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At the Hawk’s Well – Yeats and the Hawk’s Well Theatre

The history of the Hawk’s Well Theatre began in Sligo’s long and deep tradition of amateur dramatics. Sligo had a theatre as far back as 1750, according to Wood-Martins’ History of Sligo, and often “her Majesty’s servants from the Theatre Royal, Crow Street …. visited Sligo, even during the Dublin season, showing that in those days the townsfolk appreciated the Drama, for in some instances the company remained during several months”.

Hawk's Well Theatre
Hawk's Well Theatre

The dream of a “Theatre for Sligo” was the aim of many people in Sligo, particularly those associated with the amateur drama movement locally and especially members of Sligo Drama Circle. Sligo Drama Circle was founded in 1956 to promote higher standards in local drama and to increase the range of plays available to Sligo audiences. In 1966 the Drama Circle was invited to perform plays by Yeats as part of the programme of the Yeats Summer School. This led to the setting up of what became known as the "Little Theatre" project or "A Theatre for Sligo" project. The Drama Circle presented summer seasons of plays, the proceeds of which went towards this visionary project. Though faced with many setbacks the Drama Circle made a great stride forward in 1974 when it successfully lobbied the then Bishop Dr. Dominic Conway to grant them the plot of land on Temple Street where the current Hawk’s Well stands. On the strength of this the company focused on raising funds to begin construction: sourcing funding possibilities, courting Sligo’s business community for support and seeking professional advice on possible government grant options. At the same time, the Irish government was mounting a concerted effort to de-centralise the arts in Ireland. There were already a number of strong Irish touring companies and other permanently housed companies, eager to tour. The changing face and rising profile of the arts in Ireland meant that theatre companies were eager to arrange regional tours and anxious to have access to the best possible facilities. When the Sligo Drama Circle’s plan for a theatre in Sligo was presented to the Arts Council of Ireland, the Arts Council saw an opportunity and made them an offer.

The Arts Council along with North West Tourism, The Sligo County Council, and Sligo Borough Council recognised the need for a designated, well-equipped cultural centre in Sligo and offered to find the funding to build and maintain a theatre on the Temple Street site.  They stipulated that the theatre would be professionally run according to Arts Council standards and would have a remit broad enough to facilitate the touring professional performing artists as well as community arts groups.  The Sligo Drama Circle agreed, signed over the land and soon after construction began on the first purpose-built theatre west of the Shannon.  When the Hawk’s Well opened in January 1982, it was a fulfilment of the dreams of many Artists and drama lovers in the area. The establishment of the theatre was seen by many as an acknowledgement of the richness of the many Arts in Sligo and indeed in Connaught.

12th January 1982 – The Opening of the Hawk’s Well Theatre

The official opening on January 12th 1982 was presided over by then President Patrick Hillery in a gala evening that included performances by Sligo Drama Circle, Sligo Choral Society, the Sligo branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and, in the theatre’s inaugural professional production, Druid Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Hawk's Well Theatre
Hawk's Well Theatre

This was a particularly eventful day as snow covered the North West of Ireland and the President’s official car could not travel as a result. CIE came to the rescue amid the panic and excitement of the evening and put on a special train to get the President to Sligo.

This is a significant occasion not only for Sligo, but for all Ireland", stated the President, Dr. Patrick Hillery, when he performed the official opening of Sligo's Hawk's Well Theatre. "It is not often in the world in which we live that we hear of the opening of new theatres", he continued. "You have set a worthy headline here. May your good example be followed by other towns and districts all over Ireland".

Mr. Seán O' Connell, Chairman of Donegal/Leitrim/Sligo Tourism, said it was his organisation's hope that the Hawk's Well Theatre would become a focal point in the tourism industry and that, in conjunction with local trade, tourism would package, promote and sell entertainment linked to accommodation and so establish Sligo and this region as a mandatory destination for visitors to this country.
The Mayor, Cllr. Eugene Henry, said the official opening of the purpose built theatre, the first of its kind this side of the Shannon, at a quite substantial sum of a quarter of a million pounds, was an acknowledgement of the richness of the many arts in Sligo and Connacht.

Welcoming the President to Sligo, County Manager, Mr. Paul Byrne, who was Chairman of the Hawk's Well Theatre Company, said his attendance acknowledged the important role which the theatre would play in the cultural and artistic life of the region and he thanked everyone involved in the establishment of the theatre. "To everybody who in any way, big or small, helped us to achieve the dream of this fine new theatre and which the constraints of time prevents me from naming individually, may I offer our very sincere thanks",

Mr. Colm O' Brien, Director, Arts Council, said the opening was an important occasion in the life of the Arts in Ireland, and he added the Council would offer the project support and encouragement in the years ahead.

Early Performances at the Hawk’s Well Theatre 

Much Ado About Nothing ran for a week and was the beginning of a long association between the Hawk’s Well Theatre and Druid Theatre Company. Following on from Druid’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1982 the Hawk’s Well also hosted, among others, Field Day Theatre company with their production of Brian Friel’s The Communication Cord, the Abbey Theatre tour of Frank McGuinness’ Factory Girls, The Gate Theatre Dublin’s production of Educating Rita, the Cork Opera House production of Equus, Eamon Morrissey in The Brother and welcomed Druid back with their production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.  The Hawk’s Well was to welcome these companies back often throughout the next few years with original touring productions of seminal plays in the Irish canon such as the Abbey Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and Frank McGuinness’ Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Druid Theatre’s production of Tom Murphy’s Conversation on a Homecoming, The Lyric Theatre’s production of Stewart Parker’s Northern Star, Charabanc’s Lay Up Your Ends, and Field Day Theatre Company’s productions of Parker’s Pentecost and Thomas Kilroy’s Double Cross to name but a few.


Cast of "Much Ado About Nothing"  with President Hillery, 1982

In addition to theatre, the Hawk’s Well also offered a diverse programme of other touring performing arts events.  The Irish National Opera, Irish Ballet Company and the Dublin City Ballet performed in 1982.  In ’83 the Hawk’s Well hosted a return of the Irish Ballet Company, Wicklow Opera Group, Wexford Festival Opera, RTE Concert Orchestra, Irish National Opera and Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre.  In addition to this, the fledgling Hawk’s Well lured in some of the best popular musical acts of the time including Stockton’s Wing, Clannad, Christy Moore, Barry Moore, John O’Connor, Colm Wilkinson, The Dubliners and Louis Stewart, to name but a few.  In those early years the Hawk’s Well Theatre set a precedent for the excellent and diverse programme of cultural events that it maintains today.  Later, as the older touring companies either disbanded or stopped touring, the Hawk’s Well invited younger companies in to expose their work.  The Hawk’s Well has hosted innovative works by companies such as Red Kettle, Gallowglass, Rough Magic, Project Theatre Company, TEAM, Barabbas, Storytellers, The Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, The Passion Machine, Corcadorca, Kabosh, and many other fine companies from Ireland and abroad.  In the last thirty years of the Hawk’s Well, the people of Sligo have had on their very own doorstep some of the finest cultural work in Ireland.

In addition to access to some of the greatest professional drama, dance, opera, and music, the people of Sligo also found in the Hawk’s Well a useful resource and venue for staging various community arts events.  The Sligo Drama Circle, the original drivers of the movement to build a theatre in Sligo were quick to establish their presence in the theatre with a “Spring Treble” of plays including Yeats’ Pot of Broth.  As the Sligo Drama Circle say in the programme notes to those plays, they found in the Hawk’s Well “a new lease of life” and felt it was “a great stimulus and a great challenge to have a real live theatre in our midst”

The spirit and stamina of the community arts movement in Sligo was evident in the number of amateur drama societies eager to perform in the Hawk’s Well in 1982.  In that year, along with the six plays produced by the Sligo Drama Circle, other local groups such as Ballyshannon Drama Group, Charlestown Drama Group, Cloonclare Community Players, Coolera Dramatic Society, MacDonagh / Fitzpatrick School of Speech and Drama, Phoenix Players, Profile Theatre Company, Sligo Musical Society and Strand Players all represented themselves with productions. Soon after, the Everyman Theatre Company, The Sligo Fun Company, MMD Productions, Silver Apples, and a host of other community based companies in Sligo and through-out the region established themselves as regular contributors to the Hawk’s Well programme.

The intensity of the local drama scene’s focus on the Hawk’s Well made the theatre a hothouse for developing many talented individuals from Sligo who have gone on to forge a professional career in the arts.  The Hawk’s Well can boast a number of individuals who have performed on its stage as amateurs or in the annual Feiseanna and then gone on to become household names in the areas of theatre, dance, and music.  In the late 1980’s the Theatre channelled this energy into its own in-house production company, Acorn Theatre Company, who produced and toured work professionally around Ireland.  The focus of Acorn was innovation and experimentation and they placed a special emphasis on new work, including producing the world premiere of Dermot Healy’s play The Long Swim in 1987. Unfortunately Acorn Theatre Company was disbanded after only a few years.

                  

The Hawk’s Well has a long tradition of facilitating the literary arts through annually hosting the Yeats Summer School and Yeats Summer Festival.  This prestigious event has brought scholars from all over the world and such luminaries as Seamus Heaney, Edward Said, John McGahern, George Steiner, Helen Vendler,  Van Morrison and Mike Scott, among many others, to speak, read, discuss and perform at the Hawk’s Well.

Renovation and reopening of Theatre 1986

The Hawk’s Well Theatre was significantly renovated in the mid-nineties when the original foyer and 280 seat auditorium were replaced with a large, modern foyer and an intimate, comfortable 347 seat theatre. The original stage was also expanded into a much larger playing space.  Michael D. Higgins T.D., Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht opened the refurbished Hawk’s Well on September 9th 1986 with an acknowledgement of the “hard work and generosity of vision” of the people of Sligo that made the project possible.  He noted the “excellent example of co-operation at local, national, and European” levels behind the renovation and specifically thanked his own department, the Arts Council, the Sligo County Council, and Sligo Corporation for their help and support.  At this time the Government had been investing heavily in regional arts infrastructure and was planning 16 arts and heritage capital projects similar to the Hawk’s Well.  Concluding his opening remarks Minister Higgins expressed the wish that “each and every one of those projects will have a similar impact on the life of the communities in which they are based as the Hawk’s Well” has had on Sligo.

Reopening of Theatre
Reopening of the Theatre 1992

Undoubtedly the Hawk’s Well has had a huge impact on Sligo and the West of Ireland in general.  As a national institution it has provided many excellent Irish theatre companies the chance to bring their work to regional-Ireland and present it in a state-of-the-art venue.  As a pioneering step in national arts infrastructure development it has set an example for the many regionally-based, purpose-built venues that have followed it.  As a local resource it has facilitated the people of Sligo through consistently presenting the very best of national and international cultural programming as well as providing the thousands of locals who use it with their very own performance space.  The spirit of arts participation that was the original impetus for building a theatre in Sligo is still very much alive at the Hawk’s Well. 

With the same community support and participation that began the Theatre in 1982, the Hawk’s Well will continue to fill these roles for many, many more.