He could be described as a true aristocrat of the theatrical world. Indeed anyone who has ever seen Sean McCormack on stage, both in this county and beyond, would immediately substitute the word ‘could’ with a much more definite proclamation.
Last night, the veteran award winning actor - amateur only in name - lent his talents to the role of Uncle George in Brian Friel’s play, Aristocrats, as it commenced a four night run in Letterkenny’s An Grianan Theatre. He was delighted to accept an invitation from director, Iarla McGowan, to take a role in the theatre’s production of the classic bittersweet comedy. Equally so given the identity of the playwright.
Not McCormack’s first role in a Friel play but it does represent a debut in Aristocrats. And for someone who has been treading the boards for over sixty years, debut isn’t an everyday occurrence.
The hugely affable Milford man - far from a native as his never relinquished Tubbercurry accent will testify - estimates he has made around 1,000 stage appearances since taking a part in a production of ‘The Upper Room’, a play about the passion of Christ. There’ll be an echo of that next year when he hopes to produce it in Milford during Holy Week.
He points to his mother, Mary McCarron, a native of Raphoe, as an early influence when it came to introduction to the world of theatre. She brought the young Sean along to Anew McMaster’s touring group in the 1940’s and from there a spirit was ignited. His father, Hugh, also from Raphoe, was a Garda Sergeant who was based in Tubbercurry at the time. It was there that Sean joined up with the Pheonix Players, a first taste of involvement with a drama group. The stage was set.
Sean took up a post with the E.S.B. in Ballyshannon in 1954 and was invited to join the local Premier Players drama group. “It was under the tuition of that great man of theatre, Patsy Croal, I learned so much from him.” There followed an All Ireland drama success in 1956 with Lady Gregory’s one-act play ‘Spreading the News’ and additional success in the national arena with M.J. Molloy’s ‘Old Road’. Croal’s reputation indeed provided the group with the chance to premier John B. Keane’s play ‘Sharon’s Grave’ for which Sean won Best Actor for his performance as Dinzee Conlee.
In 1962, McCormack moved to Crossmolina where he founded the Nephin Players. Other notable achievements ensued and there were awards for his role as Bat in T.C. Murray’s ‘Birthright’ and Thomasheen Sean Rua in Sive at All-Ireland drama finals.
He returned to Donegal in 1967, taking up an appointment as financial controller with the Milford Bakery and Flour Mills. That put the bread on the table but acting continued to occupy a large slice of his life and he subsequently joined the Lifford Players. “Great people there too, Terry O’Doherty and Aussie Bryson, to name but two.” The awards were never far behind and J.B. Keane’s ‘The Field’ brought him the first of many under the Lifford Players mantle.
His roles were varied and rewarding, including parts in such acclaimed dramas as ‘The Faith Healer’, ‘Twelve Angry Men’, and ‘Waiting for Godot’ among many more.
The Ballyshannon Drama Festival inducted him into its Hall of Fame five years ago - yet another singular honour for an over laden mantelpiece in Milford.
Acting has not been his sole contribution to the genre. Since 1999 he has served as chairman of the An Grianan Theatre Board of Management, a role of which he says he is “immensely proud.”
“The theatre continues to be a wonderful facility. Up to one million people have attended performances since it opened in 2000. Much of its success is due to Patricia McBride who has been a fantastic manager. Together with the staff there, they have brought it up to the level of reputation it enjoys today,” Sean maintains.
That attendance figure will continue to be boosted over the coming nights with the production of ‘Aristocrats’.
“I was very pleased when Iarla McGowan asked me to play the part of Uncle George in it. Apart from being a superb actor - he was absolutely stunning in Richard 111 - he is proving to be a great director as well.
“I’ve been retired from acting since 2007 but was honoured to be asked to take a role in Aristocrats and to be given the opportunity to share a stage with the great Gerard McSorley. He’s a true master and it has been a privilege to work with him and indeed with everybody involved in the production.”
Like every single play in which he has taken part, Sean will have taken to the stage on the opening night with some degree of trepidation. “Absolutely, I get nervous. Let no actor tell you that they don’t experience nerves when they’re waiting for that first cue. Sometimes you wonder why you put yourself in that position.”
The answer is in an abiding passion for acting - something that even in the shortest of times in the company of Sean McCormack comes across with powerful presence.
Not the only passion in a life of performance. A former inter-county player with Donegal and Sligo, Sean also represented Connacht in an Inter Provincial Railway Cup Final and recalls in his footballing days playing alongside the likes of Sean O’Donnell, Hughie Tim Boyle, Joe Carroll, Peadar McGeehan, John Hannigan and Sean Ferriter.
There was to be no All-Ireland titles for him in that particular role but enough to make up for it in the other arena in which he excelled.
Married to Maureen (McGranaghan), the couple have four offspring, Gabrielle, who resides in Letterkenny, Aodh, Milford, Moira, Newbridge, and Emer, London.
None of them have followed their father into amateur dramatics - perhaps one aristocrat in the family is enough. And as patrons who attend the Friel play tonight, tomorrow night, and on Saturday in the An Grianan, and at subsequent stagings in the Abbey Arts Centre in Ballyshannon on Thursday October 6th and the Glenties Community Centre on Sunday 9th, will readily testify, he is truly one of those.
Sean McCormack - truly an ‘aristocrat’.