Leitrim bard bringing latest play to Claremorris
Throughout the pandemic, the singular voice of Leitrim poet and actor Seamus O’Rourke has wafted from our radios, slipped into our Facebook timelines and enlivened our WhatsApp inboxes as family and friends share his latest to-camera recitation.
A familiar figure to many as the ‘unofficial poet in residence’ of RTÉ Radio 1’s CountryWide, the Carrigallen man writes poems that vary from priceless to poignant, grumpy to sage – but are always filled with humanity, with compassion for the human condition and all its struggles, frustrations and predicaments, particularly as felt in rural Ireland. A prolific playwright, the same can be said for his work for the stage.
His latest play, ‘The Handyman’, explores ‘friendship, relationships and how best to get noticed on your last day’, with one of O’Rourke’s favourite subjects – Irish small-town life – to the fore.
It centres on the character of Hugh Spotten, the local handyman – ‘the man who got things done – Caretaker, Tea Maker and Grave-Digger (with his own crow-bar)’.
Hugh Spotten’s familiar world is about to be torn from him. He is being ousted. But he is not one for lying down: He’s determined to make the world see sense. He is about to receive an award for his contribution to the community… but all is not what it seems ‘in a small country town, falling in on itself’.
Described as poetic, chaotic and funny, the ‘The Handyman’ will be performed by O’Rourke in Claremorris Town Hall Theatre Saturday, January 29 – at the earlier-than-usual show time of 6.30pm.
Field to stage
Although involved with theatre for decades, O’Rourke only turned professional around ten years ago. In his youth, he played senior inter-county football, but ongoing injury put paid to that. A father of three, he grew up on the family farm and worked for many years as a carpenter – an experience that no doubt provided useful fodder for ‘The Handyman’.
As fate would have it, it was the carpentry that first got him involved in drama. He was in his mid-20s when his local amateur drama group needed someone to help build their sets. No better man.
Soon he found himself appearing in plays himself, and before long he was taking on lead roles and even directorial duties. It was another decade before he finally tried his hand at writing. He not only found that he loved it – he also found an appreciative audience.
In 2012, O’Rourke decided to put down the circular saw for good and put his all into writing. It turned out to be a solid move.
Speaking to The Mayo News in early 2013, things were already going well. “I’m over a year at it now full-time, and it’s going great,” he told reporter Ciara Galvin. “I’ve developed a bit of a following at this stage. As an actor I’m not waiting for the phone to ring; I’m creating my own work and getting it out there.”
His plays include ‘Ride On!’, ‘Dig’, ‘Down’ and ‘The Trappe Family’, while his one-man shows include ‘The Sand Park’, ‘Padraig Potts’ Guide to Walking’, ‘Indigestion’ and ‘My Aunt Bee’. An award-winning actor, he also still enjoys touring with other theatre companies, taking on roles in other playwrights’ productions.
Naturally enough, the past two years have been as jarring to O’Rourke as they have been to all those who work in the arts sector. His writing has been an outlet though, and countless people have found solace, humour and perspective in his often hilarious, occasionally salty spoken-word poetry about pandemic life in rural Ireland. The much-loved ‘Locked Down In Leitrim’ and ‘Away Goes McGinty’ are cases in point.
The latter starts off by registering Irish people’s initial shock at confusion at first being confronted with a strange-sounding new illness, and how ‘No one could get their head around a global pandemic’.
It moves through the panic of the great toilet-roll rush to the sudden slowing of life and the almost-manic mass appreciation of nature: ‘We started to look at the trees / and the hedges and the sky / and the soft glow of the sun as it came down in the evenings’.
It captures how, as the months passed, many found their newfound wonder give way to tedium – ‘And the New Norm was born / the Big Yawn’ – and arrives at a guttural admission of being sick to death of the whole thing: ‘But f**k me, I can’t take much more / I am sore in the head of lying in bed / and politely saying ‘We’ll get there’ ’.
In a final crescendo of guileless honesty and despair, the narrator’s pent-up cry for the simple things of pre-pandemic life feels like a howl from all our souls:
‘No, I don’t want a hug / I want an hour in a pub / I want a pint / I want to have a long conversation about rusty galvanise / Is that too much to ask? / Just to talk to someone about corrugated iron?’.
This and other pieces by O’Rourke can easily be found online, his rhythmic, lilting delivery enlivening their sentiment. For a bit of daily encouragement, check out ‘Smile’; for something touching, try ‘And Radio Éireann was Playing Their Song’ (or ‘The Auld Pair Dancing’); to tap into nostalgia for simpler times, O’Rourke’s evocative spoken-work piece ‘The Shop’ will bring you back. Christmas might have passed but ‘The Three Wise Men of Carrigallen’ is still worth finding. And if you want some belly laughs, look up the 2018 clip from RTÉ’s ‘Today with Seán O’Rourke’ in which Seamus recites his Brexit poem, ‘The Hard Border’.
The actor, director, playwright and poet is now also a published author, having released a collection entitled ‘A Lock of Poems, Recitations and Good Ones’, as well as a memoir about growing up in Leitrim, called ‘Standing in Gaps’.
Like the protagonist of his new play, it seems O’Rourke can turn his hand to almost anything.
Seamus O’Rourke will perform his new play, ‘The Handyman’, in Claremorris Town Hall Theatre on Saturday, January 29, at 6.30pm (doors open at 5.30pm). For tickets see www.townhall.ie or call 094 931 0999. For more on O’Rourke, visit www.seamusorourke.com.