A new stage for voices from the past

An archive exhibition celebrates the work of Cork theatrical legend James N Healy, writes Colette Sheridan

ONE of the leading lights of Cork’s theatrical circles from the 1940s to the 1980s is the subject of an archive exhibition at the Cork County Library HQ (beside the County Hall) which continues until Sept 13. James N Healy was a well-known actor, writer, producer and founder member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Group. He also founded the Southern Theatre Group and later, Theatre of the South. It was the Southern Theatre Group that first produced the plays of John B Keane on a professional basis.

Meeting Keane was fortuitous for Healy. An accountant with Fords, Healy was head-hunted by another Cork firm and after much soul-searching, decided to leave his secure job with the car manufacturers. However, within a year or two, his new job with a timber firm came to an end as the company went into liquidation. Cautiously, Healy began to look at the possibility of professional theatre work. When word reached him that a powerful new play by a Listowel publican was the talk of Kerry, Healy went to see it and met the author. ‘Sive’ had been rejected by the Abbey, but Keane told Healy that he could stage it in Cork. It received its Cork premiere on June 29, 1959, when the Southern Theatre Group presented it at the Father Mathew Hall, the first of 255 performances. Healy couldn’t have got a better professional start.

As well as photographs, posters, costumes and programmes from Healy’s collection, the exhibition is accompanied by excerpts from the Cork Theatrical and Historical Collection by Maurice O’Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore (www.irishlifeandlore.com). This oral history collection of audio recordings consists of people involved in theatre in Cork from the 1950s until the present, recounting significant moments in Cork theatrical history through stories and song.

A 40-minute interview with Healy, recorded in New York, is part of the exhibition. “The quality of the sound is very good,” says O’Keeffe. “The interview is about Healy’s relationship with John B Keane and how it blossomed over the years. ‘Sive’ was the beginning of great things. ‘Moll’ followed and then all the other greats.”

Healy, who was born in 1916 and died in 1993, was “a meticulous record keeper” says Sheila Healy, wife of James N Healy’s cousin, Dick Healy, to whom most of the archive was bequeathed. Sheila and Dick are pleased that the Cork County Library and Arts Service are now looking after the archive.

“We loved Jim (as he was known) dearly. He was a very quiet private man, a bachelor, who lived with his aunts on Grattan Hill. He used to come to our house in Cork on Sunday afternoons and we’d go off for a walk with him. Both Dick and I have been involved in theatre over the years. I would have worked for Jim, making costumes. He was a real perfectionist.”

Eileen O’Brien, senior executive librarian at Cork County Library, was in charge of archiving the material for the exhibition. “We have an intern on the Job Bridge scheme, Rickard Farrell, who has been working specifically on this project. He was involved in digitising the photographs, the programmes and the posters. He has also done a lot of work on the exhibition itself, designing the story boards and hanging them.”

Healy’s legacy to Cork is immense, says O’Keeffe. “James N Healy was married to the theatre. It was a huge passion with him. With the Gilbert and Sullivan Group, he was very much into fantastic stage sets. They couldn’t be produced today because they would cost too much money. People gave up their free time to help out. You didn’t have television then. It’s amazing the number of venues in Cork city that had performances going on at the same time.”

* The digitised archive is available to the public via the library’s website, www.corkcoco.ie/library

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