Kinsale’s answer to Romeo and Juliet

The tragic tale of the Cork town’s White Lady is being turned into a musical, writes Marjorie Brennan

Jake Carter and Aislinn Hegarty in The White Lady of Kinsale
Jake Carter and Aislinn Hegarty in The White Lady of Kinsale

Maurice O’Callaghan clearly relishes a challenge. After a long and varied career including three decades as a lawyer here and in the US, as well as success as a writer and director, the West Cork native is now turning his hand to musical theatre.

While O’Callaghan, originally from Newcestown, has mined his own family history for his films such as 1994’s Broken Harvest, about the aftermath of the Civil War in Ireland, this time around, his inspiration is a ghostly tale from the seaside town of Kinsale. It is an idea that has been percolating for more than four decades, since O’Callaghan was studying law at UCC in the 1970s.

“It was one of the first creative projects I ever wrote but it’s only now, after 40 years and doing a million other things that I finally came around to resurrecting it,” he says.

The musical, The White Lady of Kinsale, is based on the story of Eoghan O’Neill, the sole survivor of the famous Irish O’Neill clan, who falls in love with Wilful Warrender, the daughter of the commander of the English garrison, which is constructed after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

“Wilful persuaded her father to allow her marry Eoghan and they had a big wedding. That night, according to legend, while they were walking the battlements she asked him to go down to the seashore to pick some flowers as a wedding gift.

"On his way down, he took the place of a sentry and sent the sentry down instead — but Eoghan had been given a potion by these schemers which made him fall asleep. The girl’s father came out inspecting the posts and found the ‘sentry’ asleep, challenged him and then shot him with a pistol, not realising it was his new son-in-law.

"Then Wilful comes along, finds her beloved dead — and jumps over the battlements into the sea.

It’s like Tosca or Romeo and Juliet, a classic operatic story.

O’Callaghan says while there are different versions of the legend, there is truth to the story.

“It has been an enduring story for 400 years, and her ghost is said to haunt various places in Kinsale and Charles Fort to this day. I thought it was ideal as a story but I wrote it originally as a rock opera, as those were popular in the 1970s — Evita and so on. I’ve adapted it now and made it slightly more musical, but there are certain operatic elements as well as some sean-nós elements too.”

As well as writing, producing and directing, O’Callaghan is also responsible for all the music in the show, which stars Dancing with the Stars champion Jake Carter as Eoghan O’Neill and rising Cork performer Aislinn Hegarty as Wilful Warrender. He is no stranger to the stress of producing and directing film projects, but a musical comes with its own set of challenges, he says.

Maurice O’Callaghan, producer of the musical which launches in Kinsale next week.
Maurice O’Callaghan, producer of the musical which launches in Kinsale next week.

“I’ve directed films that cost millions but this is more stressful in some ways — you’re trying to shoehorn a stage production into two hours, while you can shoot a film over three or six months, changing scenes as you go along.

"With a musical, everything has to go right on the night, I’m finding that very intense. But I have very good people — Jake is very talented, it is his first serious role but he is damned professional for a 21-year-old. Aislinn is a beautiful singer and we have also have Martin Baylor, a blues singer from Youghal, as the colonel.”

O’Callaghan is hoping the show will go on to bigger venues but wanted the opening run to be in the town where the story is set. While he is resident in Dublin, he has properties in West Cork and loves to spend time in the area. He says there is huge interest in the show in Kinsale.

“Rehearsals have been going very well, we are really looking forward to bringing it to the stage.

It is particularly special to be producing the show for the first time in Kinsale, very close to my hometown.

The White Lady of Kinsale is at Kinsale Community School, on Feb 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, 8pm, tickets €25, at www.gr8events.ie/whiteladyofkinsale or at the door.

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