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Thursday 16 August 2018

Seamus O'Rourke: 'My father was a reluctant farmer on a small farm of poor land'

Seamus O'Rourke has traded agricultural building work for a new career as a full-time writer and actor. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Seamus O'Rourke has traded agricultural building work for a new career as a full-time writer and actor. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Seamus O'Rourke is a big man. I had never met him before, but when he walks into the foyer of the Longford Arms there is no mistaking him. He has a presence.

The bearded Leitrim man says "aye" to the offer of coffee; the hotel cup is lost in his hand and he is soon ready for another.

O'Rourke is making a name for himself as a latter-day bard of life beyond the Pale. A far cry from the 'hup ya boy ya' end of rural arts and entertainment, he tackles his topics with intelligence, insight and an edgy humour.

He came to writing for stage and strolling the boards later than most.

"I left school at 15 and served my time as an apprentice carpenter and then became a full carpenter. After 30 years in the trade, I ended up as a manager with the McCartins' Newtowngore Engineering doing agricultural building. The recession was late hitting that business and I had three very busy years between 2007 and 2009 but by 2012 things had gone quiet and I felt I was surplus to requirements."

At that time the Livin'Dred Theatre company had agreed to undertake a production of a play written by O'Rourke years before, called Ride On.

Based on the story of a Honda 50 charity run, he describes it as a piece of work simply written for the humour. "What's more, I got a part in it and left my fulltime job with nothing secured except a 12-week tour on stage. I haven't been a day idle since," he said.

Reared in a place called Drumshangore in Newtowngore outside Carrigallen, O'Rourke is one of four children.

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"My father was a reluctant farmer on a small farm of poor land. But he had a little bit of confidence about him. Our house was a sort of a hub, he cut hair and did bits of wiring. He was a kind of a handyman and a go-to man when there was a difficulty.

"As a result, the house always had 'céiliers', people who came in for a chat, and if there was no one in the house when they arrived they'd make themselves at home and wait till someone turned up."

According to Seamus, his area was typical of much of rural Ireland in the 1970s. It was a small world where life was basic. Few houses had running water and everything was about hard work and football. "In fairness to my father, around the table we didn't talk farming, he wasn't as obsessed by it as many others were. We talked a lot of football."

His first contact with the world of theatre and the stage was when the family would attend the annual Carrigallen play, before it did its rounds in the All Ireland Circuit. "While we all went to the play every year, I was only interested in football," he said. O'Rourke played senior football with Leitrim in his day.

"At about 25 years of age I realised that my hopes of bringing football glory to Carrigallen and Leitrim were not going to become a reality. Repeated injury and perhaps a realisation that I wasn't as good as I thought I was led me to give it up."

His interest in drama was awakened when he was asked to give a hand setting up the new Corn Mill Theatre in Carrigallen.

"Because I had access to a van they sent me to collect the theatre seating. I arrived at the building with the seats but when I walked in and saw the concrete tiers and the stage, it did something to me. I felt like I was standing in a Greek amphitheatre and wanted more than anything to get on the stage. No one was more surprised at this than myself, I was a shy, reserved kind of a fella."

He got a small part in that year's local production and his love for the performing arts was kindled. But 'real' work intervened and while he tried to find time to write and perform, the day job was all-consuming.

However, the paid work also involved becoming computer savvy and along with developing an expertise in CAD and other computer programmes O'Rourke discovered YouTube and Facebook. "They really launched things for me. I was able to write and record short videos on rural themes and upload them."

His videos earned him multitudes of 'hits' and 'likes' so by the time he decided to hang up the plane and the saw he had established himself.

Anger

"My early video clips were full of anger, at my father, at the country, at everything but in spite of the anger the humour burst through.

"I find that no matter how seriously I approach a bit of writing and no matter how serious the topic the humour will come out. That's true of rural Ireland, in the bleakest of situations there's a mad sense of humour lurking near the surface."

As his career developed so did the range and body of work. They include up to a dozen plays penned by himself and a plethora of acting roles including Pato Dooley in The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, 'Junior' in Conversations on a Homecoming by Tom Murphy, 'The Bishop' in a Gaiety production of John B Keane's The Field and Maurteen in Jimmy Murphy's The Kings of the Kilburn High Road.

His own body of written work includes up to a dozen pieces produced and performed by professional companies and amateur groups around the country. His plays include Ride On produced by Livin' Dred, The Trappe Family produced by Moth Productions while Victor's Dung, Padraic Pott's Guide to Walking, Indigestion and My Aunt Bee were all produced by his own company, Guerilla Productions.

He is currently on tour and starring in his latest production entitled From Under the Bed along with renowned Cork actor and playwright, Arthur Riordan. "It's about two bachelor brothers who never really talk. It's inspired by a pair who used to come to my father once a year to have their clock wound. I'm sure they could wind the clock themselves but they came to talk.

"They probably never had a real conversation themselves. In fact I was talking about this to my sister the other day and admitted that I never really had a conversation with other males around me, we talked about football, but little else. The play is a platform for how these two brothers might talk to one another."

For more information and tour dates, see seamusorourke.com

'There are fewer places to talk and interact'

"There are fewer places to talk and interact in the country now," maintains Seamus O'Rourke.

"With the demise of the creamery and the pub and with less people going to church, social interaction is getting torn. Of course we have the Men's Sheds but we needed to invent them."

He believes concern for rural Ireland has to be more than nostalgia for the past, it's about rural people taking responsibility for and exploring new ways to connect.

"The village shop is closed because as soon as we got the car we drove past it for the cheaper shopping in the local town.

"Likewise with the pubs. People complain there are no taxis but there were taxis a number of years ago - people chose not to use them so they went out of business. We have to look at new ways and places to meet and talk that are right for today."

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