Akron Irish: Macnas
By Lisa O’Rourke
So, there was a big palaver going on “the parade, the craic, it’s brilliant, you have to see it!” It was powerful enough that it compelled our family to stand in the dark on a damp chilly Galway night waiting for something, something that I couldn’t quite imagine.
Would it be carnation covered floats and baton twirling girls in the streets, or the county fair style display of slow rolling tractors? And how was it that darkness was the goal of the parade and not an obstacle?
Music was the first signal that something was coming, the crowd tightening, causing the smell of damp wool blending with peat smoke to rise. An outrageously tall woman, long luminous white dress hanging off her, topped with a tall conical matching hat, glided into sight playing a long white horn. Goddess, alien, nurse, nun, or banshee, you can decide for yourself. Macnas never tells.
There followed all kinds of images, some in neon, some in lights, all colorful and exotic. There were a few floats and no carnations in sight. There were puppets, there are always puppets.
A Macnas Trademark
A Macnas trademark are their giant paper mâché marionettes, which are animated by puppeteers inside and out of the huge armatures. There was also music. Some of it was live, some recorded, and lots of drums.
It was completely immersive, surprising and enjoyable. I could not honestly say that I felt that I understood everything, but it was a surprise, something completely removed from the provincial. Macnas are artists and definitely sly and subversive ones, but not too much, just that kind of Irish way of taking the mickey.
That parade was the last time that it was part of the Galway Arts Festival. The Macnas parade started as a daytime event that kicked off the festival. We happened to see one of the early daytime parades which featured a beaming Charlie Haughey, waving from the back of a convertible. Only it didn’t feel normal in the political showboat way; there was a palpable layer of irony. There is often an ambiguity around who is the joke and who is in on the joke in their imagery.
That ambiguity is the point. Macnas was founded in the late 80s in Galway. It was a dark time in the country and especially in the west, always hardest hit by emigration. Macnas wanted to bring the theater and spectacle that was found in warmer climates to the cold shores of Galway.
As Leo Moran , later a Saw Doctor, and one of the first participants in Macnas’s SESs (social employment schemes) remarked: *“It was 1987, the country wasn’t as colourful as it is nowadays, not as prosperous – but don’t be mistaken; there was imagination and ingenuity and daftness and divilment.”
And all those elements were visible in Macnas’s first big effort, floating a giant Gulliver up the Liffey and resting it on a beach, a contribution to Dublin’s yearlong millennial party in 1988. The founding members: Páraic Breathnach, Tom Conroy, Ollie Jennings, and Pete Sammon, had an artistic vision that blended creativity, authenticity, storytelling, and fun.
Queen Maeve and U2
They saw Macnas as a way to enhance the arts in their city and give it a bit of life. Their next endeavor was a Galway Black Box staged version of “The Táin,” the Celtic fable, which involves a naughty Queen Maeve, who wanted a bull and started all kinds of trouble trying to get it.
Put on by Macnas, it was a colorful, unique and very Irish production. The company moved steadily upward in popularity and success. No less than U2 commissioned them to make some big head caricatures of themselves to take on the Zooropa tour in 1993.
The name Macnas itself is an Irish word which means fun. Fun in the sense of a release of freedom, a word that would be used to describe young animals in the Spring. It is also a word that encapsulates the Irish cultural opening of the last thirty years.
While not being a household word everywhere, the company has lasted for over thirty years, while drawing crowds and winning critical awards. Success always has two sides, and it was no different in this case.
When Purists Chafe
|he popularity which brought grants and funding, was increasingly more often tied to commercial interests. Some of the company purists chafed at being asked to perform at corporate events even if they brought in big checks. The inevitable blow up was epic by all accounts, with no founding members involved in the company at this time. Founding members exiting vocally while the company was achieving some degree of popularity, would leave any performer open to criticisms.
The critiques of Macnas involved their vision, their integrity, and they still pop up in the news from time to time. The company has experienced some hiccups and has regrouped a few times, but they continue on.
It was difficult to figure out just who the company really is at any given time, to put a specific face on it. A stand-out is the artistic director, Noeline Kavanaugh, who has been involved with the company for a long time and has a real passion for it. There are other directors of the strata of the specialized fields required to put the events on, like engineers, who must draw some type of salary. The rest of the group are part-time and composed of interns learning a skill and job experience, Galwegians who relish the annual chance to volunteer, and the younger people who are learning the necessary skills to contribute and carry on.
Putting on big productions like the parades are huge endeavors. The company needs the craftsmanship of painters, costume design and production, engineers, puppeteers, dancers, musicians and other street performers. Macnas is also still very involved in putting plays together too. There is a lot going on in Galway and it takes a whole city to make it happen.
Despite the talent involved, there is a “homemade, talented amateur” quality to the Macnas parade. It is both homemade and transcends that quality at the same time. Macnas, for all the accusations of being sell-outs, are still grant-funded and based in their hometown Galway. The home-made quality is to me, what shows the raw collaborative creativity of the people involved.
That rawness is where the art is, not in slick Disney-fied images. Sometimes the rawness gives the puppets and costumes a slightly creepy patina. That makes it a perfect fit for Halloween. That along with the other elements that are always present; authenticity, Celtic spirit, creativity and surprise. What could be more Halloween than that?
*Irish Times, April 4, 2020
Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected]. Please send any Akron events to my email!