In the beginning…
Like most countries in Europe after the end of the Second World War, Ireland approached the fifties with a sense of renewed enthusiasm and self-belief. Although emigration was to leave its devastating mark on the landscape during this decade, the country saw the establishment of many festivals which were set up to help promote the fledgling tourist industry as well as to enhance the well-being of local communities.
In 1952 Cecil Salkeld, Cultural Director of the National council of An Tostal (a network of local festivals), came to Athlone seeking a venue for a proposed national drama competition. With the help of such local personalities as P J Lenihan, Alfie Faulkner and Brendan O’Brien, a committee was formed and plans to host the event were put in motion.
With funding from the Arts Council, the first All-Ireland Drama Festival was held in Athlone in April 1953 at the Sprotex Hall, a facility attached to the Gentex factory, then Athlone’s leading employer. It comprised competition in 3-Act, (Open and Rural) 1-Act, (Open and Rural) and Verse. The festival was officially opened by Dr Hanly, Bishop of Elphin and the adjudicators were Maureen Delaney, Lennox Robinson and Gabriel Fallon.
The Esso Trophy Years
In 1959 the festival moved from the Sportex Hall to its present location at the then known Dean Crowe Memorial Hall. This was also the year when Esso became the first sponsors whereby they presented a perpetual cup to the festival which was known as the Esso Trophy. The first winners of the trophy were a group from Listowel, Co Kerry presenting a play by a little known budding playwright by the name of John B. Keane. The play was called “Sive”.
The competition streamlined itself into the 3-Act Open Finals from 1969 and remained in much the same format as today with the number of finalists reduced in 2004 from twelve to nine. In 1999, the hall underwent major renovation and refurbishment opening its doors in 2000 as the Dean Crowe Theatre and Arts Centre, presenting a modern, fully-equipped venue fit to bring the festival into the 21st century.
Ericsson and a New Trophy
Esso ceased its long association with the festival in 1999, making way for Ericsson to become main sponsors from 2000 to 2003. Ericsson commissioned the Festival Champions Perpetual Trophy designed by Linda Brunker and is presented annually to the Festival winners.
RTÉ – 2004 to the present day
In 2004 RTÉ stepped on board with the festival getting major prominence thanks to the facilities provided by the national broadcaster. RTÉ continues to work closely with the local committee offering professional expertise with marketing and universal branding. The Festival features prominently on RTÉ media platforms including Radio, Television and online. RTÉ was instrumental in the staging of the Awards Ceremony which, since 2005, has been held at the Radisson SAS Hotel, Athlone, with its own separate event on the evening following the final performance night of the competition. RTÉ has also engaged in screen-testing of Festival competitors offering many actors an opportunity to participate in the organisation’s flagship soap opera, Fair City.
The Festival Fringe
The Festival Fringe has grown over the years into a full scale programme consisting of workshops, historic tours, exhibitions, and entertainment events taking place during the day at various venues throughout Athlone. The Fringe has involvement from other local arts groups, schools, the local business community and the municipal authorities and in recent years has hosted the hugely successful Schools Playwright Competition focusing on the writing talents of TY students in the Midlands.
The Abbey Theatre Connection
In 1959, following their All Ireland success with Sive, Listowel Drama Group were invited by the Abbey Theatre to perform the play on the stage of the Queen’s Theatre, the Abbey’s temporary home after the fire in 1951 – a first for an amateur drama group. By 1979, a custom was established in which the Festival winners were offered the Peacock stage for a week’s run the following June. The practice continued for thirteen years until 1991, but was restored in 2011 with the inauguration of the Abbey Theatre Award whereby one of the Festival finalists are chosen by the Abbey to stage their production at the Peacock.