Absence and Artistry: revisiting the Desmond Forristal Archive in the Age of Covid-19

by Róisín Berry, Archivist, Maynooth University Library

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Image of Covid-19 Virus

These last few months have been marked by many absences. The absence of early morning traffic jams as rushed breakfasts are digested. The absence of shrieks of laughter from beyond the school gates. The absence of huddles of friends sharing love and laughter over steaming cups of coffee. With each day blending into the next, we have worked hard at staying apart. We have learned to accept the daily numbers, the roadmaps, the social distancing, the ‘new normal’.

The battle against Covid-19 has affected every aspect of our daily lives, including the way we work, educate our children, socialise, and even how we grieve. One of the most challenging aspects of the Pandemic has been its impact on how we honour and celebrate our dead. Strict social distancing rules have seen families deprived of a proper way to mourn the deceased, to celebrate their life or to offer support to the bereaved. The importance of our funerary customs and traditions have never been more apparent, at this difficult point in our history as a nation.

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Portrait of Rev. Desmond Forristal, c. 1980s

On 25 September, we will mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of scholar, author, playwright, and TV producer, Rev. Desmond Forristal (1930-2012). Forristal’s Archive was donated to Maynooth University Library in 2001. This fascinating collection contains a variety of material, including letters, essays, scripts, photographs and press cuttings. Forristal’s close links with the Dublin theatre scene, and particularly, the Gate Theatre, are captured in many of the letters and photographs contained in the archive.

As a cleric, Forristal would have fully appreciated the role of the funeral service in honouring the life of a departed loved one and providing a chance to say a final goodbye. At times Forristal’s work as a priest merged with his great love of theatre. One document that reflects this is a letter that he received on 15 March 1978 from actor, writer and director, Hilton Edwards (1903-1982). They had worked on many productions together in the Gate Theatre over the years, Forristal as playwright, Edwards as director. This moving letter was written on the death of Edwards’ partner and co-founder of the Gate, Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899-1978). It expresses the great comfort that Edwards had found in the funeral after so great a loss:

Photograph of Forristal, Edwards, Mac Liammóir and some of the cast from The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot, 1972

‘You and I worked together – and I hope we will again – but nothing we can do can reach the artistry, if I may use that word in this sense, of the work you have just done. The rightness of the services, both unsurpassable in their simplicity and beauty gave me much comfort, and I know, has given Micheál peace. Thank you again for administering the last rites to him in hospital. Please convey to the Fathers who celebrated with you, not forgetting the young gentleman who served you at the altar, and those who sang so movingly. The services conveyed a truer beauty than is possible in the world of make-believe – in which Micheál & I have lived’ (15 March 1978).

Letter from Edwards to Forristal on the funeral of Mac Liammóir, March 1978

When Edwards himself died four years later, Forristal received another letter, this time from Patrick Bedford (1932-1999). Bedford was an actor, who performed in numerous productions in the Gate Theatre during the 1950s and 60s before moving to the United States. He was involved in two of Forristal’s plays, Black Man’s Country (1974) and The Seventh Sin (1976). In his letter, he highlights the great reassurance provided by Forristal’s funeral service, to Edwards’ family and friends:

‘Belatedly, let me thank you for the grace and charm and, most importantly, which I think Hilton would have enjoyed, simplicity, in your conduction of his mass’ [1982]. 

If anything, these beautiful words written several decades ago remind us of the things that truly matter, even in our darkest times: comfort, peace, simplicity, and how, as a nation, we will find them again.

For further information please contact library.specialcollections@mu.ie

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