James McKenna Sculptor
1933 - 2000

James McKenna,bronze

Coic CondliFir, Easter 1916, bronze, 1966

 

James McKenna couple

Couple at Ballyrahan Cross, 1798 bronze, 1969

James Mckenna, Dramatist -- and Sculptor

James McKenna has not in recent times received enough recognition for his written work - though Brendan Behan asked him to write the film script for The Quare Fellow and he did. James's own play, The Scatterin' , was the major hit of Dublin Theatre Festival in 1960, drawing full houses every night and transferring to London's West End for another five-week run. It received superlative critical acclaim

: ...the most exciting Irish play since The Plough and the Stars ... The Scatterin' is above and beyond criticism' wrote Séamus O'Kelly, Drama Critic of The Irish Times .

The English Spectator critic had equally high praise:

The Scatterin' has many rare virtues. Mr. McKenna's lyrics have a bite and compassion which are the nearest things to Brecht I have seen written in English.

Fergus Linehan wrote of it, 'The most exciting play written by an Irishman since Waiting for Godot... here is dialogue of a richness that only Brenda Behan of our modern writers can match. The Scatterin' is not just the play of the Festival or of the year but of the decade.'

Brian Bourke said of the play (in an RTE programme, A Giant at My Shoulder ) that James 'got the balance between the burgeoning youth not allowed to bourgeon and the other Ireland which was equally ignored and dying...in the fifties and sixties . . . '

Who else at that time even approached such a theme? The Scatterin' was not only Ireland's first Rock musical, a minor classic (6) regularly performed by Dublin amateur groups; it can also be credited with having paved the way for films such as The Commitments and the genre of working class Dublin novels popularised by Roddy Doyle and others.

Why did The Abbey Theatre refuse to Commission James McKenna - despite his success with The Scatterin'?

Was James commissioned by our National, heavily subsidised, Irish Theatre to write a play? No chance. (With little conviction, they staged his At Bantry in 1967 in the Peacock Theatre; and there was a revival of The Scatterin' in1973. Apart from that, nothing: they even lost one of the playscripts he submitted and in general steadfastly ignored him.

On occasion, he picketed the Abbey in protest). He had employed the mask, to notable effect, also exploring the demands of verse-speech, dance and dialogue in At Bantry . This play deals with the abortive French expedition to Ireland in 1796 and encapsulates some of McKenna's fierce republicanism and pride in the Irish. The performance which I attended in The Peacock during its perfunctory two-week run (without the dance element) which it received in August 1967 did give a glimpse at times of that 'magic sorrow' of which the author later wrote in his preface to the published text - and the chorus there (dropped and then chopped in the half-hearted Abbey production) was 'the first in the history of Irish drama'.

James wrote more than 20 other plays, two of which - Hotep Comes from the River and At Bantry won awards (at Listowel and at the 1916 Commemoration competitions, respectively) but he became frustrated by the lack of opportunities to stage modern drama in Dublin and tried to solve the problem by forming, in 1969, his own modest, unsubsidised, theatre company, Rising Ground .

James McKenna and Experimentation It staged experimental mask plays, mostly biting satires on contemporary politics and on the Dublin arty, bourgeois, scene; all of them written by himself. Actors were amateur; the 'theatre' no more than an upstairs room (in Westmoreland Street) ; and the seating - for about 25 - could be described as spartan. Yet for all that, and a constant lack of funds, James kept the flag of experimental theatre flying in Dublin and his savage onslaughts on politicians and establishment figures was every bit as exciting - and as necessary - as those of the Kavanagh brothers in Kavanaghs Weekly had been in 1952.

(One of the playlets which I particularly remember, Keep Paddy at the Mixer , on the theme of exile, highlighted the insensitive comment of the then Minister for Foreign Affair, ' We can't put barbed wire round the Mailboat '). Of course, like the Kavanagh broadsheets, (I nearly said broadsides), McKenna's plays won him no friends among influential people and the fledgling Arts Council, many of whom he lampooned in a way reminiscent of Aristophanes. Agamemnon Won't You Please Come Home , published by James at his own expense, was - as he put it -' more light of foot' and written to the beat of the American Civil War ballad When Johnny Comes Marching Home .

Even here, with a larger cast than audience, McKenna exploited the strange poignancy of the mask to real effect - certainly one of the few Irish dramatists to do so. Those masks, painstakingly made by James himself, were themselves things of beauty, like Japanese Noh masks. His dramatic adaptation of Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland was performed at The Gerard Manley International Hopkins Summer School 1998 outdoors with masks and employed stylised action and costume, on a stage built by James himself and with him taking part, proved a highlight of the Festival.

Modern Irish theatre may not be heavily in debt to James McKenna - but it does owe him something: a spirit of experimentation and of adventurousness and a willingness to embrace contemporary issues with courage. A history of Rising Ground will probably never be written; it should be.

Achievement of James McKenna sculptor

James McKenna dramatist

James McKenna -European Perspective

Oisin Caught in a Timewarp

James McKenna playwright and poet

Sad Tale of Hazelwood