Contesting the stage: the performance art of Johnny Chóil Mhaidhc Uí Choisdealbha

Éadaoin Ní Mhuircheartaigh


This essay examines the influence of traditional oral forms of performance on the drama of Johnny Chóil Mhaidhc Ó Coisdealbha (1929–2006). Ong (1989) argued that oral cultures were ‘agonistically toned’ and that verbal duels were common in diverse cultures worldwide. Huizinga also drew attention to poetic disputes and verbal contests or ‘slanging-matches’ as a form of play (1980: 65). Stories featuring verbal duels between poets were common in the Irish oral tradition and reflect a society which placed a high value on witty, clever talk and the creative use of language. This ‘verbal dexterity’ as Glassie (1982: 48) terms it, featured not only in migratory legends about poets and historic figures, but also in daily life and ordinary conversation. It is also characteristic of the performance of ‘agallamh beirte’ — verbal duels in verse in the Irish tradition. This essay examines the ‘agallamh beirte’ of Johnny Chóil Mhaidhc and the poetic arguments he composed and performed at the Scoileanna Éigse agus Seanchais in the 1960s. His humorous poetic arguments between a Volkswagen and a donkey, between a mother and a son, compare the older way of life to modern times and he was often praised for his acting abilities in the performance of these disputes. His use of the traditional verbal arts in his stage plays is also examined, in particular the one act play Mar a Chéile Muid. Set in a public house on a fair day, the play features a publican and the local ‘scrounger,’ who engage in a long argument, with minimal characterisation and almost no movement. This essay argues that this play is a celebration of witty competitive speech and that it is deeply rooted in the oral tradition.

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© COMHAR, 2019.
ISSN: 2009-8626