Some say he kept the sword . . .
“I tried it on, it was perfect on me, he must have been the same dimensions as me, and I can tell you, when I stepped through Heather Underwood's French windows onto the stage, leading with my Wilkinson sword drawn in search of the chocolate soldier, I mean, I looked, and I certainly felt, fantastic!”
To walk away from half a century of service to Leeside theatre with just a single regret is probably a badge few can pin to their chest, but recently retired Everyman chair Denis McSweeney can. The regret – that no photograph exists of him on stage during his Everyman debut in 1972 donning an authentic Royal Army Medical Corps uniform.
The setting was Fr Matthew Hall in the city and it was the Everyman’s very first production, a play called ‘Arms and the Man’ by George Bernard Shaw, and Denis McSweeney had been cast as the Russian officer in the opening scene.
“They were anxious that I would look right,” recalls McSweeney.
“So, they sent me down one evening about a week before the show, down the Blackrock Road, I went to one of these gaunt 3 storey mansions, and 2 very sweet ladies of a semi-Anglo style met me at the door and they led me upstairs to what had been, I imagine, a gentleman's bedroom, with dark walnut furniture, enormous wardrobe, and the doors are flung open to reveal the full dress uniform of a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps whom I suspect had been the ladies' uncle or great uncle.
“It was just a magnificent uniform if you can just imagine it – dark black with gold braiding across the chest and little satin buttons, the black trousers with the red stripe down the seam at either side. They took down this huge leather hatbox and from it they took the leather helmet, and then a Wilkinson dress sword. It was amazing.
“I have photographs of the production but I have no photograph of me in the gear.”
Having retired exactly 50 years - to the day - after his Everyman debut on 2 November 1972, McSweeney, a man with many a string to his bow including marketing director for Ford Ireland, looks back over his career with an immense sense of collective pride in what he and his colleagues achieved, and says he expects the Everyman to continue on its upwards trajectory over the next 50 years and beyond.
“Pride, and I don't mean just personal pride but pride in the organisation and what it has achieved, pride in the city,” says McSweeney.
“The Everyman has already emerged as a significant national theatrical institution. It is an un-omittable venue, say if you're doing a national tour, even for the larger companies in Dublin, they just have to include it on the schedule.
“We are a creator as well; we've commissioned and mounted original productions and we've been fortunate where new authors have decided to give us their premieres.
“I think that it will grow, as will the proficiency of the company, the proficiency of the artistic practitioners in the company across the full range of skills. It will rival Dublin and the main institutions there. Outside of Dublin, it is the major theatrical venue and organisation in the country.”
In a farewell letter to The Everyman, McSweeney talks about being “undaunted” by the scale of the productions the company took on in its early years. He also mentions a kind of given obligation put upon the people of Cork to carry that torch and to contribute to the arts scene of the city they inhabit, and the city that inhabits them.
He says: “When you peruse the programme from that early period in the ‘60s right into the ‘80s, which was the amateur era if you like, of Everyman, if you look at what they mounted, it is clear that their ambition was enormous.
“The kinds of plays they mounted, like 'Luther', 'Man for all Seasons', 'The Silver Tassie', they were undaunted. They said, 'We can do this, we've got the talent'.
“They had practitioners who just wanted to take on these challenges, and did, and brought that breadth of international and Irish drama to the stage of our modest theatre in Parliamentary Hall and later on at MacCurtain Street.
“You can only have respect for that. They took on that challenge and that's why I call it a golden age because their ambition was matched by their capability, and money and the returns didn't enter it at all.
“It was a wide community, it wasn't just a director and some actors, there were serious practitioners in lighting, in set design, and costume and wardrobe ladies and men. They rose up out of the community and supported this activity because it was ours, you know? There was a possessory aspect to it, there was pride, it was Cork, we could do it, and we did.”
As he steps away from the building, the idea, the company he loves so much, McSweeney says he will be keeping a close eye on The Everyman and its efforts going forward, and that he is supremely confident in the pool of talent that exists in Cork and Ireland.
“We are a fortunate society, we are educating our people to a high level in large numbers. They have a sense of social duty and obligation. I do feel that there is that broad love of the arts and I see more and more people becoming involved.
“I see that there's a lovely buzz, there's a fertility there and it's coming on and I expect a lot from it. I will be a very, very interested observer from here on in.
“The one thing that's really missing I think is serious commercial support for the arts. I think as a society, with a few acceptations, we have failed to grow up in that area.”
Denis, who now plans to do some travelling to see his children in Australia, met the love of his life, Íde, through theatre during his time with the Cork Shakespearean Company.
“My wife was asking me, 'What was the 50 years about?’, and I said, 'Well look, I was a poor boy from the northside and I did alright, and I felt like I had an obligation to give something back, to recognise what the city had done for me’.”
Denis McSweeney is succeeded by Irish theatre veteran Barney Whelan.