A production of 'My Flesh My Blood' in February 1964.  Photo: Larne Drama CircleA production of 'My Flesh My Blood' in February 1964.  Photo: Larne Drama Circle
A production of 'My Flesh My Blood' in February 1964. Photo: Larne Drama Circle

Larne Drama Circle marking 75th year with a production of 'Juno and the Paycock'

Members of Larne Drama Circle are celebrating a special milestone as the group marks its 75th year – along with their 150th production.

The Circle will be staging Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ at the McNeill Theatre on February 28, 29 and March 1.

Set in Dublin during the Irish Civil War and telling the story of the Boyle family, the play made its debut in 1924 at The Abbey Theatre.

Larne Drama Circle’s roots, meanwhile, go back to 1949, when a band of theatre enthusiasts first met in the King’s Arms Hotel with the aim of establishing a group to “read, discuss and present plays to the public”.

The Circle met in the hotel until 1952, when the opportunity arose to transfer to the top floor of the Carnegie Library, where, apart from a yearlong hiatus during the refurbishment of the building, it has remained.

Venues for productions have varied considerably over the years. In a statement marking their milestone year, Larne Drama Circle said: “The first seven plays were staged in the old Gardenmore Presbyterian Church Hall – now the site of Larne Library. Next stop was the Victoria Hall, where our productions attracted hundreds of patrons until 1977.

"In 1971, there was great drama when a terrorist bomb exploded outside the RUC Station opposite. Three weeks before our November production of “I Remember Mama” was due to open, we were faced with a smashed-in door and virtually every window in the building broken. Transfer? Abandon? Nonsense! The show must go on, and it did! The Victoria Hall Committee and our own stage team worked together to repair the damage and ‘Mama’ opened on schedule.

"We have never cancelled a performance, but the planned opening night of ‘Someone Waiting’ on February 25, 1972 had to be postponed until April because of power rationing."

Larne High School, Larne Grammar School, and the Auditorium in Princes Gardens have also been home to the group’s productions until, in 1994, the Circle had the pleasure of staging George Shiels’ ‘Professor Tim’ in the brand new McNeill Theatre.

Over the years, Larne Drama Circle have performed on many other stages too, appearing at drama festivals in Ballymoney, Bangor, Newry, Carrickmore, Portadown and Enniskillen.

“The stories of these adventures are legendary,” the group added. “During the Worker’s Strike of February 1977, we were worried about roadblocks preventing us from reaching the All-Ireland Final Drama Festival in Athlone. Our play was ‘Children’ by A.R. Gurney. We got there – and came home with the Premier Trophy. In 1970, an incident created roadblocks all the way from Newry to Belfast. Our trip was made all the more daunting as we were carrying two guns in the boot of the car - props needed for Frederick Knott’s ‘Wait Until Dark’!”

One of the greatest pleasures of performing away from home was staging plays at the Ulster Drama Festival final in Belfast’s Grand Opera House – although not without a few mishaps along the way.

The group recalled: “Our first entry was ‘The Cocktail Party’ by T.S Eliot in 1957. To get used to a space the size of the Opera House stage, our cast had a rehearsal on the stage of the Regal Cinema. In ‘Peg O’ My Heart’ in 1962, the bed started to slide down the rake of the Opera House stage. During the tea scene in ‘My Flesh My Blood’ in 1964, the sugar in the sugar bowl on the kitchen table started to go black – the Opera House stage roof leaked when it was raining.

"The set for Tolka Row in 1967 was still sitting on the pavement on Glengall Street at 11 o’clock – our carriers had mixed up their bookings. It was a late night home! But nothing that happened or went askew on that Opera House stage could ever take away from the magic and the privilege of working on it.”

Nowadays, the Drama Circle draws members from all over Larne, with some travelling from Whitehead and Newtownabbey.

Billy Burns has notched up the most number of performances, ranging from ‘My Flesh, My Blood’ in 1964 to what will be his 60th performance with the group in ‘Juno and the Paycock’.

One of the most well-known faces among the group’s alumni is Olivia Nash, who first appeared on the stage for Larne Drama Circle in 1962’s ‘Peg O’ My Heart’.

Her performance as Cass McGuire in Brian Friel’s ‘The Loves of Cass McGuire’ in 1980 is still talked about in the Circle.

For the upcoming production of ‘Juno’, members’ ages range from youngest cast member Owen Sloan, who is in his teens, to 93-year-old Nella Buckley, who was at the founding meeting of the Circle in 1949.

With two public productions each year, Larne Drama Circle meets every Thursday at 7:30pm from September to the end of February in the Auditorium at Larne Museum and Arts Centre.

As with many groups, the Covid pandemic temporarily halted normal proceedings, and the Circle didn't meet from March 2020 until September 2022.

Instead, members stayed active with poetry readings, stories and other activities for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

Details of how to book tickets, prices, and performance times for ‘Juno and the Paycock’ are available on Larne Drama Circle's Facebook page.

Director, Alison McCubbin said: “It has been a privilege to direct Larne Drama Circle’s 150th production in its 75th year, and ‘Juno and the Paycock’ is a very fitting production for this special occasion. Not only is it also celebrating an anniversary – it was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin 100 years ago – but as a masterpiece of Ireland’s theatre, it is a play known, loved and often quoted by many. Who has not heard, or said themselves, ‘the whole worl’s in a state o’ chassis’ or ‘man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn’.

“Our aim at Larne Drama Circle is to produce plays which are not only entertaining for our audience, but also thought-provoking; plays which will not only warm your hearts, but also break them. We also try to produce plays which challenge our talents and creativity – and ‘Juno’ has certainly provided the challenges we seek. I thank every member of the cast and crew for rising to the challenge of bringing to life a Dublin tenement of 1922 and the wonderful characters who inhabit or visit it."

While the 75 year milestone inevitably arouses many memories for their older members, the group also expressed their gratitude to all the audiences who have supported them so strongly: "Thank you for all that you have done to keep Larne Drama Circle alive and thriving for 75 years and many more to come.”