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The consummate performer in The Linenhall

Marie Farrell
Marie Farrell is pictured giving her customary signal at the start of a performance in The Linenhall Theatre, Castlebar.

The consummate performer in The Linenhall

Willie McHugh

Variety spices life but it’s the very lifeblood of the performing arts. For Marie Farrell, Director of the Linenhall Theatre in Castlebar diversity also governs her daily schedule. It’s where the unpredictable arrives unexpectedly to visit the predictable.
“No two days are the same. I arrive thinking I have an easy enough run ahead of me and some major drama unfolds that involves me for the rest of the day. Then other mornings I have meetings scheduled and I expect to be busy and it turns out a very handy day. That’s the nature of the job and it’s what I love about it,” she said.
And there were dark days too that no spotlight could illuminate. The recent untimely passing of Linda Jensen still plucks an emotional chord.
“Linda was one of those larger than life characters who worked in our coffee shop. She radiated joy and happiness and embraced life fully. Then a brief illness that she hardly complained about rapidly snatched her from us. Customers still come in expecting to meet her because that was the lasting impression Linda left on everyone.”
It’s the same loyal echo when Marie talks about the other members of The Linenhall staff. She’s not spinning lip serving rhetoric and her accolades ring sincere. “It’s the way they work as a group that ensures there’s always a family type atmosphere around here. Maura (Connolly) is here with me since 1990 and over the years we’ve hired more as we expanded. They’re my irreplaceable supporting cast and it’s mainly because of them this is a place where performers and patrons enjoy returning to.”
With Marie rests the decision of what goes on The Linenhall billboard. “Putting the theatre programme in place is my primary role and the buck stops with me. There are other strings to the bow like the gallery space where we have monthly exhibitions. I don’t plan that diary but I support the committee we have in place who decide on that. We have an open submissions policy and anyone wishing to exhibit submits proposals and images of their work and they (the committee) meet a few times a year and draw up that programme.
“In terms of our Access Programme and workshops where people explore their own creativity Orla Henihan is our Arts Access Officer and that’s her remit and I work with her in term of that programme.
“To put together a suitable diary that caters for all tastes is a balancing act. On one hand I try to book what audiences like and what I know will work. Recent shows like Tommy Tiernan or Des Keogh are acts that sell but then I have to engage lesser known performers that might be a harder sell and I’m anxious to include those also. There’s a wealth of undiscovered talent out there like a young man from Ballinrobe for example who has started writing plays and I think he has something and I like to support that by providing an outlet for them to perform and also for the public to dip into it.”
For Marie the real job satisfaction is often found whilst delving into the unknown. “Recently we had three percussionists playing 21st Century contemporary music and it turned out to be one of those special magical Linenhall evenings. Between bookings and walk-ins on the night we had approximately 65 people in the audience. At the end they gave them a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. It’s things like that that bring a real buzz to my job. I don’t normally sit in the auditorium for a full show but that night I went into Oisin (Herraghty) in the director’s box and I actually stood there totally captivated by their performance.”    
A lady with no airs but an abundance of graces Marie Farrell eschews the stereotype arty image betimes associated with the discipline. But her relaxed demeanour masks a lady imbued with an unbridled enthusiasm. She hints at reaching the sunset of her career but she’s still driven by the same determination and passion that first brought her here. Everyone, be they audience or performers, can engage in the arts is her simple maxim. Watching a play in a country hall performed by an amateur group from Claremorris and produced by the late Father PV O’Brien first lured her to the world of the greasepaint. That troupe held the signpost she eventually followed.
“I started up in the old Methodist Church in The Mall. The Department of Education decided to set up two exhibition spaces in Castlebar and Trim taking exhibits from the National Gallery collection. I expanded the Castlebar programme by putting on other events in the evenings. In 1986 they reviewed the scheme and decided to keep Castlebar open. The Arts Council came on board with funding and we moved to Linenhall Street building in 1990. We’ve acquired extra space over time.”   

Funding is always the pebble pinching the shoe. “Like everywhere else we’re stretched to the limit and we’ve already taken a 40 per cent cut in funding and were we to have further cutbacks I’d worry about the feasibility of the place. It’s probably the main concern I have and, having got to where we are now, I’d hate it to slip back because of finance.
“There are things we’ve had to sacrifice like the RoolaBoola Children’s Festival which is now only a weekend event because we can’t afford to bring in good theatre companies for children. The staff took wage cuts and made sacrifices like everywhere else. There’s always the danger when people talk about funding and the arts of a nonsensical notion taking root that it could be run on a voluntary basis but it can’t because those who are here are a highly efficient workforce bringing a wealth of invaluable experience to the day to day running of the business.”
Ballina native Marie received her secondary education in St. Louis’s Convent in Kiltimagh. “The nuns were highly cultured women who showed huge appreciation for the arts by both teaching it visually and also producing a school opera every couple of years. They always wanted the best for their pupils.”
Third Level was UCG and a Science Degree but working in labs was not for her. “I came to Castlebar teaching maths in the Vocational School and, while there were aspects of teaching I enjoyed, I knew it just wasn’t for me long term either. But fate kicked in and the job running the Arts Centre in The Mall came up.
“It was confined to teachers within the VEC and it was as if someone wrote a job description just for me. I applied and was successful and here I am since. I took two years leave of absence in 1982 going to Lesotho in South Africa to do voluntarily work. While there I realised Mayo was definitely my home. I love that sense of place you get just walking up the street here and meeting people and stopping for a chat.
“For recreation I love holidaying in Italy and visiting museums and art galleries. I even wander into theatres looking at things like seating layout and trying to borrow some new ideas for here. Walking is my other great pastime.”
The Linenhall is as much Castlebar as are the trees on The Mall, McHale Park, McCarthy’s Restaurant, The Sacred Heart Home, Mick Byrne’s Pub or the B Shift in Baxter. And because of her insightful direction she has now catapulted an intimate 140 seat town theatre into the inner sanctum of Mayo entertainment.
Marie Farrell is ever the prompter on the wings. She provides performers with a stage to portray their talent. For art’s sake the show must always go on at the Linenhall.

The Linenhall - a brief history

The Building
The original Linen Hall was built in 1790 by Lord Lucan, Castlebar’s principal landlord, as a clearing house for the flax and linen produced in the region and also as a storehouse for looms and tools. With Mayo then being one of the largest producers of flax in Ireland, the linen industry provided a regular and stable income for the many linen producers in the county.
The Linen Hall building itself must have been one of the most substantial and imposing buildings in Castlebar, reflecting the importance of the flax and linen trade to the area. The grey limestone blocks in the facade have a sturdiness and air of permanence about them, but surely even General Humbert, who held his victory celebrations here following The Races of Castlebar in 1798, would not have imagined that the building would still ring to the sound of music, dance and celebration two hundred years on?

The Arts Centre
The Linenhall Arts Centre started Life in 1976 as the Education Centre located in the old Methodist Church on the Mall in Castlebar. It was funded by the Department of Education and set up as a pilot project to take temporary exhibitions from the important collections in the National Museum, the National Gallery and the National Library. But quite quickly the Centre also began to develop its own programme of exhibitions and events, focusing on the contemporary arts and on bringing quality performances into the area. In 1986 the centre moved to its present home in the Linen Hall. When the pilot project was reviewed a commitment was made to continue providing an arts service for the area and in 1990 the Arts Council came on board to fund the newly-formed Linenhall Arts Centre.