Friday, February 03, 2023

By Helen Falconer

Sligo theatre company, Windmill Players, is bringing Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan to Ballina Arts Centre this coming weekend, in a stunning performance that has already sold out Sligo’s Hawks Well Theatre and played to packed, enthusiastic venues in Dromore West and Ballintogher.

Three men carrying a currach on Inishmaan in the 1980s. Martin McDonagh’s debut play is set on the island.

The Cripple is the first of an early McDonagh trilogy, the second of which is The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the third, The Banshees of Inisheer. This last play was never published, as McDonagh disliked it, but he never let it go and eventually reworked it as the film script The Banshees of Inisherin – and the rest, of course, is recent history.

Director Jacinta Gormley selected The Cripple of Inishmaan as the Windmill Players’ next project months before The Banshees hit the big screen.

Director Jacinta Gormley brings the Windmill Players’ production of The Cripple of Inishmaan to Ballina Arts Centre next weekend.

“I was drawn to the play as it evokes a sense of community. It had been at the back of my mind since I first saw it performed in a small village hall in Inishmaan itself. For a while, the Windmill Players has been doing light comedies, which are great fun, but it’s good to do a play which leaves you thinking.”

She talks about meeting a man in the shop after the Dromore West performance of The Cripple.

“I was thinking about that play,” he told her. “I’m going to see it again.”

Then he added, after a pause, “I really want to see it again.”

There is another deep reason for Jacinta’s choice.

“Martin McDonagh’s mother was born in Rathlee, only two miles from Dromore West, and she inspired a lot of his writing. I think it’s wonderful to bring her home, through her son’s writing, to the community from which she sprung.”

Jacinta is committed to bringing theatre into small rural communities.

“The audience you get there is not necessarily a theatre-going people, but they will go to a local hall to see a play. Having a drama group in the area draws friends and neighbours of all ages together, it creates a sense of excitement and expectation, it brings energy. And if the audience becomes emotionally involved with a character, it’s a very powerful thing to have achieved together in a small hall in a little village.

“I have a strong belief in the power of being part of a small community. It is a solid foundation for life. It’s not about breadth, but about depth. I grew up here and now I work in the same place, and to forge a strong rural community, making deep connections is important.”

Jacinta has always been rooted in Sligo. Her mother was from Templeboy, but moved to her husband’s farm in Beltra, and that is where Jacinta was raised with her brother, who later took over the farming. Jacinta spent all her summers with her grandparents “as she loved the freedom of living just beside the sea”.

Those summers were vital for her education. Her grandmother Celia was an avid reader, even though she had left school aged 13.

“She told me the story of how she sat down and cried when she saw her father ploughing out in the fields on her way home from school, as she knew the time had come for her to leave school and stay at home to mind her siblings as her mother had died when she was young.”

Celia still loved books and passed on that love to her granddaughter. Now she lives on in her granddaughter’s productions, in the way Martin McDonagh’s mother lives on through his plays.

Jacinta’s teacher at Kilrusheighter National School was another early influence.

“Nora Kearins taught history mainly through story and I was enthralled as a child listening to stories of Padraig Pearse, Countess Markievicz and ancient battles such as the Battle of Moytura. Nora fostered a love of local history in me, which is why I am so passionate about local children learning about where they come from.”

Inspired by Nora, Jacinta Maye decided to train as a national schoolteacher herself. But not before she’d made a mark for herself in the drama world.

When Jacinta was six, a very special person came to her school: Joan Fitzpatrick. She was there to teach Elocution (or Speech and Drama, as it is now more commonly known) and the children were required to read poems to an audience.

“It ignited a spark in me from the moment I stepped on stage,” says Jacinta.

Joan moved on to set up the Fitzpatrick School of Speech and Drama in Sligo, but Jacinta’s mother had seen how much her daughter loved the stage.

“I longed for it, and she made sacrifices to enable me to get to it.”

She brought her daughter 12 miles to Joan for regular drama lessons.

“It sounds nothing now but in those days it was a long haul.”

Jacinta’s mother came to every Feis, attended every national competition.

“Thanks to her, I competed in national competitions, winning two All-Irelands in Slogadh in Tralee and Athlone for mime and storytelling. Not many rural children were getting that opportunity, or being exposed to such a wealth of culture.”

Jacinta won the Junior Yates Cup, and as a young adult toured extensively with different theatre groups, playing major roles such as Minnie in Shadow of a Gunman, and Rose in Frankie Brannigan’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa.

But before all that, she did something even more surprising. At the tender age of 16, while still doing her Leaving Cert, she set up her own drama school in the local village hall.

Jacinta was motivated by a desire to share her own experience of the stage. The sense of self-esteem. Connection. The teamwork. The buzz.

“There’s a magic that happens when children go on stage, and receive their first applause, then come off realising what they have done.”

Even though she was still a child herself, she became a respected teacher. Her school was affiliated to Scór na nÓg, the cultural wing of the GAA, and the earliest plays put on by the Faye School of Speech and Drama were short sketches written by Jacinta herself. In the mid-1980s, her school made it to the Connacht finals!

“There were 20 or 30 local children coming to my school. Those were the days when it was easier, of course: no policies and safety statements.”

She laughs at the thought.

“But the children all survived, survived well in fact!”

She went on to do her teacher training at St Pat’s in Dubiln, and somehow attended the Leinster School of Speech and Drama at the same time.

“I’ve been a double-jobber all my life.”

When she graduated, “there was very little work for primary school teachers,” so she continued and expanded her local theatre school, and kept it on even after finding a full-time teaching job in Skreen, where she has been for the last 30 years, sinking her roots deeper and deeper into the Sligo soil.

It is a rich soil.

Four of her ex-pupils are in the current production of The Cripple. Another alumnus is now Professor of Drama at Birkbeck, University of London, and it’s his mother who is playing Mammy in The Cripple.

That sense of community, of continuity; of all the friends and neighbours and former students surrounding her, “for me, that is a really wonderful thing,” says Jacinta.

She cites her husband Anthony, her best friend of all.

“He is an integral part of every project and endeavour I take on. He is a skilled carpenter and makes all the sets. In his time, he has had to build a couch that can open by itself, hidden secret passages and moving statues.”

The Cripple of Inishmaan was a particular challenge, with nine locations, but luckily Anthony is a patient man.

“You should see the beautiful 1930s’ shop on Inishmaan he’s made, complete with handmade furniture, a shop counter, dresser and flickering lanterns…”

Such is Jacinta’s evocative description, Anthony’s sets alone surely justify buying a ticket. When coupled with the immaculate performance of a brilliant play, a night out at the theatre this weekend seems irresistible.

Windmill Players brings The Cripple of Inishmaan to Ballina Arts Centre on Saturday and Sunday, February 4 and 5, at 8pm. Tickets €16/€18. Early booking advised.

Book online or phone Ballina Arts Centre on 096-73593.

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