Wexford Drama Group celebrates 50 years in the spotlight – Wexford People, December 10 2016

Wexford Drama Group celebrated their 50th anniversary in theatrical fashion with a celebration in the Irish National Heritage Park recently.

The group pulled out all of the stops to ensure the night was unforgettable, with plenty of drama, music and nostalgia to keep the crowd going. Over 60 people attended the event, which marked an end to the celebrations for this year.

Mayor of Wexford Frank Staples held a Civic Reception for Wexford Drama Group at the beginning of the evening. He spoke about the history of the group and, on behalf of the people of Wexford, expressed his pride in having such an organisation in the community.

It was a nostalgic evening for many as members from years gone by joined together with current members. Three of the former members – Des Waters, Jean Gould and Noreen Colfer – were part of the original group founded 50 years ago and in honour of this, they were presented with a lifetime membership by the current members. Throughout the night, different generations of the group performed short pieces, while old memorabilia such as posters and photos were dotted around the venue. A particular highlight was a moving video featuring interviews with some of the older members, which was compiled by John Michael Murphy.

Chairperson of the group Carol Long said a few words to the crowd, as did Phil Lyons, who shared some of his memories about his years in the group. Phil was also part of the event’s organising committee, along with Aine Gannon, Hilda Conway and Paul Walsh.

To top everything off, everyone enjoyed a meal, music by Damian Nolan and plenty of dancing until the early hours.

‘It was a really great night. It was lovely to mark the occasion as people do come and go. The event got people back in touch with the group,’ said PRO of Wexford Drama Group Tom O’Leary.

The night followed on from an event in Wexford Library the previous day, during which excerpts from the group’s first play ‘The Heiress’ were performed by former and current members. The play was produced by the group back in 1966 and in honour of the occasion, original cast members Jean Gould and Noreen Colfer played their parts once more. An exhibition of photographs and memorabilia of the last 50 years was also unveiled.

Following a successful weekend, the show must go on for the drama group. The will now turn their attention to their next production ‘Portia Coughlan’ by Marina Carr which will hit the Arts Centre stage in February.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/wexford-drama-group-celebrates-50-years-in-the-spotlight-35270067.html)

Wexford Forest School initiative aims to bring learning to the great outdoors – New Ross Standard, October 15 2016

Bringing learning to the great outdoors is the aim of the new Wexford Forest School initiative which planted its roots in the Irish National Heritage Park recently.

The first forest school in the county to be funded by a local authority, it will welcome children from schools across Wexford to learn about protecting the environment, bushcraft, building shelter and identifying nature. It came together through the collaboration between Outdoor Park Manager Chris Hayes, Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education and local Forest Rangers Orla Gallagher and Shane Furlong.

‘There is a phrase that has been coined by Richard Louv called “nature deficit disorder” that is used to describe the negative consequences that occur when children don’t spend enough time outdoors. Parents and families are so busy with school, homework and dinners to be made so it can be challenging for them to get the kids out in the evening,’ explained Orla. ‘We are looking at this as a way of getting children to come and engage with nature and develop a passion for the outdoors. Kids are the future stewards of the environment. If they don’t learn how to care for it and appreciate it, who will?’

Children from Crossabeg National School are the first to dive into the project and will visit the park each Thursday over the next seven weeks. Their first visit to the site was met with great enthusiasm from not only the children, but the teachers themselves.

‘The kids had really positive feedback about the day and did everything with great enthusiasm. Even the third class teacher and principal Eamonn Codd were getting involved,’ said Orla.

The forest school leaders try to encourage children to engage with nature in a fun way through the medium of stories and songs. They also teach them about wildlife tracking, pointing out various species of plants and animals as they explore the site.

‘We teach in a way that is really accessible to kids,’ said Orla. ‘A lot of the time, they don’t even realise the amount that they are taking in.’

The children will also be given the chance to channel their inner Bear Grylls as bushcraft and survival skills form a big part of Forest School. Making and using tools and building fires are some of the areas that they delve in to and although participants are young, the rangers ensure that safety is the top priority.

‘We have about 22 students at the moment and there are at least three adults there at any one time,’ explained Orla. ‘A big part of what we do in the fire skill section is help them to develop their own risk assessment abilities. We teach them that fire is really beneficial as it keeps us warm and we can cook with it but also instil the risks in them such as the possibility of getting burned. These lessons will stand to children as they get older.’

Forest School programmes can run throughout the year, in all weathers, except for high winds.

The founders of Wexford Forest School all have one shared aim: to establish a regional hub for forest schools over time. However, they understand that it will take time for the initiative to grow and flourish. The current phase of Wexford Forest School is a pilot scheme with Crossabeg National School. Wexford County Council have provided funding of approximately €2,700 under Local Agenda 21 Environmental Partnership Fund for this first seven weeks. Following this, Orla said that they hope to spread interest to schools across the county.

‘The first bit of funding is for seven weeks but hopefully we might get some more next year all going well,’ said Orla. ‘Schools that are also interested in getting involved can also provide some funding themselves.’

(First published in the New Ross Standard newspaper: print edition. Also available online at http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/news/wexford-forest-school-initiative-aims-to-bring-learning-to-the-great-outdoors-35119379.html)

House of storytelling ignites the imagination – Gorey Guardian, August 20 2016

By the light of oil lamps, crowds have been enjoying the unique atmosphere of Bygone Days Storytelling House for 16 years. Now a leaky roof poses a threat to the famous thatched cottage enterprise, writes Amy Lewis.

Untold tales, thoughtful rhymes and jovial melodies have been shared before the blazing fire at the Bygone Days Storytelling House for 16 years and with a bit of luck and generosity, locals are hoping that its story can continue. Nestled in the village of Oulart, the thatched cottage has been at the heart of the community for longer than any of its current residents can remember.

Built in the 1700s by the road on which horses and coaches once made the slow journey to Dublin, it served as a family home until the 1990s when it was bought by local man Jim Mythen. However, it was not until 2000 that local residents decided to thatch and refurbish the cottage and make it the storytelling hub that it is today.

Each month since then, crowds of 50 to 60 people duck under the half door of the cottage and huddle into the low-lit room in the centre of the cottage.

Visitors are immediately met by a sense of warmth, not only due to the blazing fire that heats the old-world room, but because of the welcoming atmosphere that the place exudes. This is a place where people can share their stories, sing a tune or just simply, sit and listen.

The festivities of the evenings have long been presided over by local man John Dempsey – who has served as Fear an Tí since the very beginning – along with his wife Eileen. Together with owner Jim and members of a committee of locals, the pair have kept the fire burning in the storytelling house for 16 years.

‘We were involved with the local panto for years and when the house was vacant, we decided to try a storytelling night. The first one was on 20 June, 2000, and the crowds have been growing since then,’ explained Eileen.

‘Since then, we have run it on the first Monday of every month. There have only been four nights that we missed due to things such as bereavements and snow.’

Although the house has no electricity or running water, the group manage to cater for huge crowds regularly with the help of old oil lamps converted with bulbs and a a power source brought in from Jim Mythen’s home.

The huge old-style open fire is also a source of light in itself, and with its crane and fanners, it is as much an attraction as the festivities.

The monthly sessions aren’t advertised but according to Eileen, the audience continues to grow.

Since it was established, the house has welcomed storytellers, musicians and visitors from across the globe, including Cork-born storyteller Jack Lynch and various other well-known voices from destinations as far away as Australia.

Under the dim lighting of converted oil lamps, they have ignited the imaginations of many with tales of love, loss and everything in between.

However, the house is not only a place for seasoned performers to find a platform.

‘Our motto is leave your feeling on the gate post coming in,’ said Eileen.

‘There is a fantastic atmosphere here. It is a place where everyone is able to relax and people just seem to sit and talk to one another. People don’t have to perform. There is no pressure put on anyone.’

Along with sharing stories, everyone who visits the cottage also is offered the chance to share some homemade food and refreshments. It always serves as welcome fuel for the guests, particularly the performers, who often keep the stories and music going well into the early hours of the morning.

At certain times of the year, Eileen and co also dish up some local specialities, such as bacon and cabbage in June and colcannon in November. January always proves to be a big favourite as 11,000 locally-caught herring are cooked up for the masses, while at Christmas, each and every guest goes home with a present.

In a world that is governed by the internet and modern technologies, Bygone Days is a place where old traditions remain strong. However, these traditions could soon become a distant memory. The future of Bygone Days Storytelling House has become precarious due to a leak in the roof and if it is not fixed soon, the story of Oulart’s famous thatched cottage could come to a sad end.

‘The leak is really bad. Last December we had rain coming in on the people sitting there. We have covered it with a sheet but it needs to be fixed. We can’t have water pouring in here on people,’ said Eileen.

‘We are looking into getting funding but we don’t know if we will receive it.’

In an effort to save their local haunt, members of the committee will soon host a fundraiser night in the Riverside House Hotel to brew up some much-needed funds.

It will be the first of many such evenings and the first step towards raising the €22,000 that will be needed to provide a new roof.

Performers from days gone by will gather in the hotel on September 25 to share a little piece of the Bygone’s magic with the public. A night of music, stories and dancing will ensue, with plenty of craic and nostalgia sprinkled in with it.

Tickets will soon be on sale from the hotel and from members of the Bygone Days Storytelling House committee for €10 each. Eileen is calling on people from across the county to offer their support so that the cottage can remain standing.

‘The building itself is very historical, having been there since before 1798. It would be a shame to see it go as we have already lost so many similar places around the country,’ said Eileen.

‘It would be a big loss to the many people who come here if it couldn’t continue. It serves as an outlet for many people, particularly those who don’t go to the pub as it is a place that they can go to meet people and share their stories.’

Eileen and co are hoping to attract a large crowd to their fundraiser in September and hope that their involvement in an episode of Epic Days on RTE at the weekend will have stirred up some more interest.

‘Without our nights here the house would have been long gone. We have managed to keep it up and alive and if we manage to re-thatch the roof, we hope to enjoy more years of laughter, music, song, stories and craic for possibly another 16 years,’ said Eileen.

(First published in the Gorey Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/localnotes/house-of-storytelling-ignites-the-imagination-34969293.html)

Vision of the future for Johnstown Castle – Wexford People, July 30 2016

The doors of Johnstown Castle were thrust open last week as members of the public were welcomed inside to get a rare glimpse of the interior and learn more about future plans.

An estimated 1,200 people paid a visit to the castle during the two open days staged by Teagasc, who will soon begin a project to restore and open the building to the public. The event gave people the opportunity to learn about the history of the landmark and hear more about plans for its future.

This project will be staged by Teagasc in partnership with the Irish Heritage Trust and the Irish Agricultural Museum with the help of €7.5 million in Government funding. Though the groups have yet to seek planning permission for the ambitious plan, they aspire to have it complete by 2018.

‘A lot of work has taken place over the last number of years. We required a change in the Johnstown Castle Act which left the castle to the state for agricultural use,’ explained Head of PR with Teagasc Eric Donald. ‘We have now managed to secure funding from Failte Ireland and the Government to go ahead with the project.’

In the last number of months, Eric says they have been looking at potential plans and making decisions on how to make the first step. During the recent open days, the unveiled their plans to the public.

The project will see conservation works carried out on the three floors of the castle to make it safe and accessible before it becomes open to the public. An interpretive centre with information on the castle’s history and local stories will be positioned behind the agricultural museum next to a new carpark.

‘We want to have the carpark nestled into the landscape without imposing on the castle and the beautiful grounds,’ explained Eric.

The plan also includes new entrance arrangements. At present, there is one entrance used for the state agencies based on the castle grounds, while another is used by visitors to the castle.

‘We plan to alter the entrance to facilitate those coming to visit the castle. The visitor entrance is through the lovely old arches but unfortunately, buses can’t make it through them. There is also a safety issue when you have a large volume of traffic coming in through the old arches,’ explained Eric. ‘We plan to retain the old entrance with the arches while installing a new entrance for visitors beside it.’

According to Eric, the plans were met with a largely positive reaction from the many people who came to the open days.

‘I think there was a lot of goodwill towards it. A lot of people I met had relatives who worked in the castle in the past so some great stories came out of it,’ he said. The reaction was really positive. It was a really important exercise to open the doors and let people come in and see what’s going on.’

The next stage in the process is applying for planning permission and if granted, work will commence as soon as possible with an estimated completion date of 2018.

Commenting on the initiative Kevin Baird, CEO of the Irish Heritage Trust said:

‘We are delighted with the interest and passion local people have in this special place and we hope as the project develops everyone will find ways to get involved at the property to help us care for Johnstown Castle and share it with everyone.’

In 2015, Teagasc issued a public tender looking for a visionary partner to come on board with them to re-imagine the future of Johnstown Castle. The Irish Heritage Trust was announced as the successful applicant.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/vision-of-the-future-for-johnstown-castle-34911296.html)

Vicar Street South may be revived – Gorey Guardian, August 29 2015

The ambitious Vicar Street South project may be back on the agenda following Wexford County Council’s advertisement of a Compulsory Purchase Order for land at the rear of Gorey’s Market House.

If granted, the CPO, which is advertised in this week’s Gorey Guardian, will pave the way for the redevelopment of the site. Once the land is acquired, a public consultation process will be held to establish what will be done with the land.

Cllr. Malcolm Byrne welcomed the move, saying that he is happy to see that progress is being made with the site since its regeneration was first discussed in 2012.

‘We have been working towards getting something done here for quite a while,’ he said. ‘Gorey Market House is a very important building. It is a key part of our history and will be a key part of our future.’

Five proposals for the site’s redevelopment were put forward in 2012 at a special meeting of Gorey Town Council. A proposal for a ‘Vicar Street South’ theatre was made by businessman Harry Crosbie, receiving widespread support from people in the locality. It is understood that this idea may now be revived.

‘There is no decision as of yet,’ said Cllr. Byrne. ‘It is possible that it might be brought up again.’

Mr. Crosbie, who is known for his involvement with the O2, Vicar Street and Bord Gáis Theatre, previously proposed the development of a 1000 seater venue, which would be the sister venue to the renowned Vicar Street in Dublin. He also suggested building a multi-purpose ‘black box’ building to the rear of the Market House, joined to the Main Street historic building by an atrium at the rear.

The proposed venue would attract headline acts to Gorey, supporting somewhere between 75 and 100 concerts a year. Promoters would book the concerts as additions to shows which run at Vicar Street in Dublin, and the promoter would be charged a set rent, regardless of ticket sales. Mr. Crosbie also proposed developing a ‘green room’ in the upper chamber of the Market House, with facilities for refreshments before shows.

Mr. Crosbie’s proposal received widespread support from the public when it was originally proposed. According to an online poll run by Gorey Chamber in 2012 regarding the redevelopment of the site, 97 per cent of respondents backed the plan for a ‘Vicar Street South’ theatre. Cllr. Byrne believes that Gorey would be a suitable location for such a facility.

‘North Wexford has long been known for its rich art and music background,’ he said. ‘Something like this would add to Gorey’s reputation.’

Cllr. Byrne said that any arts and music venue would also significantly improve employment prospects in the town, not only within the venue itself, but in the surrounding area.

‘If people were visiting Gorey to attend an event, they might eat out in the town beforehand or stay overnight in a hotel,’ he explained. ‘I’d love to see it happen.’

Should there be no objections to the CPO within six weeks of the publication date, it will be approved by An Bord Pleanála. Following this, members of the public will be invited to come forward with their ideas for the site.

‘We need to think big,’ said Cllr. Byrne. ‘However, there are lots of steps to be taken before anything can be done. This isn’t going to happen overnight. All big dreams take time to achieve.’

Mr. Crosbie’s submission was one of several ideas submitted in the past. Other ideas included a facility to support the performing Arts, a Heritage Centre, an Art Gallery, and an Exhibition Centre.

(First published in the Gorey Guardian: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/goreyguardian/news/vicar-street-south-may-be-revived-31474727.html)

Wexford locals reconnect with their community in online mapping project – Wexford People, June 30 2015

Residents of several small Wexford villages are being invited to reconnect with their hometowns in a new community mapping project funded by Wexford County County Council.

An example of Michael's previous work in Blackwater.
An example of Michael’s previous work in Blackwater. Source: Aboutthisplace.ie

The project, which will be conducted by heritage expert Michael Fortune, is based around the mapping of sites of local, cultural and historical importance.

In conjunction with Tidy Towns and local youth groups, Michael will spend several months creating online maps for Kilmuckridge, Taghmon and Fethard On Sea.

This follows a similar endeavour previously undertaken in other villages which, according to Michael was ‘too good not to repeat.’

For Michael, who grew up in Ballygarrett, the aim of the project is to reconnect people with their homeplace and its history.

‘We won’t be mapping obvious sites such as castles and churches,’ he explained. ‘I want to rekindle that connection to place through ordinary things.’

With the help of local residents, Michael will create online maps pinpointing sites that may otherwise be forgotten. These include old handball alleys, holy wells, old paths and raheens. He also hopes to speak with people living in these villages and collect their stories from the past.

The first project meeting was held in Kilmuckridge on June 24 with over 15 people in attendance. During the meeting, which took place in Hammel’s Lounge, members of the Kilmuckridge Tidy Towns Committee joined with other local people to discuss their village with Michael.

In addition to a map, Michael explained how he intends to undertake several smaller projects that are specific to Kilmuckridge.

‘Ned Kavanagh, a local man, wrote a book several years ago and now only has one copy left,’ he said. ‘As part of this project, I hope to make a digital copy of his work and put it online.’

Michael and local residents will also use the project as an opportunity to mark the 200 year anniversary of the Tinnaberna fishing disaster.

This incident, which involved the loss of six fishing boats off the Wexford coast, has only ever been recorded through song.

‘A man named John Furlong knows the words to The Tinnaberna Fishermen,’ explained Michael. ‘Over the next few months, we hope to record him singing it so that those who were lost at sea can be commemorated.’

For John Hearne, Chairman of Kilmuckridge Tidy Towns, it is important to remember such events.

‘We must preserve our local history and heritage,’ he said. ‘By taking part in things like this, we will be able to keep old stories for future generations.’

Although originally from Buckinghamshire, local resident and Tidy Town’s Secretary Samantha Paya said she is looking forward in getting involved in the project.

‘I am eager to find out more about Kilmuckridge,’ she said.

Michael will work in Kilmuckridge for up to five months before conducting similar research with residents in Taghmon and Fethard On Sea. He hopes that this year’s projects are successful as his previous ones.

In 2014, Michael developed a website and corresponding map for Blackwater village called Aboutthisplace.ie.

He has also worked on many other Wexford-based photography and film projects, including ‘Around the House’- a photographic publication produced by pupils of Coláiste Abbain, Adamstown and Ramsgrange Community School.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/lifestyle/wexford-locals-reconnect-with-their-community-in-online-mapping-project-31341364.html)