Navan Theatre Group
[The N&DHS is extremely grateful to Caitríona Heslin for allowing it to use her thesis
"A History of Navan Amateur Drama and Theatre Groups 1935 - 2006"
presented as part of her Diploma in Arts (Drama and Theatre Studies) NUI Maynooth as the basis for the information below.]
Navan has an impressive history of amateur drama and theatre from the 1930s to the present day.
A significant influence on the development of a theatre culture in the forties and fifties was the visiting drama groups who toured the country and who were often associated with festivals such An Tostal. These touring groups sparked the interest of local communities and prompted the development of amateur companies throughout Ireland.
The first reference to an organized group in Navan was in the late 1930s when the Genesian Players were formed.
Navan Pioneer Players
Navan Pioneer Players was founded by Rev. S. Kenny, Spiritual Director of the Navan Branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association in 1941. ‘You had to be a pioneer to be a member of the drama group’ as pointed out by Michael O’Brien and Vincent McGillick. They also noted that you had to apply to the Pioneer Council to get permission for people who were not members of the Pioneer Association to join as guest players. However non pioneers could not go onto the committee.
There were some suggestions that the drama group that formed into the Navan Pioneer Players had been in existence since the mid 1930s as
Mr. Robert (Bobby) Byrne (RIP) (pictured left)
who was the producer with the group was noted as having directed since that time. He was an active member of the musical society and the choral group in Navan. ‘Cross fertilization between these groups was common’ as outlined by the two men at the time and the pantomime scene was popular with productions such as Babes in the Woods in 1942/43.
One of its first productions was "The Proposal" by Anton Chekhov. The drama group reflected many of the core social and cultural norms of the time with the Catholic Church playing a significant role in its early establishment. There were also strong links between the drama and musical/choral movement in the town signalling the start of a vibrant culture of locally sourced entertainment.
Navan Pioneer Players participated in Drama Festivals throughout Ireland from the 1940s onwards reflecting a strong orientation towards developing acting and directing skills. The repertoire of productions was varied and impressive, often closely following the pattern of the Dublin Theatres. Audiences were large and there was no difficulty filling the Community Centre in Navan night after night. The drama group attracted people from all walks of life and there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the members.
From the Meath Chronicle April 6th 1941 "..the attendance was most gratifying and the enthusiastic audience greeted the production ("The Camel's Back") with unstinted applause."
From the Meath Chronicle July 2nd 1949 - "Navan Pioneer Players Score Again ... as a result of their outstanding performance in Louis D'Alton's 3 act comedy "They Got What They Wanted" at the Bray Drama Festival."
Mr Bobby Byrne was the main driving force behind Navan Pioneer Players for many years. He produced all the plays from 1948, and continued producing until the mid 1970s.
Proximity to Dublin may have been a factor in influencing and shaping the drama landscape in Navan. O’Brien noted for example that ‘Bobby went to the Abbey regularly and that was where he got his ideas, he had great contacts in the Abbey and he was able to get plays when no one else could get them. He nearly got the first amateur production of any new play. The writers knew that he was a good producer or they wouldn’t have given them to him.’
He became a personal friend of Dr. Lennox Robinson and also developed strong links with Bryan McMahon and John B. Keane. Marie Keane an actress from the Abbey attended some of their rehearsals in Navan. In terms of stage design and stage management the group became self sufficient and relied on the local skill of dedicated members of the group. Home production was the key. Vincent McGillick was the consistent Stage Manager over the years and as O’Brien stated ‘Vincent was the boss, he was stage everything, stage carpenter, stage electrician. The shows wouldn’t have gone on without him. You learned the trade as you went along.’
The group had to be flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of venues they visited over the years from the luxury of the Opera House in Newry to a local hall or stable. As McGillick recalled ‘sometimes we’d have a set, and the roof would be too low or we’d have to erect a stage on planks.’
The stage management team wore white coats, as can be seen in the photograph from the Irish Independent March 18th 1958. (below)
Drama Festival Stage Staff 1958 ( back row) Ritchie Healy, Jim McCormack, Michael O'Brien, Vincent McGillick, Bobby Byrne, (front row) Willie Cantwell, Jackie Farrelly, Tony Stapleton.
The venue for all the productions of the Navan Pioneer Players was the CYMS Hall in Navan. "we packed the hall, night after night" (Vincent McGillick). Tony Stapleton remarked "everyone knew everyone else, the population was much smaller, and people came along to support you because they knew you. " The group attracted people from all walks of life and there was a real sense of equality in the group.
The Meath Drama Festival
The first Meath Drama festival was held in 1953, and it was well regarded and vibrant. Sales tickets were booked out well in advance. The Bishop of Meath, Most Rev. Dr Kyne was the patron of the festival, and the president and chairman were both priests. The Navan Pioneer Players were central members of the organising committee. The experience of hosting, organizing and participating in the Festival was significant in shaping the development of drama in Navan from the 1950s to the early 1980s.
The Festival attracted groups from across Leinster, including Dublin and Wicklow, and also from Mayo and Sligo. The adjudicators were often associated with the Abbey Theatre and the Ulster Theatre Group in Belfast, including men like Ray MacAnally, Lennox Robinson, Harry Goldblatt, Godfrey Quigley, Hilton Edwards, Micheál MacLiammóir and Tomás MacAnna.
The Navan Pioneer Players presentes "Is the Priest at Home?" by Joseph Tomelty, and also "The Shadow of the Glen" by Sean O'Casey and qualified for the all Ireland Festival in Athlone with this one act play.
During the fortnight of the 1955 Festival, 32 plays were staged by groups representing ten counties, all bar one being the work of Irish authors.
"This has been the most fascinating and successful festival I have ever attended. It was wonderfully organised in a truly professional manner... this year's event reached greater heights of success than ever before, establishing itself beyond doubt as as one of the leading Drama Festivals of the nation".
Source: Meath Chronicle quoting Adjudicator Mr Harold Goldblatt.
The highlight which brought the 1950s to a memorable end was the group's success with 2 plays: Sive and The Country Boy.
The Abbey had rejected Sive, but it created a sensation in Listowel, and began gathering force as it moved around the festival circuit of the Southwest. Sive became the first original production to win an All-Ireland trophy in Athlone. The Navan Pioneer Players’ first production of Sive was in October 1959. The Meath Chronicle front page headline read as follows: ‘Gripping Production of Sive: Navan Pioneer Players Triumph, Drama that Merited its Publicity.’ The report continued:
‘Navan Pioneer Players skilful, imaginative and thrilling production of the three-act tragedy, Sive, by the new Listowel dramatist, John B. Keane, which opened on Sunday night, must be considered the major success so far scored by the distinguished group since its establishment. Even at the nerve shattering first performance, when lapses of memory and other technical faults might be excused, the excellently disciplined all-local cast of nine, were word-perfect and never missed a cue, with the happy result that their acting of dramatic splendor gave vivid life to the play. This combined with swift vigorous production, striking set and well devised lighting effects made the show an exhilarating theatrical experience for an appreciative audience which filled the 320 seat auditorium to capacity. It is a strong melodrama and even the language occasionally has the violence of melodrama. In this superb Navan production the atmosphere is sustained by the accomplished players, from the drum beats with which the curtain is raised to the last terrible moment when the drowned body of Sive is laid out on the kitchen table.’ (Meath Chronicle: 31st October 1959).
Michael O’Brien and Vincent McGillick RIP (both members of the Navan Pioneer Players from the 1940s) proudly reported that they were the first group to do Sive after the Listowel Players. As O’Brien outlined: ‘Sive was a sensation for the simple reason, that is was refused by the Abbey, and they gave it back to John B., and it became public at that time that the Abbey had refused the play and so he gave it to the amateurs. We were talking to him below in Athlone, and he told us that he gave it to only one group in each province. First of all he gave it to his own crowd below in Listowel, and he played the part of the Matchmaker himself in the first Listowel production, and they won the All-Ireland with it that year in Athlone.’
An interesting anecdote relating to Sive was recalled by Vincent McGillick: ‘At that time I had to go to Cahill’s of Listowel with furniture and I called into John B. and Mary and he gave me the original bodhrán. We couldn’t get a bodhrán, so he gave me one because we needed it for Sive.’
The Navan Pioneer Players performed Sive over fifty times. It is also interesting to note that the 2006 Navan Theatre Group's production was Sive.
Navan Pioneer Players also enjoyed a significant level of success and publicity with The Country Boy. The Meath Chronicle (April 2nd 1960) in its front page feature noted that ‘competing in the Meath Drama Festival for the first time since 1956, Navan Pioneer Players scored a resounding success with their outstanding production of John Murphy’s play The Country Boy by annexing three major trophies including the premier award.’
‘Almost fifty members of Navan Pioneer Players and their friends were the guests of Mr. W. Walsh, Chairman of the Meath County Council, at a lavish six-course dinner and reception in the Holmpatrick Hotel, Skerries, on Sunday night (April 3rd 1960), given by him to mark the group’s outstanding successes at the recent Meath and Cavan Drama Festivals with Sive and The Country Boy.
Father Stewart (left) Chairman of Meath Drama Festival Committee, in his speech on that night recalled that the group had originated in the Pioneer modality in Navan parish and he complimented the players not alone on their theatrical successes but on remaining faithful members of that confraternity.
Mr. Walsh referred to his efforts to present the Navan Pioneer Players in Birmingham and stated that he had ‘not lost sight of putting the group outside this country.’ He was confident that the Pioneer Players would be worthy ambassadors for Navan and Meath.’
(Meath Chronicle: April 9th 1960).
Navan Pioneer Players were again very successful with the first amateur production of The Honey Spike in 1963, (below) being nominated to the All-Ireland Final and winning awards at festivals throughout the country including Charleville, Ballyshannon, Ballinrobe and Carrickmore (County Tyrone). Stapleton in particular recalled his performance as Dickybird for which he won the gold medal.
The nature of the following opening addresses (1962) clearly reflected the emerging trends and tensions that were opening up in the festival movement. The headline read: ‘Event Weakened by External Factors.’ The chairperson of the organizing committee, Father Stewart referred to his emerging observations and concerns:
‘It is unfair for groups to choose their plays with the sole purpose of impressing the adjudicator. The practice if indulged to any great degree could ruin a festival. The audience paid the piper and they were entitled to call the tune. Due to no fault of the committee’, Father Stewart continued ‘the festival showed signs of weakening. This state of affairs was brought about by certain external factors which included an unfortunate break down in the heating system in the hall in the opening nights together with the defection of a number of associate members who were probably afflicted with a bout of Telefisitis from which the committee hoped they would have recovered by this time next year.’
The Pioneer movement was dwindling in popularity. People had more money and more choices. Television was becoming more popular. Michael O Brien noted that ‘The Riordans" was very popular on a Sunday night and the advent of television was a big blow to the amateur dramatic movement... Then came the big musicals, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s, Jesus Christ Superstar, and a new generation of young people wanted something different.’ The Beatles and pop music were becoming popular.’
The references by Fr. Stewart in the passage above also reflected the tension emerging in terms of choice of play for festival events. The entries for the 1963 festival were well down on previous years with only eight entries. Attendances at the festival were also decreasing. The Meath Chronicle (March 9th 1963) reported that the organizing committee had financially lost heavily on previous years and continued by stressing that the future of these annual events would depend upon the support or lack of it which was forthcoming from the public. The ongoing decline was again reflected in newspaper coverage in 1964. Father Stewart shared his views on the matter and stated that:
‘One of the purposes of festivals is to give entertainment to audiences and in this respect many of them were failing. They had become too competitive and groups were choosing their plays with a view to pleasing adjudicators and strengthening their hopes of victory. Many plays being presented were too obscure in their meaning and too subtle in their humor to leave audiences happy and contented. Originality let us have – there was nothing so boring for an audience as the repetition of the same play year after year – but let originality express itself in plays that told a story or conveyed a moral, or provided comedy in a way that left its audiences happy.’
Navan Pioneer Players Accept German Offer
One of the highlights for the Navan Pioneer Players was a memorable visit to Germany in 1963 to participate in an International Theatre Festival with their production of Sive.
A front page article in the Meath Chronicle reported that:‘Navan Pioneer Players will make Irish theatre history next week when they represent this country at the German International Theatre Festival in Kormach. The group of seventeen will travel from Dun Laoghaire tomorrow and they will be the guests of the festival committee during the ten day’s stay. The group’s itinerary will include visits to Cologne, Brussels, Ostend and Hagan. Copies of the German translation of Sive will be distributed among the audience. Over 300 amateur actors will be in Kormach for the festival. These will include groups from Duisburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Strasbourg, Paris, and Hamburg. The invitation to Navan Pioneer Players stemmed from a visit to this country last August by three German students studying the amateur drama movement here.’ (Meath Chronicle: May 18th 1963).
Those interviewed proudly reported that the German performance was their 49th production of Sive. As Michael O’Brien noted ‘it was a sensation in Germany, the theme of matchmaking is an international theme and they understood it well.’ He continued ‘when the curtain closed that night to the rhythm of the bodhrán, the audience erupted, we were in a state, they were in a state ….we got seven curtain calls…and for the week we were the biggest celebrities in town.’ Dick Stapleton also recalled the German experience as one of the highlights of his drama career.
The price of the tickets over land for the trip was £16 per person. The ‘extra’ members of the group who traveled to provide moral support brought their tents, although fortunately they found suitable hotel accommodation when they arrived in Kormach! The group revisited Germany in 1964 and presented two one act plays: The Shadow of the Glen and The Rising of the Moon.
The German event was non-competitive. There was however an interesting open forum between the cast and audience at the end of each performance, providing the audience with an opportunity to enquire about life in Ireland, the group’s theatre experience and so on. While invited to attend the festival again in the 1965, the group declined the offer. Some members of the group returned to Germany in 1967 with a production of Big Maggie and it was very well received. The overall German experience was extremely social providing an opportunity for people to travel outside Ireland for the first time. It was also educational in terms of learning about drama in other countries.
By the end of the 1960s there were 2 amateur theatre groups in Navan, the
Navan Pioneer Players and the Navan Players.
The Navan Pioneer Players diversified their choice of plays in the 1970s. In 1975, the group ambitiously staged 2 productions at the one time. Produced by Dick Stapleton, the group agreed on 'The Field' as a "crowd puller" and "Miss Julie" as a contrastion production, the 2 shows running on alternative nights in the Community Centre Navan.
Members of the Navan Players remained involved in the Meath Drama Festival in the 1970s. Bobby Byrne produced until 1975 and Padraigh Walshe after this date, and Vincent McGillick continued his central role in stage management. The venue for the plays was the renamed and renovated Community Centre. (formerly CYMS Hall)
The 1980s were the dormant years for Navan amateur dramatics. Only one play received noticable levels of publicity during this time. The group successfully toured a number of festivals with their production of Equus. They used the Lyric Cinema for their Navan performances.
Interestingly in the Meath Chronicle (March 19th 1983) an article was headlined: ‘Drama in Navan Dormant.’ The report quoted Padraig Walshe who stated that ‘in the past year drama in Navan had been declining because of the noticeable lack of drama groups and a lack of producers.’ Around the beginning of 1982 there were three groups staging productions in Navan: Navan Players, Navan Youth Theatre Group and The Palindrome Players. Navan Players and Navan Youth Theatre Group were coordinated by Padraig Walshe. The latter group staged Lovers - Losers in the early 1980s. The Palindrome Players under the direction of Kevin Mallon produced one play, Mother Courage. Acknowledging the talent and the potential in the town, Padraig Walshe was hopeful that the situation would change and that drama in Navan could be revitalized. (March 19th 1983). This revitalization did not occur however until the early 1990s.
Drama in Navan was revived in the early 1990s by late Mr. Billy Goonan . Billy had a long and distinguished career in a number of Navan based organizations including St. Mary’s Musical Society, St. Mary’s Church Choir, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and Navan Players.
He founded Little Acorns Theatre Group for children in 1998 with the aim of nurturing young talent in the community. Their first production
Looking for Love was entered in Meath Youth Drama Festival .
Billy also started Navan Theatre Group in 1991 following a notice in the local paper. Thirty six people attended this first meeting and the group has gone from strength to strength since that time. The list of productions is recorded on a separate page on the website.
(left) The late Billy Goonan who died in 2002
Billy Goonan was also involved with members
Navan Theatre Group in producing
The Passion of Jesus Christ
in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland each Easter.
The productions of the group from 1991 to 2005 were in the Community Centre, Navan
with one production The Communication Cord,(left)
Lyric Cinema in Navan in 1993.
Beginning of a new dawn for drama and theatre in Navan: Solstice Arts Centre
Billy Goonan was closely associated with a movement in Navan to develop an arts and cultural centre for the town. He worked relentlessly on this project. Billy’s dream came to fruition in May 2006 when the Solstice Arts Centre was opened in Navan.
The opening of Solstice signaled new possibilities and opportunities for both amateur and professional theatre groups as well as for the growing population of Navan and surrounding areas. Meath County Manager, Mr. Tom Dowling at the opening of Solstice outlined that ‘the new arts centre was a symbol of the belief and pride that the county felt about its cultural and artistic life’. He stressed that the centre would welcome all communities and all walks of life by maintaining a diverse range of high quality programmes of particular local interest. (Solstice Programme, May 2006).
December 2006 in particular marked a significant milestone for Navan Theatre Group with its production of Sive in this new state of the art facility. The group enjoyed four successful productions with full houses each night in the 320-seated auditorium. However it is hard to compete with over fifty productions of Sive by Navan Pioneer Players in the 1950s and 1960s. It does however mark an interesting end to the project…for now anyway, and the start of a new dawn for drama and theatre in Navan.
Click for : List of Productions 1941 -2006