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Saturday 17 November 2018

How a unique festival came to Rathdrum

There's nothing like it in Ireland. David Medcalf found out about the very special cartoon festival

Don Conroy and his wife Gay with Don’s exhibit
Don Conroy and his wife Gay with Don’s exhibit

At the same time that Leitrim was steeped in country music and Enniscorthy raised a toast to the strawberry, Rathdrum enjoyed its own very particular event. Summer festivals are two-a-penny, rejoicing in everything from vegan food to jazz and gay pride but a small town in Co. Wicklow has one which stands out.

Over the Bank Holiday, the main street of Rathdrum was alive with all manner of entertainments from ukulele bands to dog shows such as may be found in any provincial centre at festival time. Leslie Dowdall of In Tua Nua fame and singer-songwriter Mundy were happy to lend their musical charisma to the event when they appeared on the stage erected in the square, while buskers and fancy dress artists were in attendance throughout.

But the truly distinctive feature of the two day programme hosted by chairman Liam Kinsella and his committee had nothing to do with the music or the street performers. The inspiration for declaring the town open to all interested visitors was provided by a man with very special gifts who died almost seven years ago. The Rathdrum International Cartoon Festival was made possible by the talent and enthusiasm of Terry Willers whose work is familiar to generations of Irish people.

He ran the show himself from 1992 to 1997 before it was decided to take a break. And now for the past two years the event has been revived in his memory. Anyone visiting the town where he happily resided could not help but be aware of the great man, with reproduction Terry Willers work on show in practically every shop window for the occasion. Rathdrum must be the only town in Ireland to have a public house called the Cartoon Inn, which seeks to keep the flag of comic illustration flying throughout the year.

This weekend, the Willers presence was everywhere - not just in the pub - through his fondly remembered drawings peopled by rumple-suited politicians and Keystone Cop gardaí. One series offered a view of golf guaranteed to put any player off their stroke with laughter, including a scene in which a short-sighted man takes aim with his club at a mushroom while his ball nestles safely out of harm's way in the grass behind him. Should have gone to the opticians.

Terry was incredibly prolific during his lifetime and lucky visitors to the cartoon festivals of the nineties often went home with examples of his work sold off at bargain prices. Yet, since the great man's wife Valerie began the revival of the event, she has had to make it clear that she owns no great store of her husband's output to bring to the party.

'I have none of his work,' she confided before Saturday's opening ceremony. 'Terry gave it all away.' Valerie confirms that her husband was a very hard working artist who was drawn (if that's the right word) from an early age to the world of cartoons. As a teenage boy he worked in his native England as a coffee boy at the Disney studios. He later seared himself on to Irish consciousness with his contributions to the satire of 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly', RTE's ground-breaking show.

Valerie recalls the programme's host Frank Hall with affection but says that the effort required to put the Weekly on the air was demanding. The work ethic was ingrained and Terry continued to draw, to comment, to observe and to amuse until two years before his passing, when his decision finally to stop was confirmed at the Centra supermarket in Rathdrum, of all places.

He was shopping with his wife and the couple were pottering along in separate aisles when Valerie heard a child approach her husband. The youngster recognised the artist and asked him to draw something,as thousands had asked before.

'Terry would never say no but this time he said 'I have retired' and that was it.' He did not pick up his pen again. His influence lives on, as was evident in an exhibition at the festival of work by the various cartoonists assembled by the organisers. The drawings on show in the marquee at the beer garden off main street were very varied but, the pictures by children's book author Alan Nolan appeared very Williers-esque.

The selection was otherwise bewildering, ranging from superhero Gothic to children's comics and on to the sophisticated political commentary of Jon Berkely. He flew in from Spain to participate and he was represented on the walls of the marquee by several pieces he conjured up for the influential 'Economist' magazine. The world's perception of Donal Trump, with an extravagant dandy hair-do, is coloured in part by Berkely's portrait of the US's controversial president.

One Rathdrum local heavily involved in the Rathdrum International Cartoon Festival was Marc Corrigan who lives in the town. Marc's own specialty is animation, not only drawing the pictures but making those pictures move on screen. He helped to arrange the festival workshops which were held either in the room above Centra or at the RDA Hall where participants, mainly children, were encouraged to draw.

However, Laura Howell who arrived from Birmingham to participate, stressed that she does all in her power when conducting such sessions to persuade parents and grandparents to have a go too. Laura has the joy of drawing for the fabled 'Beano' comic, giving children a good, old-fashioned laugh. She mused that, like most members of her profession, she works from home rather than in a studio.

So she really enjoys the fellowship as she meets other cartoonists at conventions and festivals. The visiting artists also appreciated the drinks vouchers for Rathdrum's pubs which were distributed to them by the committee. And there was another nice perk for each of them in the form of a batch of treats baked by Suzie Koumarianos, daughter of festival spokeswoman Katina Koumarianos.

The honour of opening the festival was handed to Don Conroy, described on the official brochure as 'a national treasure… a naturalist, an environmentalist and a working artist'. Currently resident in Co. Wexford, the man who could smile for Ireland is all set to move to Wicklow Town. TV's Uncle Don, he used to rub long suffering shoulders with the likes of Dustin the Turkey, Socky and Zig & Zag.

This afternoon, he spoke of the one time that he rubbed shoulders instead with Terry Willers, when he and Rathdrum's finest were both guests of a school in Bray. The teacher in charge greeted the two celebrities with an offer of freshly baked cakes. Terry's response was to plead that he never ate until seven o'clock in the evenings. Recalling the day by patting his ample stomach, Don told his Rathdrum audience: 'So, I had to compensate.' Enough said.

Don admitted to admiring much more than Terry's self-restraint in the face of confectionery temptation. The Willers personality also brought great imagination and energy not only to his work but also to the festival.

Uncle Don harked back to his childhood in Donnybrook when he was a regular in the local library. He finally summoned up the nerve to ask the librarian for a book on cartoons, a subject to which instinctively stirred his interest: 'Down the back, on the left' dictated the formidable librarian with a haughty wave of her hand.

So the little Conroy went as directed down the back and turned left to locate a big book on cartoons. But these were not the cartoons of 'Beano' and 'Dandy' but rather drawings by classical painters such as Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo. The practice of the Old Masters was to make pencil drawings sketching out the scenes they intended to paint.

These sketches, called cartoons, included one drawn by Rembrandt as he prepared to tackle the biblical subject of Cain killing his brother Abel. It was an image that has lingered in Don's mind since: 'You were witnessing murder and it made me realise the power of line drawing.'

His own work since has proven more gentle, leading him to publish books for children and often concentrating on the joys of nature, full of birds and animals. He recalled how he was taken on many years ago by the 'Irish Times' to illustrate some pieces by author and columnist Maeve Binchy. While in the offices of the newspaper, he suggested that he might try his hand at political cartooning but his offer was turned down, despite his ability to create a likeness.

'You are not vicious enough,' the editor in charge of such matters told him. 'There has to be a little bit of acid in there.'

The man who could smile for Ireland reflected that cartoons can have a powerful impact through humour or satire. And it was clear that the late Terry Willers not only had the required sense of fun to be a great cartoonist but also, when necessary, he could deliver the acid.

So before he cut the ribbon to declare proceedings under way, Don Conroy reflected: 'Today is a celebration of great talent.'

Wicklow People

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