Aussie Bryson - 70 years on stage

Eamonn McFadden

Reporter:

Eamonn McFadden

Aussie Bryson. After making his stage debut on St. Patrick’s night 70 years ago the Castlefin man’s love of the stage has never diminished.

Aussie Bryson. After making his stage debut on St. Patrick’s night 70 years ago the Castlefin man’s love of the stage has never diminished.

It was 70 years ago last Saturday night that a young Castlefin lad by the name of Aussie Bryson began to tread the boards for the very first time.

It began a love affair with the stage and performing that is still going strong in his 80th year and now as much as ever he can still keep an audience hanging on every word of his famous stories.

Looking back on his long career in both local business and the arts Aussie says he still gets a “buzz” out of people enjoying his yarns and there is no sign of him stopping yet.

He explains: “I was 80 in November. On St Patrick’s night just gone it was 70 years to the night since I was first on the stage, when I made my debut. It was at a local concert up at school when I was still in the short trousers. I was ten at the time and there used to always be a school concert from the boys and girls of the two schools in the area. Tievebrack out in the country and then Castlefin school we all did a St Patrick’s night concert. We had rehearsed it for weeks and weeks. The wee old hall in Castlefin was always packed at that time. That was my first time on a stage publicly.”

It lit the fuse for performing and his passion for it still burns brightly.

“I did a recitation and the title was nearly an act on its own,” Aussie recalls with a heart laugh.

“The teacher taught it to me and there was about 20 verses in it. I think I still have it somewhere in a school book. The name of the recitation, which get called monologues these days, was called ‘Red Hugh O’Donnell’s address to his army before the battle of the Cooley Mountains’. That’s a mouthful.

So that was it, my first time on stage,” he laughed.

He then joined his local Castlefin St. Mary’s Drama group, and his love of acting and drama began to grow.

As both a performer and writer of stage productions he took part in the first ever Ballyshannon Drama festival in 1952. His dedication to the respected festival earned him a “Hall of fame” award a number of years ago.

Recalling their first outing he says the adjudication feeding back was harsh but didn’t frighten him from his love of the arts and performing.

“It was with the Castlefin Drama group with a play me and Johnny Curry wrote. Hilton Edwards of the Gate Theatre was the adjudicator. That was 60 years ago in 1952. We got a terrible grilling because it was a wee country play and it was very popular at home and it packed the wee hall here for about a week. Hilton Edwards tore the guts out of us. If we hadn’t have been so naive we would never have been on the stage again. But there you go 60 years later.”

He moved to join the Lifford Players group in 1961 and as the saying goes “the rest is history”.

“The Castlefin group wasn’t going every year. We went to a couple of festivals in Ballyshannon after that with a couple of one act plays but that was the last time they appeared at the festival. Ballyshannon was in those what we called the ‘local festival.’”

In those early days much of the fun and performances came when the various casts had retired to the bar following a evening on the stage, what he describes as “great days altogether”.

His commitment to the drama festival circuit brought him all over Ireland and the annual Athlone drama festival was the pinnacle, which he compared to the “Olympics” as participation was often more important than winning.

“The big thing was always trying to get to Athlone. Its like the Olympics. Taking part was the thing and winning was a bonus. We won it three different years.

He said their busy schedule meant they were “busier than the professionals” but he never minded taking his love for amateur dramatics alongside his day job as a butcher.

“That’s the things you do when your young. We got great receptions from audiences. TV was still in its infancy back then and it was in black and white. At that time it wasn’t taking people away from going to see plays but they are back again drawing crowds. Its hard to beat the live show. The audience are part of it you see. You are involved if it is a good show and you get so engrossed in it that you are part of the show, giving to the audience and them giving back to you and I still get the buzz yet” he said.

As well as familiar face on the stage he was also very well know for his career running his own butchery business.

“I was 50 years in the butchery trade. I started to serve my time in 1947 when I was 15. I was ten years as a journey man butcher. I served my time in Castlefin for six years. I went to Scotland and spent a year in a shop, learning shop work and how to make Haggis and black puddings, stuff like that I wouldn’t have learned at home. Then I came back and managed McColgans of Strabane for two years. Then in 1957 I started my own butchers in Castlefin and ran it until I retired. I was also nearly 18-years in Letterkenny on the High Road,”

As a stand alone performer over the years Aussie has become a real local celebrity for his hilarious and timeless monologue performances that are often repeated on radio and has amassed many hits via the world wide web. His famous “Turf Spade” sketch even featured on the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne.

“How I became involved in the storytelling was that a lady who used to come here from Cushendall in County Antrim by the name of Liz Weir who is one of the best known storytellers in Ireland. She met me and said ‘Aussie, I hear you tell some stories’ and I said that after a show sometimes I would be asked to go along to a concert and do a monologue or something like that. She said they were having an international story telling festival down in Derry, this was about 18 years ago. She said would you come down and fly the flag for the North west because there people from Canada, Scotland, America, all over. I said I had never taken part in one of these story telling sessions but that I can stand at the bar and tell yarns to boys so I said if they didn’t put me on too early so I could get the jist of the format I will. I went down that night and it worked out to be a great night altogether. I took the house down with the Turf Spade right enough and it was the first time I did it publicly I think. Anyway after that it took off altogether and that’s why I’m still operating on that stuff.”

Aussie remains a proud husband, father and grandfather and still plays an active role in the local arts scene and is still often sought after for his famous stories.

Each may he is busy with the annual Bealtaine Festival and much of his work takes place in day time shows and he jokes that in some of the “old-folks homes” he plays he is older than many of those in the audience but adds the “show must go on”.