One of Donegal’s greatest artists, writers and raconteurs, Fergus Cleary, is returning to the Balor Arts Centre, Ballybofey next Thursday October 20 with his one man show, ‘Fergus Cleary Writes Again’. The Convoy man spent his life working as a psychiatric nurse at St. Conal’s Hospital and was also a musician and singer in a showband from the 60s to the 90s.
Laced with nostalgia, sadness and lots of side-splitting comedy, his new play is populated by a host of colourful characters. Fergus is a consummate storyteller and natural performer and his honest, delicate and very funny record of Donegal over the past 50 years is both a valuable social document and a great night’s entertainment.
“The play is really about my memoirs. I lived life in the showbands, I played music at home and abroad. I also worked as a psychiatric nurse in St. Conal’s Hospital in Letterkenny. There was vast differences between both professions,” he said.
He recalls working in the admissions area in the hospital where people would stay for a short period of around six weeks before working with those who were in to stay for a longer duration.
“It was completely different with emphasis on occupational therapy. Many different types of people were brought in here. At times you had people who were being treated with depression, unmarried mothers and people with mental disabilities,” he said.
Fergus recalls that during the period that he worked in St. Conal’s he found that many people were lonely and depressed. During that era Ireland had the lowest number of marriages in Europe and people were very unhappy.
“It was a house of sadness and a house of joy. There were times when you had to speak and times that you had to keep your peace. You were always trying to strike a balance. There was also great rewards, you know, when you seen relations come into visit and they were moved to tears to see that their relation had changed and improved so much,” he recalled.
During the 60s staff to patient ratio was very low. There was around eight members to every one staff member. When Fergus began to work in St. Conal’s in January 1972 there were exactly 749 patients in the huge establishment. The figure began to increase as the year progressed. In the late 60s early 1970s there was in excess of 780 people in the institute.
“During the 1970s there was a lot of people living on their own and depressed. Many people left their homes in rural areas and when they were about to be discharged St. Vincent de Paul would ring us asking us not to let the person out as their home had become run down since they came in. Many of the people did not want to leave anyway, they had company and food and light and everything they wanted,” he said.
Soon the Health Board began to get serious about relocating some of the patients.
“They selected around 50 people and after an education on how to use washing machines and purchase things in a shop (the type of thing that we take for granted) they proved to be adept of living in their own. Some other people were relocated to Falcarragh, Dungloe and Donegal Town to be closer to relatives,” he said.
Meanwhile, at night Fergus was entertaining the masses in a showband. Often he would come in at 4am in the morning and rise before seven o’clock to go and work a twelve hour shift in St. Conal’s.
“Showband became a real craze in the 70s. Irish people went dancing every night of the week. Money poured into the pockets of the musicians and I would say that the top 15 acts in Ireland were the best paid musicians in the world. The death knell for the showbands came around the end of the 70s when it became acceptable for girls to go to public houses. There was no alcohol allowed in the parish hall and soon people drifted to the public houses. It meant a shorter night for us we were finishing up at around half eleven. After the showbands branched into the public houses they became more compact, they changed from a seven piece into a three piece. When keyboards came they could do the job of many others in the band, they could play bass and a lot of other instruments as well. Bands became more compact,” he said.
It is well worth making the journey to the Balor this coming Thursday to be spell bound by the tales of the gifted playwright Fergus Cleary. Tickets on sale now from the box-office on (074) 9131840.