Farm Ireland

Saturday 20 April 2019

The theatre director who keeps a herd of Herefords fed and watered

A tale of two cities: Joe Murphy, farmer by day, artistic director of a Listowel theatre by night
A tale of two cities: Joe Murphy, farmer by day, artistic director of a Listowel theatre by night

When it comes to the dramatic arts, today's farmers are starting to take centre stage.

And according to Joe Murphy, artistic director of St John's Theatre and Arts Centre in Listowel, there are none better qualified to do so.

He should know: when not mounting productions in St John's - a former Protestant church where he's known locally as 'The Vicar' - he runs a family farm of Hereford cattle.

"Some people can be precious about the arts," he says. "They talk about theory and policy, but you won't find them sweeping the leaves from the doorstep.

"Farmers do it all. We don't need technicians - we're used to turning our hand to a bit of carpentry, welding, plumbing and building. We bring our skills from the farm to the theatre, and that includes a determination to make it work.

"It's hard to earn a living from a farm these days. You'd be lucky if the cattle pay for themselves. It's a vocation, the same as running a theatre. I wouldn't swap the two jobs for anything.

"They complement each other: on a farm, you buy an animal, do him up and sell him to a buyer. In the theatre, you buy in a show, enhance it with marketing and promotion, and sell it to an audience.

"The pace in the theatre is fast and energetic. There's the build-up to a performance, and when it happens there's a buzz of excitement, noise, music, applause… and then it's over and you're on to the next one.

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"In contrast, the sound of silence on the farm is rejuvenating. The grass just keeps on growing, and you can be fairly certain that in the morning the cows will be where you left them yesterday," says Joe.


"Conversely, farming can be very isolating. As it's mostly a one or two-man show these days, it can be a solitary and lonely existence, so it's important to engage in communal events. We put on 200 shows a year and run 450 classes in schools, so we reach a lot of people.

"Our best customers are ordinary Joe Soaps who come here regularly from a 30-mile radius. For Kerry people, the theatre is not some rarefied place confined to a privileged elite; it's like the corner shop, a part of their routine, and that's what makes it viable for us."

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