Has Sligo’s Hawk’s Well Theatre found the Philosopher’s stone?

By Sean Hillen

My first visit to Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo this past weekend – and what a thoroughly enjoyable time it turned out to be.

A cozy 340-seater, intimate, not too big, not too small, with an intriguing history as inscribed on the walls and the delightful convenience of an inexpensive carpark right next door.

hawks well theater sligo, what to do in sligo, live shows sligoThe history of Hawk’s Well Theatre began in Sligo’s long tradition of amateur dramatics. The town had a theatre as far back as 1750, then, much later, Sligo Drama Circle was founded in 1956 to promote higher standards in local drama. This led to the setting up of what became known as the ‘Little Theatre’ project or ‘A Theatre for Sligo.’ 

A key event happened in 1974 when a plot of land was granted on Temple Street, where the current Hawk’s Well stands. The Arts Council along with North West Tourism, The Sligo County Council, and Sligo Borough Council recognised the need for a designated, well-equipped cultural centre and the theatre finally opened in January 1982. 

Success continues, with the theatre winning ‘Best Community Enterprise’ at the Sligo Business Awards recently.

As for diversity, if my weekend there was anything to go by, organisers have discovered the Philosopher’s stone of performance success.

Friday night was a music concert featuring well-known Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, famed lyricist of hit song,Galileo (Someone Like You)’ and a genuinely likeable guy to boot with plenty of amusing anecdotes to tell.

declan orourke musician, music of declan orourke, hawks well theater sligo

Photo by John Wilde

Not only were Declan’s melodies both innovative and captivating but the subjects of the songs were both surprising and uplifting, and much appreciated on the night, as the infamous November wind and rain of western Ireland reigned supreme outside.

But before focusing on Declan’s gig, first credit goes to John Barrett, back from Australia, the opening solo act. Tall, bearded John won many followers from the half dozen songs he performed so well, most penned through his own inspiration, including ‘The Story of the Invisible Man’ and ‘Suffering Saints.’

Aside from his own songs, John also performed several by Canadian legend Neil Young, including ‘Sugar Mountain,’ Young being someone – the audience learned – both he and Declan O’Rourke share a love for, having both enjoyed his 1993 gig at Slane Castle.

Galway-based Declan, a vastly experienced singer, having played so many venues worldwide, including billings with Grammy winner James Taylor, Bob Dylan, John Prine and Snow Patrol, provided an entertaining mix of easy chat and finely-written songs.

Now in the midst of making a new album, he promised the audience ‘some new stuff, among the old’ and delivered on his promise.

Having already released a slew of albums such as his debut ‘Since Kyabram’ in 2004, which achieved double-platinum sales; ‘Big Bad Beautiful World;’ ‘Mag Pai Zai’ and ‘Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine’ and others, he was very much at ease on stage, talking about the birth of his first child last year and slumming it on tour in Germany 16 years ago “eating bread rolls and smelly cheese.”

Declan O Rourke live, declan orourke in sligo

Photo by Nutan

One of the hallmarks of Declan’s songs, aside from his guitar-playing wizardry, are the exquisite, almost surreal, lines such as those heard Saturday, ‘when you live by the weather every wind has a tale,’ across the flower beds of destiny’ and ‘tissue of your tear for a souvenir.’ And one of my favorites, from the song ‘Arrivals’, composed as he waited at an airport ‘you lose half a lifetime when you look another way.’ Not to mention, ‘Swap your Catholic halo for a Protestant hoop and give up your place in heaven for a bowl of soup,’ from his Irish famine album, fifteen years in the making.

It was also interesting to learn about some of the situations in which Declan composes songs. One about a 15-year-old Syrian girl who was an Olympian swimmer but had to give up her dream after becoming a refugee to escape war was inspired by a newspaper article his wife gave him to read. Another, ‘’Sarah (Last Night in a Dream),’ emerged while he slept under a piano and dreamed he had been sent to Spain on a raft.

Reflecting his diverse musical tastes, Declan also paid tribute to Neil Young, singing ‘Cortez the Killer,’ as well as, ‘Stardust’ written by Mitchell Parish and a big hit for Hoagy Carmichael in 1927.

And, of course, no Declan O’Rourke concert would be complete without his inimitable rendering of, Galileo (Someone Like You).’

That was Friday.

Saturday found my companion and I enjoying another musical evening performance, this one very different but equally entertaining, entitled ‘A Night At The Musicals,’ a fund-raiser for the Sligo Academy of Music.

And it introduced me to one of those men of rare talent, musical maestro Shaun Purcell, 64, former teacher, school principal and a chief executive with the Education and Training Board, who retired last year.

Shaun Purcell musician, Shaun Purcell at hawks well theater sligo

Musical maestro Shaun Purcell with his loving family – outside a certain Irish theatre he knows quite well.

This silver-haired, soft-spoken fellow must spend his waking hours (and some of his sleeping ones, too) composing songs. To his great credit, he has already created no less than eight musicals, namely ‘The Raven Beckons,’ ‘Requiem For Julie,’ ‘Aisling,’ ‘The Apprentice,’ ‘Larkin’ (based on book by Brian Gallagher), ‘The Man Who Knows’ (based on a book by Humphrey Truman), ‘Kamiano,’ and ‘Under Strange Skies.’ 

Shaun’s latest production with The Mad Ravens is ‘The Boy From The Far Side Of The Moon,’ a cross, he informed me “between The Wizard of Oz and The Playboy Of The Western World.” It will be premiered in Hawk’s Well Theatre in mid-March next year, and even involves a well-choreographed (as you can imagine) hurling match on stage. In addition to writing the musical, Shaun will direct. Musical director is Niamh Crowley and  Ingrid McLoughlin is the choreographer.

All of Saturday evening’s songs emerged from Shaun’s impressive composition skills. The musical menu included ‘The Chapel On The Hill’ devoted to his parents, ‘Winter,’ ‘Needing For Someone,’ ‘Sing Me A Song’ and ‘Couple Of Drinks.’

Particular mention must be made of Aileen Concannon’s powerful interpretation of, ‘I Am A Woman’ and young singer Mia Ryan’s beautiful rendering of, ‘He the Rock and She The Dreamer.’ 

It’s not possible for me here to name all the people who performed in a riveting, at times rollicking, show Saturday evening. There were so many talented performers on stage, it would take up the entire word-count allotted for this article to do so. They did, however, include the following –

  • The Mad Ravens 
  • Niamh Crowley and the Sligo Academy of Music
  • Emma Purcell and Grange post primary school
  • County Sligo Golf Club Male Voice Choir
  • Jonathan Carter and Duly Noted
  • Eoin Troy and Aileen Concannon
  • Kevin and Elaine O’Gorman
  • Luke Devaney
  • Kate and Tom Gavin, Eileen and Joe Curley, Dulra Hanley and Ryan Sheridan 

Not to mention, Shaun Purcell himself, both as accompanist on keyboard and solo singer.


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