Last night, when I heard Gerry Morgan had died, I could find no suitable words and so I kept away from Facebook. Instead, I went onto YouTube to search for a version of “Mary from Dungloe” that might capture the haunting anguish of actor Niall Murray’s rendering, in Gerry’s debut play “Farewell to Kind Relations” – an event seared in my memory. I couldn’t find one. There are about 100 versions – most pretty awful. Christy Moore does a nice opening verse on a Late Late Show special, but then he is joined onstage by Daniel O’Donnell, and – no disrespect – but it sort of goes downhill from there. Gerry would have loved the irony of my dilemma. As a party piece, he did a wonderful impression of Daniel. He even wrote a song to his beloved mother and performed it in perfect Daniel style.
That was back when we were all young. He was my great companion. We went separate directions in more recent years but kept in touch from time to time in the modern way, by liking or responding to one another’s Facebook posts: he from Carlow; me up here in the North East. I enjoyed his posts: they were the same mix of intelligent mischief and righteous outrage that made him so charming as a young, innovative theatre artist – years ahead of his time. He had a fierce, adult passion for justice. But he had the impish grin of a ten-year old Ballyfermot boy.
He was a walking contradiction. He was the original of the species when it came to devising and improvising in the theatre workshop and on the stage, but he was the least “arty” person I ever met in an arthouse. He could have become a leading theatre director, but he had zero interest in fame or status or hierarchies. He made theatre because he cared about people and their stories.
I was in my first few months of a five-year term at City Arts Centre when I met him. My job, incongruously then, was as Enterprise Officer – allegedly overseeing business aspects of a community arts centre. I only later became theatre programmer. It was 1990-91, and the tiny studio venue was just opened. It was managed by the wonderful Noel McHale who knew everything you could possibly know about the live music scene but, by his own admission, almost nothing at all about theatre. Noel would ask me for advice occasionally, when groups came to hire the space. One day he told me he had a proposal in but didn’t want to waste my time with it. “There is no script; they’ve done nothing before – other than bits in college; there are no actors yet. There’s just a few notes about the Famine”. I had a look. A spiral bound five-page document with a crude drawing of a ship on the front. A proposal to find ten willing actors to research the darkest ancestral pain of our people and come up with their own stories which Gerry Morgan – abetted by his artistic pal Conall O’Connor and co-director Declan Drohan – would weave into an immersive drama. Some deep instinct was stirred. “Look. Maybe we should take a chance,” I suggested, and to Noel’s credit, he did. It was a decision which would change my life in more ways than I could have imagined.
The show, “Farewell to Kind Relations” was terrific. The audience sat on tea chests, as though trapped in the hold of the coffin ship of dreams which he and his collective of largely unknown young actors created. They called themselves Galloping Cat. They were not the first company in Ireland or elsewhere to devise a historical drama; they were not the first to blend monologue and movement; they were not the first to wear their political message on their sleeve. But there was something unique and empowering in the blend. It may have been Gerry’s utter absence of ego and vanity. He was an exceptional facilitating director. He was much more concerned that this should be the actors’ recall of the ancestral story than that it be his. He knew that this act of trust would yield a rich, collective tale – a true communal memorialising and dissection of a communal disaster. In 1990, nobody else was doing this, quite in this way. And the trust was two-way. The actors loved Gerry and gave of their best.
And what actors; what artists in the making! Others will write, I hope, about Galloping Cat’s (and later Theatre of Joy’s) continuing ouvre – plays concerning Cromwell; the Bible; the Shoah; and about the great work they did in association with aFri- Action from Ireland – animating tribal walking paths that were used by Irish famine refugees in different parts of the country, with primal outdoor theatre. And I am sure others will write of Gerry’s more recent career as an influential college teacher and supporter of the arts in Carlow. But what particularly strikes me is just who those actors were, that were drawn in the early 1990s to this small, quiet man’s vision and invitation. Some have gone on to international TV, theatre and film fame; others to campaigning work; others to theatre teaching and facilitating. There are 15-year olds in youth theatres today who are learning techniques and values from facilitators who in turn were trained by facilitators whose first theatre gigs were with Gerry Morgan. His influence is everywhere. I know that my own work draws from things I learned from watching, arguing with and listening to Gerry Morgan. He joined our team at City Arts Centre and we worked together closely and happily for four years.
I befriended many of the Galloping Cat actors and in due course married one of them, Sharon Cromwell. Gerry Morgan was groomsman at our wedding. Sharon is one of the many people who have acknowledged that their own paths – in Sharon’s case as Artistic Director for many years of Droichead Youth Theatre – might have been very different had they not learned from Gerry Morgan. He brought care, compassion and rare humility to bear on his great gift for directing theatre. His influence continues to extend far and down the generations. My thoughts are with his mother Ena and daughter Abaigéal, both of whom he held dear. I hope it may comfort them that he changed our world for the better.