more recent times and decades, Kitty, but you started as an actress. What was your first play, I wonder?
K.L. As far as I can remember, I think my first plays ever I remember were in Irish with a Gaelic League class here with the late great teacher Micheal Cathain, Carraroe. We did three act plays with him, which were very successful. One at first attempt won an All Ireland up in the Mansion House in Dublin, I remember.
There was already, of course, an active group here at the time. I kind of succeeded into the people that came immediately after those.
J.C. We are looking at a photograph here of a production of ‘Con the Seachrán’ from 1930. Who is there that you would remember, Kitty, and know of?
J.C. That’s Noirin Hession’s mother, Bridie Hession.
That was Mrs. Luke Higgins in Ballinrobe.
That was Charlie Taylor. You know Cha Taylor, you probably do, that would be Cha’s father.
There is Frank Curran, they are from the town.
That was Jimmy Cleary who was well known in National circles too.
That was our late producer, Tommy Reilly.
That was Charlie Redmond.
They were all people who were involved.
I was in plays with Jack Cunniffe. I was never with any of the rest of them except, of course, with Tommy Reilly, who was our producer for years.
J.C. His name features very prominently.
K.L. Yes. He had a very tragic death. He was killed in an accident. I took over after him then. Well, I suppose, I just slipped into it. (Laughs)
But I was always acting as well and then, of course, later on we had the great good fortune to have Fr. Langan come to town. That gave us a great spurt because he was marvellous and he had wonderful ideas. We attempted things with Fr. Langan that I don’t think we would have attempted; things like “The Importance of Being Ernest”. Strindberg’s “The Father”, those kind of things, you’d think twice about them, you know.
J.C. Now, in the forties, Kitty, you went for O’Casey, not just the lesser known works, which might have been done by amateur groups around the country, but for the big three plays.
K.L. Yes, the Plough and the Stars, we did in 1942, 1943 and I often think that we must have been one of the very earliest amateurs, especially in the country areas, to do an O’Casey play. Because it was a very big undertaking from any point of view. Setting wise and casting wise and everything and the huge variety of characters. I often think actually that they were the best cast since, the best all round cast.
J.C. And what about that distinctive Dublin accent that you had to try to master as well. Did the cast really go hard for that?
K.L. They did, of course, you had the odd Galway one (Laughs). I think I see a comment from an adjudicator there much later about Joan Murphy having the most perfect Dublin accent ever he heard but that there was some more of them were as Galway as they come. You could always expect that. It’s very hard to get an all round twenty or thirty people, you know.
J.C. It’s very hard to translate and transfer photographs on to radio, Kitty, but we’ll try to do it now. You have got a magnificent photograph of the 1944/45 “Juno and the Paycock “. Just reflect on some of the names you are looking at there.
K.L. Well, of course, there is the late great Stephen Jordan; very, very well known in the G.A.A. and politician, a T.D., dead some years now. There were some marvellous actors across there in that lot. There is Christy Howley. Christy was one of the best known characters, I suppose, around this town. Very young looking there. He was Johnny Boyle in it. Christy was a marvellous actor. He was a great tradesman. He was an all round extraordinary character. He died sadly a few years ago. He went through an amazing amount of parts in his time. He was very, very proud always to be involved in the restoration of Ballintubber. He was working with The Board of Works at the time. He was immensely proud of that. He was liable to talk to people who never heard of Ballintubber and tell them about it.
That is Detta Fahy. She was a wonderful actress, died very, very young. She was only twenty five or twenty six years of age.
Mick Fahy, a Galwegian, who was a postman here. A brilliant actor and a magnificent singer, a gorgeous singer, a wonderful stage personality there.
Michael Kilkelly was also a postman here and a Galwegian. He got into the drama and he was very good. He returned to Galway and he went straight into playing the leads in the Taibhdhearc. He had marvellous Irish, which he learned in Athenry.
That was Tom Armstrong; he was working here in town.
J.C. Tell me about Tom Armstrong, he was a fine actor, Kitty, you told me often.
K.L. He worked here in Duffy’s at the time. It’s Murphy’s now, the pub, down at The Arch. Later on he worked as a rep. for McDonaghs in Galway. He was doing that actually when he died, I think. He was really a marvellous actor, a very, very talented actor. He could do anything, really anything.
Stephen Jordan, Michael Mc Loughlin, the sad part of those now is that there are so many of them dead, so many of them.
J.C. Kevin Hynes there, Jack Molloy.
K.L. Yes. Jack Molloy is dead. Kevin Hynes – he was a son of Frank Hynes, a man very much involved in the Nationalist movement. That is a daughter of his, Una Hynes. There are two girls left, I think, and one boy.
That is Mikie Barrett from Caheroyan. At the present time now we have two little girls, daughters of Juno Barrett and another little girl is a daughter of Kieran Barrett. They are girls beginning secondary school and primary school. They are very interested. They come down every time we have a play and they sell programmes and sell raffle tickets and they get very involved. They are the fourth generation of Barretts in my time in the drama. Their great grandfather was Mikie. Christy Barrett with whom I acted too was their grandfather. Juno as they call him and Jim. He was there in “She stoops to Conquer”. These little girls are very involved. The youngest one Rachael took part in our open air “Spreading the News.”
J.C. Would there have been other families as well that would have continued family traditions?
K.L. In those very old photographs that we have there. The Jordans carried on in them. We had various Jordans in it. We had Stephen and Dessie, who died there recently and we had Willie, also dead now. Willie Jordan is in some plays with us.
The Hynes, Frank Hynes, we always had Hynes. We also had all the furniture out of Hynes’ house. (Laughs) When there was a play it was very convenient at the hall. You only had to go over to Hynes’ and say I want a sideboard and you got a sideboard. They were always involved.
The Barretts were always involved. The Reillys were involved. Kitty Fahy and Detta Fahy were involved. The Murphys, of course. Dick Murphy was in those plays and ran the Town Hall. Joan was very much involved. Her brother Richard, back stage, was a brilliant back stage man.
The back stage people are harder to get usually. We are fairly lucky in that department.
J.C. And that’s “Juno and the Paycock”, Kitty. There’s “Shadow of a Gunman” as well from roughly around the same period. The group obviously had a great grá now for the works of O’Casey. Presumably, you were working there from the same core group when you went to cast “Shadow of a Gunman”.
K.L. Practically, they are nearly the same core, nearly the same people.
Kathleen Corley was another great actress. Kathleen was a marvellous actress.
That’s Michael Kilkelly there now and poor Tommy Reilly.
That’s another Curley, we had two Curleys.
We had Kathleen and her brother playing a mother and her son in one play, I remember, which was unusual.
Clearys, of course. Ena Cleary – she is Mrs. O’Grady now.
That was Christy Barrett, his grand daughter that I was telling you about that helps us out.
That was Tommy Reilly’s sister, Peggy, Mrs Hynes, also dead, very young too.
Jimmy Payne, who owned Payne’s Hall, father of Norman Payne, the musician and singer.
Michael McLoughlin. Oh, there are so many of them.
Christy Howley again. Christy was an extrodinary character. (Laughs) He died there a few years ago. There is no longer any of the Hynes side of his family left in town. There is only one other relation. Some group of people in town have got together and they have erected a beautiful headstone with the drama masks carved on it and the tools of his trade – he was a joiner. They are hoping to have a little ceremony, maybe during the festival to open it. To bless it. Everybody appreciated that he should be remembered.
J.C. That is a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Kitty, but putting the drama masks on, very few would have that.
K.L. Very few. It was designed by Francis Kennedy. He is very good at that kind of thing. He does all our publicity and all our artwork. He is a genius in that direction. He teaches in Galway. He designed the masks and the tools. The masks are on one side and the tools on the other side. I haven’t seen it yet. It was only put up recently. Martin Maloney down here is involved and Cha Taylor and a few people around the town. They are hoping that maybe they will have a little ceremony, which would be a great memorial to somebody who deserved it.
J.C. Absolutely, yes. Now moving on to the 1950s, Kitty, a photograph here of the cast of “The Wise have not Spoken”, 1954. Tom Armstrong there, yourself, some familiar faces, some new names too, I’m sure, though going into the 1950s.
K.L. Mick Bray from Tuam, whom you knew I expect, did you?
J.C. A fine actor, yes.
K.L. A marvellous actor. Jim Kearns, he was in before though. He was in “The Righteous are Bold”.
Donal Kennedy, a teacher.
That is Joan Murphy .
Eddie Somers, who always did our lighting for us.
Tom Curran, Tom Armstrong, Christy Howley again. Noel O’Grady, he died some time ago in England. Tommy Reilly.
Mick Bray was a great addition to us that time, he was a wonderful actor. He was a railway man: he was an engine driver. He used to come up at night and go back down to Tuam, at all hours of the night.
J.C. Speaking of “The Righteous are Bold”, Kitty, we have a series of photos here from that production and there are the names. Perhaps you might just go through them briefly. 1950.
K.L. Well, in the front row there you have Tommy Reilly, our producer at the time. Tommy was an absolutely brilliant producer and an extremely well read man. Anything that Shaw wrote, Tommy read. He knew everything that Shaw ever wrote.
That’s myself there, looking slightly better than I do now.
K.L. That is Peggy Hanley who sadly only died last year or the year before.
Angela Grennan, a girl from town, sadly no longer with us.
Mick Fahy, they played the mother and father in it.
Kathleen Curley was that famous character, ‘Nellie the post’.
Nora Byrne was the other nun you met there.
Tom Armstrong. Christy Barrett again. Jim Kearns. Stevie Jordan.
Scarriff are having their golden jubilee this year and we are hoping to go down to visit them for that. Because that was the first play we brought to Scarriff in 1950.
J.C. You are listening to Life and Times with Jim Carney. My guest this evening, of course, is Kitty Lardner of Athenry.
J.C. Kitty, if I could take you on to the 1960s, 70s and 80s. From the 1960s, first of all, I see from “She Stoops to Conquer” a photograph of a wonderfully suave and handsome young man, called Jim Feeney. Is he the Jim Feeney I know well through A.I.B. banking circles?
K.L. Exactly, that is the same Jim Feeney. He was a young bank clerk here in Athenry at that time: he had just arrived. As you can imagine he was a very popular lad and he was also a beautiful singer. We had him in that play. He was in several plays with us afterwards. I’m very glad to say he is now back in Athenry after going full circle. He is back in Athenry as manager and we are delighted that he is around. He lives in Galway, though he is still very, very much interested but so far he hasn’t got into anything. It is a bit difficult for him when he lives in Galway.
J.C. He won a lot of individual awards. Best actor awards, so obviously he was a very nice actor.
K.L. He was a lovely actor. He won best actor award for “Thy Dear Father”. He had the leading part in “Thy Dear Father”, which was very, very good. He also appeared in Strindberg’s “The Father”. People mix up both of those two plays very often. He was excellent. He was in quite a few plays with us.
J.C. From that cast as well, Kitty, I see the names here: Joan Murphy, Christy Howley, Martin Maloney, Noirin Hession, Rosemary Kennedy, Michael Fahy, Alfie McNamara, Jim Barrett, Gabriel Gardiner, Raymond Glynn, Maureen Tully, Ann Gannon, P.J. McCormack, Sam Taylor.
You produced, Kitty. New names there, some of them. Noirin Hession, I knew from Tuam Theatre Guild, a lovely elegant lady; she too, a very nice player, I believe.
K.L. Oh, beautiful, Noirin was a beautiful actress. She was really beautiful. She looked marvellous on the stage and she was a lovely actress as you can see in those photographs, she looked beautiful. She was with us in several plays. She was in “Thy Dear Father” also. She was very good in that and in three or four others, “The Far off Hills.” She was really a great asset to us. She moved to Tuam and then she was in Limerick afterwards. She played for a while with the Scarriff players and, of course, she played with you in Tuam, I think.
J.C. She did indeed. And played in “The Loves of Cass McGuire”, which Druid will revive this year.
K.L Oh, are they reviving it, we never did that.
J.C. Now Kitty, “Far off Hills” takes us into the turn of the seventies and Padraig Mc Cormack, a certain Padraig Mc Cormack. Now he reserves his performances for the floor of the Dail. He was, of course, a stalwart of Athenry Drama Group.
K.L. Yes, Padraig was. No later than last year we did a revival of Moll and Padraig returned to us for one night to do his old famous part of the man that was being married, this peculiar character in Moll.
J.C. Surely he didn’t have time to learn his lines.
K.L. (Laughs) He only had one or two lines but he came back, he insisted in coming back. He was always marvellous, Padraig, from the time he left here if ever we wanted him for anything, a few little sketches and things. If we wanted him for anything, you only had to ring up Padraig, tell him and he’d say “when is it and where is it, I’ll be there”. We are very glad of his success, very, very glad.
J.C. You mightn’t like to tell this story, Kitty, but I believe when he joined the group first he was nearly run out of the group on his very first night.
K.L. (Laughs) Yes, we were doing “the Plough and the Stars “and as you know that is a very big cast and we were short, I think, of a dying soldier. Somebody mentioned “there is a new fellow in the mart and he is staying up the town”. We said “go up and bring him down”; we worked that way a lot of the time. Somebody went up and brought Padraig down. He went through the motions and he read what he had to read. That time, I think, we rehearsed for a long time and we talked for a long time. In the course of the night Padraig made a suggestion and the late lamented Christy Howley turned on him. (Laughs) and I don’t know why Padraig ever came back to us. (Laughs)
J.C. That was his early training in having a tough skin and a good resistance, which stood to him in politics.
K.L. That was a great training for Padraig anyway (Laughs) and he was thrown in at the deep end. He was told “you have just put your nose inside the door and you are telling people what to do “.
K.L. It was only just some vague suggestion he made about something; it mightn’t have to do with the play at all.
J.C. Did he do many plays with you, subsequently?
K.L. He did. Padraig did quite a lot with us. Padraig is an extraordinary character. Padraig had a very, very small part in “She Stoops to Conquer” and every place we did it adjudicators talked about him. He has a peculiar quality that they notice. He was in “The Far off Hills”. He had a very funny little part: he got tremendous amount of praise with that. Oh, he was very good: he was very dedicated and very reliable, absolutely reliable.
J.C. Now we are into the seventies and coming up to the eighties, Kitty, and around this time, as everybody in amateur drama knew well, it was getting more and more difficult to command audiences because television was taking over. Would you go along with that?
K.L. Oh, yes, yes. Although we were very fortunate here we always managed to get good audiences. But it began to effect festivals. You could see it effecting festivals because festivals used to be thronged. I know that for one of the very first Eurovision contests we were in Scarriff. We clashed in Scarriff and for the first time ever there wasn’t a full house in Scarriff . Scarriff was a great place for big audiences. I think it affected festivals more. Local people will go to see local people, I suppose, if they know them well enough, if they are sufficiently interested. I’m sure it did affect it for a good while. I don’t think it does now. It affects younger generations. They know nothing about it. They’ve been looking at too much television.
J.C. Well, you personally, Kitty, stayed very, very loyal to amateur drama here in Athenry as I’m sure others did too. Were you mainly producing and directing into the eighties, we’ll say?
K.L. Well, between the death of the late lamented Tommy Reilly it fell to me to carry on. Then Father Langan came to us around about sixty nine, seventy. He took over from there until the time he left Athenry, of course, which was about seventy five or thereabouts, I don’t know when. He was wonderful; he brought a different dimension altogether. It gave us a great lot of courage to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Although we had started that just when he came to town. That’s a thing I would love to do again, because it is a very funny play and it is very colourful.
J.C. “She Stoops to Conquer”. You seemed to spare nothing really in terms of a creative effort and indeed financial effort too when it came to both sets and costumes.
K.L. No. That came from very, very dedicated people. Over the years we have had marvellous people. We’re short of them at the moment, backstage people but we have a few people over the years who always didn’t act but did backstage. Principally now Tommy Ryan, who is still with us and has been for years. He is a marvellous back stage person. Eddie Somers used to do our lights; he hasn’t been for some years now. He had health trouble in his family. He was very good. Richard Murphy was very good. We had several people who worked very hard back stage. We are scarce in that department now. We still have Tommy Ryan. Tommy is one of those people that as soon as he appears you feel that everything is going to be alright.
K.L. It means still that all the people who are acting in the play are painting sets, they are making things and trying to do lights and they having to move stuff. We haven’t far to move only across the road to the hall but they have to bring sets, collect props and everything that has to be done. That is a bit much for people who are acting.
J.C. Over the last fifteen to twenty years or so, Kitty, what were the highlights in terms of productions. What are the plays and performances that stand out for you?
K.L. That stood out in Loughrea. It was voted the performance of the festival.
J.C. “The Goalsman”. “Thy Dear Father” was one of the most successful ones. It won everywhere it went, all over the place. Of course, I think one of the most spectacular ones, costume wise, was the famous ”The Importance of being Ernest”, which Father Langan produced. That was really sensational: costume wise it was an undertaking. It was quite a difficult thing to do. You can’t be using your Athenry accent in it for one thing.
J.C. Did you tackle John B. Keane much?
K.L. We tackled John B. Keane, (Laughs). We certainly tackled John B. Keane. We began with “Sive”, of course. The year after “Sive” won The All Ireland and we’ve done “Sive” twice since. We’ve done “Big Maggie “and “The Field”.
J.C. Did you do “Moll”?
K.L. Oh, yes, of course, I couldn’t forget “Moll”. “Moll” was hugely successful. We did “Moll” only two years ago. We had a marvellous “Moll” in Joan Murphy. She was absolutely marvellous and she preached the most wonderful sermon. It was one of the highlights and it was very, very popular. Packed houses every night, every night. You can always do John B. Keane, you will always get a crowd.
Lately I was considering going back and doing “Sive” again because you have nearly a generation who grew up without seeing “Sive”.
J.C. The title role is so important with “Sive”. You did it twice, Kitty. You produced both, I’m sure. Did you have nice players as “Sive”?
K.L. We had three different “Sives”.
K.L. Three different “Sives”. I think one of our “Sives” is a grandmother now. A very young grandmother. Our first one was Rose Ruane. She married and lives down in Ennis now and she has a grown up family, I expect. Our last “Sive” played the mother in “the Black Stranger”. Rita Melia, she was Rita Brady. She was a lovely little actress. She was only going to school or just out of school at the time. She is now married and has a couple of children. She played the mother. She is a very, very good actress. We were delighted to have her back. She was away for awhile, she was living in Galway. She is back in town now and she is back with us. That is always one of the problems. No matter who else you can put back in their own part you have to have a new “Sive” every time.
J.C. Yes. Just to go through them again, Kitty, you had Rose Ruane.
K.L. Rose was our first “Sive”. Esther Barrett was our next “Sive” and Rita Brady was our third “Sive”. I was “Mena” in them all. Joan Murphy was the grandmother in them all. We had a couple of changes then. Stephie Burke, you met Stephie, he played in it. Our first ‘Pats Bocock’ and ‘Carthalan’ were Mickey Hession and Noel O’Grady, both sadly dead and they were marvellous. It’s a great play, you know. It’s a wonderfully gripping play for an audience. You would never know we could start a hunt for “Sive” and make a big publicity thing about it, like “Scarlet O’Hara. (Laughs)
J.C. Indeed, wouldn’t it be great though to see it done again?
K.L. “The Year of The Hiker” was the last John B. we did. We got in some very good new people and they shone, they really shone in “The Black Stranger”. It is not an easy play: it has very few light moments in it. From an audience point of view, lately we find audiences seem to like comedy. We were wondering how it would go down so it was marvellous. We had it before Christmas. We hit a kind of a bad week end so we put it on again, so we did, it about three weeks ago, packed house.
J.C. Well received?
K.L. Oh, very well received. Very well received by people who didn’t expect to like it, which was a great thing.
J.C. And the true test, to get to an audience if their expectations are not high.
K.L. Yes. They thought “it was going to be a serious thing, it was going to be dull, it was going to be sad and we want to laugh” but they loved it, they loved it. They laughed a bit too and they cried. They are very, very promising the whole lot of them. We had Elaine Kavanagh, our former “Sive”, Rita, Anna Gallagher. Of the men we have Paddy Ryan who works in the Mart. He is very well known around the country. Paddy has been with us for a few years now and he is very good. Martin O’Grady, Bord Telecom in Galway. He lives in town. Monsie Monaghan who I’m sure you know and all the hurling people know. Joe Tighe, Aiden Archer, all really brilliant. Kerrill Hanlon from Kiltulla, whom you will know also.
J.C. And from the hurling world too no more than Monsie.
K.L. Kerrill joined us this year. He used to be with Kiltulla, running the Kiltulla Festival. He is living in town now and he was a great addition to it. It was really terrific. I do say it myself, it surprised me.
J.C. It will fire your enthusiasm for the next one, I’m sure. Be it “Sive” or whatever.
K.L. They are very anxious. They would like to get started on a comedy now before Easter.
J.C. Now the distinguished and celebrated poet and radio playwright, Padraig Fallon, it is well known that he is a native of Athenry, Kitty. Padraig Fallon played around this house as a child. Is that right?
K.L. He did, he did. In the nineteen fifties, I think it would be the nineteen fifties. He had a lovely radio programme called “A Galway Boyhood” on RTE. It was actually an Athenry boyhood talking about his experiences. He mentioned that he learned to box in the widow Lardner’s yard, which is the yard of this house. He was also a great admirer of my fathers, from his childhood onwards. He was fascinated with the people who were involved in the volunteer movement. There was a programme on RTE called ‘The Ballad Makers Saturday Night’ and different people did different nights. He did a programme on ‘The Ballad Makers Saturday Night’ on the subject of my father and he wrote a ballad about him. He sent me the scripts of it and I had quite a correspondence with him. He sent me a couple of plays and we corresponded for a good while on and off.
J.C. Indeed, you are going through that correspondence now, Kitty, a valuable archive material, no doubt. But on a personal level it must give you great satisfaction to look back from time to time through that correspondence.
K.L. Yes. It does. Actually, I never met him. Although he does mention in one of the letters that he was in town. He had an uncle who lived down there where the library is, he lived alone. Some woman down there looked after him when he was ill and he called to see her. He had relations around the town here. He said in the letter that he was in Athenry and intended calling to the Post Office but there was somebody waiting for him. He had great memories of Athenry. ‘That Galway Boyhood’ if it could ever be resurrected again, it was a lovely programme. You could see that from his poetry that he remembered things, he lived just down the street from us.
J.C. Well finally, Kitty, and it has been a wonderful pleasure chatting with you and looking back over your great life in theatre and so much to come yet, too, including perhaps that production of ”Sive” that we talked about. What about Athenry itself? You would have seen from your house right here in the middle of town on the edge of Church Street or Chapel Lane as you prefer to call it. You would have seen a lot of changes over the years.
K.L. Oh, tremendous amount of changes. One thing seems to have disappeared are what you might call family businesses. There are very few of those left, if any now. There is one or two, Glynns across the street from us here, probably the oldest family business in the town. But you had a lot of big businesses there, Corbetts, Higgins, Sweeneys, they are all gone. There are a lot of new businesses in town, of course. Things we never thought we would have in town. Some few years ago when Catherine Reilly opened a florist shop. We said “a florist shop in Athenry”! Now we have two florists and they can’t keep up, marvellous business. Very brave of people to start things like that. We have a lot of things like that, that we hadn’t before. But the family business seems to have gone. We have some of the grocery shops, Fahys in North Gate Street. They are there for the last sixty five years: they are a supermarket now. Corbetts and all of those families, they have dwindled away, died out, of course, most of them. People now seem just to lease businesses for a few years and then they give them up and they move somewhere else. There is not a lot of permanence in any of them. Especially that applies to public houses a lot now.
J.C. Yet it is a thriving, lively, vibrant place. Sport is very successful here. I mean it is a town that is full of life.
K.L. Oh, it is full of life and it has grown a lot. It has grown hugely and I’m sure the population must have doubled. I’m not terribly sure what the population is. I know when we were on the festival circuit long ago we qualified for the rural, which meant under twelve hundred people. It must be double that now, if not more. There are a lot of new houses and council houses. There is a prospective forty eight new houses being built on the outskirts of the town and I believe another forty eight after them. I think there are some more in various places around the town where six or eight are going up. That is going to make a big difference to the town. Like most small towns everybody knew everybody else one time. That doesn’t work at all now; you don’t know an awful lot of people. You wouldn’t have an idea who people are. I’d be afraid it would turn into a dormitory town. A lot of people who work in Galway come out and live here, they find it easier. Which, I can imagine, is quite right too.
J.C. From the growing population, Kitty, and from those new houses going up here in Athenry will come, I’m sure, one or two or three or four new cast members for Athenry Drama.K. L. I hope so, I hope so. We will be delighted to see them. I think after the last play there are a few people now that we didn’t know really at all and they have expressed an interest, as they say. We are hoping we will get them, especially that we will get young people. We would really need young people. If we could get people who would be interested in doing back stage work. It can be a very interesting business. We would need a lot of things, we haven’t a great rehearsal place.
There are a lot of things we need but we have to look after those ourselves sooner or later.
(Laughs) Probably later. We are always, always glad to see new people coming. We are so glad with the ones we have at the moment. They are so good and to get an odd extra one coming like Kerrill Hanlon this year and over the last few years the people we have got. They are a great stand by and very reliable people, it’s great to have them.
J.C. Kitty Lardner. Thank you.
K.L. Thank you, Jim, thank you.
J.C. That’s it from this edition of ‘Life and Times’. My most heartfelt thanks to Kitty Lardner for taking us on such a happy journey down Memory Lan