Newry Drama Festival 60 YEARS ON

The Newry Drama Festival owes its existence to the Newry Musical Feis – in 1949 their drama section had become so large that a separate committee was formed under the chairmanship of Mrs. J. H. Collins – and Newry Drama Festival was born.

The Vice-Chairman was Mrs. Edna McKinstry, Secretary: Nancie Murphy, Treasurer: Mr W. G. Petty  with Mr Gerry Duffy and Mr. M. Welsh, Business Manager and Stage Manager.  Other early committee members included Frank Sweeney, Paddy Arthur Crinion, Conor Sweeney, Patrick Carey, Livy Armstrong, Josie Lamb, Mona Garland, Marie Shortall, Ethel Fitzpatrick, Mick Mathers, Carmelia Kielty, Maisie Keenan, Brian O’Rourke, Annie Keown and Sean Canavan.

A season ticket in those far off days cost 17s  6d and unreserved seats could be had for 2 shillings (10p) – and 1 shilling (5p)!

Newry Drama Festival is affiliated to The Association of Ulster Drama Festivals known as AUDF and also The Amateur Drama Council of Ireland known as ADCI.  ADCI was formed in 1949 – the same year as Newry – and Newry was one of the founder members of both ADCI and AUDF.

Athlone was designated the holder of the all Ireland Drama Festival (I think because it is in the centre of Ireland and there was a group of interested people there willing to run a finals festival). Every group aims to reach the Athlone finals since this is the pinnacle of success of the amateur drama movement.   ADCI comprises nearly all the festivals in Ireland, which currently number 36. The first All Ireland Finals Festival took place in 1949 and is the same age as Newry Festival.

The first Ulster Finals run by The Association of Ulster Drama Festivals took place in 1953 and in the early years the Ulster Drama finals were held in The Grand Opera House in Belfast and ran for six nights.  This continued until 1971 when, due to the troubles, the Opera House was bombed and was out of commission for a number of years.

Currently there are 12 festivals affiliated to AUDF, although in the early years there were only five festivals affiliated to AUDF.  The festivals affiliated to AUDF are based in the six counties of Northern Ireland –and those affiliated to ADCI are based all over Ireland.  There are some festivals in the North of Ireland that are not affiliated to ADCI.

There was and still is a rigorous points system for each festival which with scrupulous attention to fairness, qualifies companies to perform at the finals: 12 points for a win, 5 for second and 2 for third place.  In these early years a win and a second place would allow a group to reach the finals in Athlone and one win at any of the five Ulster festivals would gain a group entry to the finals in The Grand Opera House in Belfast.

As the years went on the committee changed although the executives, chairman, secretary, treasurer and stage managers seemed to serve for long periods.  Mr Petty succeeded Mrs. Collins as chairman and was succeeded in turn by Dr. E. L. Wilson.  He was succeeded, by Mr Owen Mooney, who was Chairman for many years.  When Owen retired as Chairman he was followed by Mr Sean Hollywood. The present Chairman is  Gerry McNulty.

In 1956, Nancie Murphy’s place was taken by Maureen Daly, who was secretary for many years and in 1976 Maureen was replaced by Eileen Mooney – the present honorary secretary.  Mrs Edna McKinstry’s past as Vice-Chairman, was eventually filled by Miss Violet Durkan who was the drama festival’s vice-chairman for over thirty years. The current Vice-Chair is Art Magennis.  Charlie O’Hare, Matt Welford, Pat Grant, Mary McKeown and Regina Hanratty all spent long periods looking after the finances.  The present treasurer is Christine Farrelly.

Stage Managers include Des Connolly, Colin Wills, Art Magennis, Dick Andress, Sean Markham and Gerald McNulty.

Mr Billy Locke looked after the publicity in the early years and later on, this task was taken on by Oliver Corry White, Anne Boyle and Maureen Grant  – today this job is still done by Maureen Grant another long serving committee member.

Charlie Smyth as PRO, Violet Durkan, Marie Maginnis and Maureen Grant were largely responsible for the increasing number of sponsors and advertisers: all these extra activities helped to keep the Drama Festival in a healthy financial position. Today, the Festival Public Relations Officer is Maureen Grant. In the late seventies and up to the early nineties it seemed that every drama company in Ireland wanted to compete in Newry – often the committee would receive up to twenty or thirty entries for the nine nights run.

In 1998 Newry Drama Festival suffered a great loss with the deaths of three prominent Office Bearers in the space of a few months.  Regina Hanratty/Morgan, the Treasurer and Sean Hollywood, Chairman  in July and Owen Mooney, Past Chairman for many years and President at the time of his death in November.  We thought we could not continue to run the Festival but the Committee rallied round and the 1999 Drama Festival was organised successfuly.  Gerry McNulty became Chairman and is currently in the post.  Sam Russell replaced Owen Mooney as President until his death when this role was taken over by Charlie Smyth.

Two members of Newry Drama Festival have had the honour of becoming Chairman of the All-Ireland drama body (The Amateur Drama Council of Ireland) – Pat Grant 1977-1979 and Eileen Mooney recently – 2007-2009.  The late Sean Hollywood had the honour of being Chairman of The Association of Ulster Drama Festivals in the late nineties.

Looking back on Adjudicators, Miss Gerda Redlich was one of the favourites.  She came to Newry no less than five times.  In 1950 and 1951 Newry Festival was privileged to have as Adjudicators Cyril Cusack and Hilton Edwards.  Running a close second to Gerda was Finlay J. McDonald  and Alan Nicol – four times our adjudicator.  I can remember Owen Mooney telling the story of a jovial Scot called James Crampsey who just didn’t want to leave Newry.  He was put on the bus for Belfast – he changed at Banbridge and came back for the weekend to the old Imperial Hotel and spent most of his fee by saying, “What are you having?”  We had other famous names as Adjudicator e.g. the late Anna Manahan , the Dublin Actress, well known for her part in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”.  Other names which spring to mind are our own local Actor who adjudicated the fortieth festival, Gerard Murphy – Tomas MacAnna, Alan Nicol, Biddy White-Lennon, and Barry Cassin.

The Festival has offered a platform to many groups from all over Ireland.  Some of the favourite productions which come to mind are: Orangefield Boy’ Secondary Drama Society, with The Enemy Within, Bart Players with This Happy Breed and The Corn is Green, Dundalk Group Players with The Hostage, ’71 Players, Derry with Over the Bridge, Newpoint Players with Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Marat-Sade” and Castleblayney Players with At the Black Pig’s Dyke.

 

The Drama Festival has been lucky in that it has always been well supported by our many Season Ticket holders and nightly audiences, not to mention our many sponsors without whom the Festival would not be financially viable.

In 2004 Newry Drama Festival was invited to host The All Ireland Confined Drama Festival.  This was held in Warrenpoint Town Hall and attracted full houses for the nine nights. The confined section is really division 2 of the amateur movement and in the early years would be known as the rural section – this description is more understandable than the confined section.  Teams came from all over Ireland from as far away as Skibereen in West Cork, West Waterford, Kildare, and Tyrone.  This Festival was a huge success and is still talked about among members of the drama movement.

The winners of the The All Ireland Confined Drama Festival were Silken Thomas Players from Kildare with their production of Bent.  The following year this group joined the open section and Newry audiences will remember The History Boys, which won Newry Festival and also All Ireland Finals in Athlone in 2010.

Another notable event took place in 2006 when due to industrial action the Town Hall was unavailable during one night of the Festival. The show must go on and so Newpoint Players production of Murder in the Cathedral took place in Newry Cathedral.  The show played to a very appreciative packed ‘house’ and the Group won the Festival.

During recent years Newry audiences will remember productions such as Dundalk Theatre Workshop’sI’m Not Rappaport, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Holywood Players, A Woman Of No Importance and Balally Players The Great Hunger.

On a rather sad note, in 2011 the Festival lost two of their stalwart Committee Members with the deaths of Violet Durkan MBE, Vice-Chairman in April and Sean Murtagh in December.  They will be sadly missed as both worked tirelessly for the Drama Festival.

This year is the 60th year and Diamond Jubilee Festival.  The Festival received a total of 17 entries for the 2012 Festival, almost as good as the heady days of the eighties and early nineties.  The Committee hopes Newry audiences will enjoy the plays and all the other events which have been organized in order to thank our sponsors, season ticket holders and nightly audiences.

The Newry Drama Festival Committee, under the Chairmanship of  Gerry McNulty, would like to take this opportunity to thank all our many sponsors, Season Ticket holders, and nightly audiences who have supported the Festival during the past 60 years.

Let us hope that the Festival will continue into the future and that the next 60 years will be as memorable as the past 60 years.