An event that, for many years afterwards, was referred to as ‘The Year of the Beard’, is still remembered as a collective triumph of community effort in the county town of Castlebar.
The brainchild of Castlebar Chamber of Commerce and its innovative President, Michael J Egan, the Castlebar Patrician Pageant, a floodlit theatrical production held over eight nights on the green sward of MacHale Park, won national and international accolades.
It all started with the proclamation by the Irish Hierarchy of 1961 as the Patrician Year, so named to honour the 15th centenary of the death of St Patrick in 461. The response from Castlebar was to stage an event on the grand scale, something which would harness the community spirit of the town and also provide a spectacle which would attract home and overseas visitors to Mayo.
It would be a mammoth undertaking, but the local organisers were confident that the people of the town, young and old, would answer the call.
And so plans were laid for the production, which would re-enact and highlight the missionary life of the patron saint and, through a series of ‘visions’, would dramatise the significant events of our Christian history up to modern times. The two-hour, non-stop floodlit pageant would be unfolded across 14 scenes, from the lighting of the Pascal fire, the conversion of the pagan kings, the centrality of the Reek, and onwards to the Danish invasion, the Cromwellian persecution, the Famine years and the coffin ships, to modern Ireland.
In all, a cast of 500 actors was recruited, but the master stroke was the inducement of 100 townsmen to grow beards especially for the Easter production. This was the feature that commanded endless media publicity. Every other week, suitably hirsute local cast members would be photographed for the press – all in good humour, despite a certain amount of good natured ribbing from friends and family. Radio Éireann covered the preparations in several dedicated news features, dubbing the town ‘Castlebarberstown’.
Meanwhile, rehearsals were in full swing. The pageant’s principal producer was travel agent, Robert Kilkelly, who took time out to visit the US on a promotional tour. Individual producers were given responsibility for each of the 14 scenes.
The script for the pageant, written by Miceal O Flanagain, a teacher at Castlebar Vocational School, was prerecorded with the commentary read by local teacher Joe Gilmartin and Fr Charles O’Malley. The musical score was perfected by church organist, Seán O’Connell, with choral backing by the mens’ and boys’ choir. John Kilkelly was sound engineer for the production, overseeing a team of sound and electrical experts to provide the perfect background to each scene.
A small army set to work on building props and set design – including a striking depiction of a departing coffin ship on the perimeter wall of the stadium, while Castlebar ICA guild took on the task of designing and procuring the costumes. Even the weather played its part, except for one evening of torrential rain that forced a cancellation of the pageant. And it turned out to be an extremely cold Easter on the concrete terraces of the GAA ground.
The end result was a remarkable triumph for ingenuity and courage, but above all for community pride and involvement. In its wake, the town believed that anything was possible. Castlebar was on the map. The pageant provided the springboard for the Castlebar Song Contest, the Castlebar Walking Festival, the local airport, north-south twinning, live chess spectaculars on the Mall, and much more.
And those who were part of that occasion knew that they had taken part in something special.