The Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar is undoubtedly a jewel in the crown of the county town, a mecca for performances, exhibitions and cultural endeavours of every kind. It was not always so, and the venerable old building has seen many reincarnations since its birth as a linen market, even before Humbert came marching into Mayo. Lord Lucan had brought scores of artisans from the north to give impetus to what was then a thriving linen industry.
Those days passed, the linen industry went into decline, and Lord Lucan gifted the building to the people of Castlebar as a centre of culture and recreation. But by the 1940s, the old town hall had fallen into a state of disrepair, close to derelict, and urgently in need of repair and refurbishment if it was to even survive.
So perhaps it was the one-man intervention of a colourful local character, PW Leamy, which shamed the community into taking corrective action to save the Linenhall from total collapse.
A man of many parts, PW Leamy was involved in everything and anything related to community activity in those years. An accomplished journalist, he served as editor of The Mayo News for several years before joining the Connaught Telegraph and subsequently ending his newspaper career in Roscommon with The Connaught Tribune. But that was only one string to his bow. He was also an author, a playwright, a dance-band leader, a musical producer, a GAA official, an athletics promoter, a founder of the Regional Game Council and a provincial delegate to the executive body of the National Union of Journalists.
But it was as producer of Gilbert and Sullivan operas in his native town that he provoked reaction and comment and, arguably, persuaded the citizenry that the old, run down, decrepit town hall was deserving of attention.
When he staged the tuneful ‘HMS Pinafore’ in the town hall in 1940, it became the occasion of a scathing commentary on the state of the building coupled with an equally critical assessment on the lack of civic spirit of the local ‘gentry’ who declined to support the producer’s efforts to raise the cultural tone of the town.
When the opera came to be reviewed in the local papers the following week, and despite the anonymity of the theatre critic, there was little doubt that the guiding hand behind the piece was that of PW. “Before attempting to review the opera,” he started, “consideration must be given to a number of circumstances which inevitably surround the production of any stage pieces in the county town. Firstly, the hall in which the promoters of opera, drama or variety have to display their finished article is unsuitable for the reason that an audience requires great courage and an abundance of artistic fervour to face the rigours of the breezes and draughts that make this building so well known and so unpopular.”
Warming to his theme, the reviewer had other scores to settle. “Then there is the second unfortunate circumstance, and it is that there is little general encouragement given to such efforts as we saw last week, and there has always been a notable lack of interest in such displays where the Upper Tier of influential people in our midst are concerned,” he complained.
In any event, the reviewer seems to have hit the desired target. Within months, a sustained local effort, headed by clergy and community leaders, had been mobilised. By 1948, the old town hall had been completely repaired and refurbished into an ultra-modern theatre and recreation rooms, paving the way for what would become today’s Linenhall.