Written in October 2013
Charles Macklin’s long life bookended two pivotal points in Irish history. Born weeks after William of Orange’s 1690 triumph by the banks of the Boyne, he died the year before the 1798 Rebellion, just shy of 107. A giant of the London stage, his life had all the ingredients for a great play – lust, greed, murder, envy, ambition and talent. Not the sort of fellow you might think should be honoured hundreds of years later, but thankfully he is.
In the Actors’ church of St. Paul’s in London’s Covent Garden, all of the good and the great actors have plaques on the walls in their memory. On the right hand side of the church is one of the more prominent memorials to the ‘father of the modern stage’ no less. In theatreland, Macklin has both a street and a hallowed plaque to remember him.
His hometown of Culdaff puts on an annual festival in October saluting the man. Now in its 24th year, the current festival that finishes up today was a great success. Nearby Enniskillen has managed to establish an annual Samuel Beckett festival on a tenuous connection relating back to his time at school there. It has the money behind it, but Macklin has soul and what it lacks in big budgets and marketing, it makes up for in generous hospitality and a vibrancy that warms the heart.
At the centre of the festival is local historian, Dr. Sean Beattie, a one man publishing machine who launched his latest book, ‘Donegal in Transition’ on the opening Thursday night. Weeks ago, he launched a monumental book called ‘The Atlas of Donegal’ which he co-edited and wrote several chapters on. The man is 73, but has the stamina and looks of a man in his early fifties and he shows no signs of slowing up. I’ll be very disappointed if there isn’t another book from the good doctor by Christmas!
Another stalwart of the festival is Dessie McCallion. A walking encyclopaedia, he literally becomes one on the Saturday of the festival with the Great Macklin Walk. It’s Dessie at his best – out in the open, explaining the flora, the fauna and the folklore as he ventures along with forty or so followers. Never didactic, just full of stories and mischief and good humour; he has been the peninsula’s best ambassador for years.
The backbone of the festival though firmly rests with the talents of the McGrory family who run the legendary McGrory’s of Culdaff. Anne is a networking supremo and has that natural welcoming charm that makes a visit there worthwhile. John ensures the music for which it is famous, keeps on coming in and Neil is the one who likes to go for detail, be it local heritage or rigging up the Backroom for a concert. It’s a formidable combination and together it ensures that the venue is known throughout the country. On Friday night alone, they had master guitarist Carl Verheyen of Supertramp fame playing with his band.
Another McGrory, Deirdre Devine, is a local artist who has written a book on local artist, Willie Doran. She was lucky enough to have known Willie in the years up to 1979 when he came back to live and work in his native Culdaff. Willie’s talent ranged from landscape to portraits, but also cartoons, signage and remarkably, converting sods of turf into resplendent Irish homesteads. All were on display in the Wee Hall in an exhibition called ‘101 Recollections of Willie Doran’. They’d missed the centenary in 2012, but this was no Room 101 – look out for the forthcoming Joe Mahon TV special on Willie’s talents.
On the Saturday of the festival, there were two creative workshops run by Maureen Boyle and Malachi O’Doherty respectively. Malachai’s morning slot entitled ‘Telling your own Story’ was on writing a memoir, something he is adept at doing having written four. The key question to be asked was ‘what lesson did I understand from such and such an episode happening to me?’. It made for a lively two hours which flew by in no time. Maureen’s class entitled ‘Building a Paper House’ focused on the notion of home and place and she had a number of excellent poems I wasn’t aware of to illustrate the point. All participants (bar me!) read their own poems on that theme by the end of the two hours, all of which were of the highest calibre.
‘The Last of the Name’ is a book by local man Charles McGlinchey that is well-loved for good reason. It captures a time long since gone around Clonmany as told to local teacher Patrick Kavanagh by McGlinchey and has been graced with local artists helping the project gain greater prominence in the last twenty years. On Saturday afternoon, words, songs and images combined to tell us the story of McGlinchey in a innovative and well executed performance by Finbarr, Seamus and Grace with Paul Kelly in the place of McGlinchey. Kavanagh’s son, Des was in attendance as was the patron of the festival and the book’s editor/writer of its introduction, Brian Friel.
Macklin: Method and Madness is a brilliant two hander written and performed by Gary Jermyn and Michael James Ford which tell us in a very colourful fashion of the life and fast times of Macklin himself, the first great West End ‘star’ whose stage name came from dropping a ‘glough’. Ingeniously funny, it never let up until the end; a perfectly madcap salute to a local hero who had treaded the boards and run the gauntlet for well over a century.
Interspersed with these events were the meeting of new acquaintances, catching up with old friends and having chats with the various artists. Blue skies simply added to the jovial atmosphere. At the workshop earlier, we had touched on the subject of the kindness of strangers, small moments when people you barely knew were there to help you along and make a lasting impression. I experienced several of these over the course of the festival and am delighted to have been able to enjoy this hidden gem of a festival one last time. I’ve been a long-time proponent of the notion that what Donegal might lack in infrastructure, it makes up for in natural wonder – epic scenery and friendly locals. Charles Macklin rose to great heights in a bustling city where his memorial tablet can be found at St. Paul’s church just off Covent Garden with other acting greats. However, it is the place where he came from that he is still annually saluted and like other ‘kind strangers’ of the area, I am very proud of this fact, and of him, bad boy bawdiness and all. What lesson did I gain and understand from Macklin #24? One that I’ll frequently recall, just like Macklin did in London – there’s no place quite like home.
Find Macklin’s townland of birth on the Best of Inishowen tour of our free Donegal App.