IMAGINE a typical rural shopkeeper in the Ireland of yesteryear. “I picture him wearing a brown shop coat with ballpoint pens in his top pocket,” says actor and journalist, Jim O’Brien of Ogonnelloe. “He lives over the shop, and the shop is his life.”
Now imagine that his merchandise is of a very specialised variety. This shopkeeper’s trade is not in groceries or other domestic essentials. His customers come from far and wide to purchase accoutrements of every kind, from small nuclear weapons to solar-powered chainsaws. All of them are tailored to the client’s exact needs. The only thing that links them is the fact they are all ‘plot unblocking devices’.
This is the kind of shop – or rather ‘emporium’ – that is at the heart of an award-winning radio play recently produced and aired on Scariff Bay Community Radio. Its writer Tara Sparling devised the fantastical plot in a post on her popular blog (Tarasparling.com) and was encouraged by husband-and-wife team Ruth and Eoin O’Hagan to create the radio play, Mr McGuffin’s Plot Device and Writer Unblocking Emporium. The piece was aired to huge acclaim and recently scooped a Gold award for Technical Production Values at the Community Radio Ireland Achievement Awards.
“I really thought the main reward for writing a radio play would be to hear your characters brought to life,” says Tara. “To get the award was just amazing.”
Tara, who has a day job in the world of finance, returned to her native Tuamgraney just before lockdown. “My father, Alan, passed away last year. I would have been home very regularly up to that and it was very special to get the chance to come back and be based here. As soon as my company started sending people home from the office, I was back down.”
An involvement in drama is also a family tradition: “Dad acted all his life and was very involved with the Clare Drama Festival and Slieve Aughty and Scariff Drama Groups. He had awards coming out his ears. My mother Denise was the festival secretary and my aunt Gina, who lives in Mountshannon, is the Chair of the Clare Drama Festival.”
A eye for the ridiculous prompted Tara’s writings, particularly the oddities of the world of publishing. “I’d notice a book being a hit and then see 17 more books arriving on the shelves, all of them imitating the original,” she notes. “I then started to write short sketches about characters like the classic Mills & Boom romantic hero or the likes of Poldark. For Mr McGuiffin, I was inspired by the phrase Alfred Hitchcock coined for the inanimate object which drives the characters and the action in a drama – it could be anything from a diamond to a bomb. Then I came up with the idea of the emporium. Ruth and Eoin encouraged me all the way and the process was just magical.”
Social distancing guidelines could have hindered the production process, but prompted a creative response from cast and crew. “We were working at kitchen tables, rather than studios,” notes Jim O’Brien, who played Mr McGuffin. “The minute I read the script, I realised that this was a really novel piece of work and a really clever one. Mr McGuiffin can unblock writers, but has no interest in writing himself. I do a bit of writing myself, so I could imagine the scenarios and the character. He has a touch of grandeur and what we would refer to as a bit of a ‘twang,’ but he knows his customers inside out. The script is so funny that we often had to take breaks from recording, because we were in stitches.
Tara has taken that same wry humour into her prose writing. During lockdown, she managed to find time to dust off and complete “a drawer full of novels”. The aim now is to find an agent and publisher for the works which look at aspects of how small communities function. She is also working with the team on a radio play entitled Every Christmas Story Ever, which is set for air on December 19. “Eoin is editing that at the moment,” she notes. “It stars Ruth and I and we’ll have a bit of fun taking the clichés apart.”
Co-star Ruth is also looking forward to the release of the production. To say that she is busy at the moment, would be something of an understatement. The family therapist is a trained soprano who is currently undertaking an MA in Drama and Performance Studies at UCD. She is the co-presenter of ‘Sunday Breakfast with Oath and Ruin’ where the aim to to introduce science to a range of topics. “It’s a magazine show, so we discuss all sorts of things,” she says. “I like to bring in things like the menopause which doesn’t get talked about enough. People are very drawn in to our dynamic on air as a couple. They actually call us Oath and Ruin in real life sometimes.”
“We are so grateful to Eoin for his technical input,” Ruth says. “I know I’m biased, but without it, we wouldn’t have the freedom to perform. In a radio play, the microphone is your stage and everything has to be right. Without that, we would have no freedom to create and no Clare Drama Radio Play Festival.”
“We really have had a resurgence of the wireless effect recently,” she notes. “Scariff Bay Community Radio is run by someone with great integrity and attracts people who are interested in what radio can do for the community. When we listen, we have choice about how deeply we engage with content and that makes it something that’s very democratic and positive.”
Scariff Bay Community Radio together with The Clare Drama Festival have launched the inaugural Clare Drama Radio Play Festival, which will be broadcast on the community station in the spring. Next year, the station will also work with local national schools to bring short plays, written by pupils, to the airwaves.