50 years and counting for Siamsa Tíre

Siamsa Tíre is this year celebrating 50 years since its first performance and to celebrate this historic milestone in their history, Fergus Dennehy looks back at some of the other big momentous occasions in the theatre's first half century, including recalling an interview with the man credited as Siamsa’s founder, Fr Pat Aherne

Siamsa Tíre is this year celebrating 50 years since its first performance
Siamsa Tíre is this year celebrating 50 years since its first performance

Such is the huge influence that Siamsa Tíre has had on Tralee and the wider Kerry area, it's hard to believe that the famous theatre has only been in operation for 50 years.

The theatre, which celebrated its very first performance way back in 1968, is now putting the finishing touches on an extra special summer season, which they hope will pay homage to their roots.

The first performance took place in Balloonagh School in Tralee by Siamsóirí na Ríochta as it was then known, and they went on to perform in a variety of venues in Ireland and abroad, as well as performing on national radio and television.

In 1974, Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre (NFT) of Ireland was then established as a professional theatre company and has expanded over the years through its' Training Academies. The founding of Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, was motivated by a desire to preserve and showcase Ireland's great wealth of music, song, dance and folklore on stage through vibrant, colourful theatrical entertainment and continue to create new folk theatre productions, drawing on our traditions and rich cultural reservoir.

North Kerry's very own Father Pat Aherne is the man often credited with revitalising the traditional music and dance scene in both Kerry and Ireland; he spoke to us last year in The Kerryman about the history of the theatre and his role in helping to set it up.

Fr Aherne was first sent to Tralee as a young curate back in 1957 where he was tasked with setting up a new choir in Tralee - a task that he still remembers fondly to this day and one which he took to with relish.

"Back then in 1957, there was very little happening with regards to music in town and because of this, without the choir, a lot of the people who joined who never have had another outlet to learn music," said Fr Aherne.

"The choir just took off though, it was initially just boys and men - it was called St John's Gregorian Choir. We had great times back then - we were all young and energetic and we worked hard. Everyone there learned to read music and these were people who would never have studied any bit of music, it was wonderful," he continued.

The initial success of the choir led to them being asked to perform a short pageant to celebrate the centenary of the Lourdes apparitions, a pageant which the group called Massabielle and which was performed in the old CYMS hall in Tralee [now the KDYS].

"Thanks to Massabielle and its success, this then led us on to do a more ambitious show later in 1963, the Passion Play in Tralee about the life of Christ. It went for a long run in the CYMS Hall."

Again this performance by Fr Aherne's choir was met with such acclaim that Dean Donal Reidy organised a special celebratory performance night in what was then the Manhattan Hotel [now Ballygarry House Hotel].

It was to be a performance that would serve as the impetus for the future Siamsa Tíre performances.

"I put on a little cabaret there, using the singers, dancers and musicians and it was went very well - it just skyrocketed and we decided then and there that we wanted to do more things. This was then the little seed that started it all off for us," he continued.

A tour of America was to follow for Fr Aherne and his merry band of singers, musicians and dancers and for some of the group, a lot of whom were leaving Ireland for the first ever time, finding themselves in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago was a magical, magical experience.

"I'll always remember one man, Gerry Nolan, he was out of my own parish in Moyvane. He was a beautiful, beautiful step dancer and of course, he had never been out of the country and this man from Moyvane brought down the house in every city we went to!," Farther Aherne conrtinued.

It was the success of this tour, Fr Aherne said, that gave great creedence to the idea of using Irish folklore and music and dance as a performance art an again cemented the need for Siamsa Tíre.

The rest, as they say is history. What followed was a period of great success both nationally and internationally for the group, which in 1974, was officially renamed as the Siamsa Tíre that we know today, woith its founder Fr Ahernem being named as Artistic Director, a position that he held until his retirement in 1998.

For this extra special upcoming season, Siamsa Tíre will be offering a choice of five productions including one brand new show developed to celebrate the theatre's anniversary.

All productions are presented through the unique Siamsa style of Irish music, song and dance, and will include:

• Fadó Fadó: Siamsa Tíre's longest running production, it is an entertaining portrayal of rural Ireland and typical family life across the four seasons 100 years ago;

• Oileán: a celebration of the lives of the community that lived on the Blasket Islands;

• Anam: a new production that successfully toured nationally in 2017. Anam is a showcase of hard shoe style dance from Ireland, Canada and USA supported by traditional Irish music and Sean - nós song;

• Turas: a concert style show that takes you on an enchanting journey of music, song and dance from around Ireland.

• An Ghaoth Aniar which captures the spirit and inspiration of the west coast of Ireland through Irish music, song and dance in both a traditional and contemporary staging.

Tickets can be purchased for €27.50 from the Siamsa Tíre Box Office on 066 7123055 and family and group rates are available.