Jude Kelly, founder of  Women of the World Festival (WOW) and Pat Ahern, founder of Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland (Photo: Ciarán Walsh)

Pat Ahern and I have started recording a long conversation about the building of a state of the art theatre in Tralee, which opened in 1991 with the performance of a folk theatre manifesto that was devised and directed by Pat.

We have taken the name of that show – Forging the Dance – as a working theme for an ethnographic study of a group of people who developed a style of folk theatre over three decades, building a complex infrastructure that was designed to (a) sustain a tradition of song, music and dance related to folklife and custom in rural Ireland and (b) create a repertoire of folk theatre that captured the spirit of farming communities in culturally distinct districts.

Justin Walsh in the forge on the set of Ding Dong Dedero, Forging the Dance, 1991.

Pat Ahern aged around two. He is wearing a cóta beag, the traditional petticoat worn by young boys in the west of Ireland. His mother Maggie is standing in the doorway.

The recordings are designed to complement a personal archive that Pat has assembled and University College Cork (UCC) has digitised. So far the conversations have tracked the development of a form of folk theatre that was closely related to the rhythms and sounds of life in a small, farming community in North Kerry.

As a small boy, his mother took Pat to see a travelling theatre company in the local village hall. The experience triggered a fascination with theatrical form and he began to produce plays with his siblings and neighbours’ children in a hay-shed on the family farm. This was the beginning of a folk theatre movement that became the National Folk Theatre of Ireland and culminated in the construction of the first new-build theatre in the history of the state.

The construction of the new home of the National Folk Theatre in Tralee. The theatre and arts centre opened in 1991.

Pat Ahern and Liam Tarrant dancing at the opening of the Teach Siamsa Training Centre in Finuge in 1974 (Still from a film of the opening that has been posted online by Paul Kennelly).

Along the way we have explored the development of a theatre company in a former cinema in Tralee and the construction of training centres in north and west Kerry; in townlands where traditional music, song and dance were strong. As Pat puts it: “We went north for the dance and west for the language.” The idea was that these centres would keep the theatre rooted in vibrant and distinct folk cultures and communities.

Jude Kelly came to Ireland in 1975 as a student of drama in search of a new form of storytelling. She heard about the folk movement in Kerry and visited Pat in Finuge. She was profoundly influenced by the community-based, theatrical form he was developing in the training centres and presenting on stage in Tralee.

She met up with Pat again last Friday (February 14, 2020) and we recorded a long conversation about identity, folk, and theatre practice. It was the first of many such conversations that will tell story of the people who built a theatre in Tralee, a sort of long-format ethnographic study of the folk of North Kerry that will be delivered online (details to be announced).

In the meantime, the plan is to produce a short-form documentary, developing a story that was begun by Dermod McCarthy’s in Bímís ag RinnceLet us Dance, the 1975 Radharc Film that is listed in the British Film Institute (BFI) archive.

Paddy White performing at the opening of Teach Siamsa Finuge in 1974. Paddy used the chairs for support while he danced, but even so, he was the best exponent of the North Kerry style of dance developed by Jerry Molyneaux. Martin Whelan, the first General Manager of the National Folk Theatre, is standing in the background (Stills from A Radharc Film directed by Dermod McCarthy and filmed by Brian O’Reilly)
Still from a film posted online by Paul Kennelly