Known locally as The Vicar, Joe Murphy is the ebullient Artistic Director of Listowel’s most beautiful and unusual theatre, St John’s, (below) situated in the heart of The Square. A former Protestant Church, it’s a venue which Listowel Writers’ Week uses extensively during the festival for drama, readings, lectures, music and exhibitions.
I spoke to Joe last week and asked him to tell me a little bit about his unusual life, as he not only works long hours every day in the theatre, he also runs a dry stock farm two miles out on the Ballybunion road.
“It’s a family farm. There’s a fair bit of work in it but it isn’t like a diary farm where you’d have to milk cows, but I have a lot of cattle that I have to look after first thing in the morning. Some of my neighbours ask me what I’m doing all day in the theatre. ‘Sure there’s nothing on ‘till eight o’clock tonight,’ they’d say, but they don’t realise I have to organise 200 shows a year and about 600 workshops, and then you have all the associated promotion, publicity, marketing, finance and the rest of it, so I’m often here from half nine in the morning ‘til eleven o’clock at night.”
A fluent Irish speaker and former teacher, Joe became interested in theatre from a very young age when his father took him to see a John B Keane play, The Highest House on the Mountain. From that night he was enchanted by the theatre’s magic and atmosphere. “I’m interested in drama because it gives us a special insight into ordinary everyday life” he says. “The greatest drama in life has to be universal. It could be on stage in New York, Listowel, Australia or anywhere in the world and people would understand it.”
He first got involved in amateur drama back in 1978 when he and Jimmy Deenihan made their debut in a play called The Patsy. “We were both, if I may say so, useless greenhorns on stage at that point,” he laughs, “but the craic was mighty and we enjoyed it. I was involved with Listowel Writers’ Week from around that time too and I used to do location drama.
“The location drama of that era turned into what is now The Sheila Barry Literary Bus Tour. We’d adapt a play and carry busloads of people out to do different places and it was great craic. The visitors who came to Writers’ Week loved it because it was spontaneous. We had a script of course, but we kind of made it up as we went along. We’d be so fired-up and full of enthusiasm that we’d keep the show on the road. We’d improvise and the crowd thought it was marvellous.”
Joe’s enthusiasm is infectious and he carries me along with the story of when he played Kerry’s famous Matchmaker. “The most memorable one was when I played Dan Paddy Andy, the Matchmaker. I was taken out from Listowel to Finuge in a vintage car and we had a bit of a scene there and then we went on to the Six Crosses Ballroom, (which has since fallen down) and the place was full of people and they were all dancing. A band was playing and there was a row and I was throwing fellas out of the ballroom and sure the crowd loved it. And then we went out to the Four Elms and we did another bit there. We did them in Ballybunion, Duagh, all over the place.”
And so, what with working the farm, teaching, directing and producing plays over the years and being involved with Glór na NGael and the Irish language Joe ended up at St John’s Theatre in October of 1990 where he does a magnificent job.
“We do a load of workshops here with kids, mainly drama, music and movement. We also do an outreach programme with about six or seven part-time teachers in the two special needs schools here in town. Then on four evenings a week and sometimes on weekends, there’s classes here as well, so there’s always something happening.”
Joe Murphy (right) is certainly not short on stamina. When he’s not mending fences and bringing cattle to market he’s busy with the business of the theatre, working seventeen or eighteen hours most days. “But it’s good and it’s enjoyable and we meet loads of people. It’s good craic.”
Watch this space for details of Listowel Writers’ Week’s theatre events taking place at St John’s Theatre during the festival. Festival dates are 29th May – 2nd June 2013.
For more details on St John’s Theatre, click onto their website www.stjohnstheatrelistowel.com