ON New Year’s Day 1934, Fr Peter Conifrey led a march through Mohill, Co Leitrim, in which demonstrators called on the Government to ban jazz music and all foreign dances in Ireland. Jazz, the campaign argued, was an “engine of hell” deployed to do the devil’s work.
This little-known event sowed the seeds of inspiration for writer Jim Nolan’s latest play Dreamland, set in a village in the south coast of Ireland in 1934.
“About eight years ago, I heard an RTÉ radio documentary called ‘Down with Jazz’, produced by Kieran Sheehy, originally broadcast in 1987. It was the story of the anti-jazz campaign launched by Fr Conifrey in 1934. “This was an extraordinary revelation for me. It referred to two musicians, brothers Mick and Paddy Duignan, who played traditional music but who covertly had been importing jazz music sheets from New York, courtesy of a neighbour.”
Nolan was fascinated by the story but put it aside because he had one play in production and had been commissioned to write another. But the idea never went away.
“I didn’t want to particularly write about the jazz campaign but I was struck by what kind of climate was operating that could cause that kind of tension between people like the Duignan brothers and Fr Conifrey, over something as life-affirming and harmless as music. That informed the spirit of the play.
“I remember reading about the banners at the march in Mohill saying “no foreign culture in Ireland, no African stuff here”. I read the newspapers for the year to find what else was going on. Just as there were cultural tensions in the country, there was a hell of a lot of political division. The civil war was still being fought in another guise. You had the new Fianna Fáil government and the offshoot of Cumann na nGaedheal, the Blueshirts. I’ve been fascinated by them for years and everything I read about that summer, there seemed to be protests, scuffles and fights. So I threw that into the mix. I figured what Fr Conifrey and some of the Blueshirts were scared of was the ‘other’, the outsider, the difference.”
Nolan also found inspiration for Dreamland a little closer to home.
“I stole a real event that happened near my own place in Co Waterford, in a village called Bonmahon in 1983, when a 60ft whale landed on the beach. I lived in the city and like everyone else, I went out. I live two miles from the beach now, and people there told me about a man called Paddy Canavan who ran the post office. When the whale landed, he thought all his Christmases had come together. He decided to lift this whale off the beach and set up a museum at the back of the post office. It came to nothing, but I loved the spirit of it.”
It has been almost 30 years since Nolan helped set up the legendary theatre company Red Kettle in Waterford, where his first play ‘The Gods are Angry, Miss Kerr’ caused a sensation. But he still relishes new challenges, and his latest work is providing him with a big one, as he is also fulfilling directing duties.
“Other than when Red Kettle started way back in the early ’80s, I have never directed the first production of a new play of my own. I’ve directed premieres of other people’s plays but for very good reasons, I’ve never gone near my own stuff, simply because you need the objectivity of somebody else’s eye.”
Dreamland is a co-production between Garter Lane, the Project, and the Everyman in Cork and Nolan stepped into the breach when Michael Barker-Caven, who was to direct the play, stepped down from his role as artistic director at the Everyman.
Nolan hasn’t lacked support from his cast, which includes seasoned professionals Des Keogh and Brendan Conroy and new talent Conall Keating. “There is always some sort of reticence from actors, as indeed there is from me, about doing the two jobs. For that reason, I was particularly lucky to land people of the calibre that we have.”
Dreamland will also kick off the 30th anniversary celebrations for Waterford’s renowned Garter Lane Arts Centre, where many of Nolan’s plays have been staged over the years.
“Garter Lane has been my second home for all of that time and a lot of my plays have premiered there. The centre has made a terrific contribution to Waterford City and I am chuffed that my play is launching the anniversary. It’s a great privilege.”
Has the anniversary led him to reflect on his work over that time?
“I’d like to think I’ve kept something of the spirit with which I entered into the process all those years ago, that there is still that innocent moment of putting a story down for the first time. As you get older, there’s the tendency towards cynicism and I work very hard at resisting that.
“In the play, the character of Johnny goes on two missions, to restore the dignity of this dead whale and transform it into something that will revive the spirit of this village, and his resistance to the communal hysteria of the Blueshirts.
“You can bow down to the kind of pressure that being alive in the world renders. It can defeat us at times. In some ways, the central character in this play is a refusal to lie down under some kind of spiritual oppression.”
Does he think such themes will resonate for today’s audiences?
“I have to be careful about trying to make those connections but I’m hoping the audience would pick up on those things. I started tinkering about with the idea in 2008 and 2009, when the country was drifting from all the madness of the Celtic tiger into recession. I was wondering about what kind of values were being celebrated when the country was awash with money. There is some kind of answer to that question in the play even though it is set 60 years before.
“It started with the tension between this idiot who was trying to keep jazz out of the country and people like those wonderful men, the Duignan brothers, who insisted on dancing to their own tune. You’d like to think there’s still room in the country for that kind of spirit. Now and again the good guy wins. We’ll see how this one turns out.”