Words: Gerry Cody and Bridget Cody
Over the last week, the death of Ann Hurley was announced. Although the news was expected, it was, nonetheless devastating and heart-breaking.
When I stop and think about it, it was probably the bones of fifty years when our paths first crossed which led to her inviting me to join The New Theatre Group.
That she was one of Kilkenny’s leading ladies in the acting fraternity was never in doubt. That she was as nice a woman as you would meet in a day’s walking was also a certainty.
I was lucky enough to have worked with Ann in various guises and on different stages. It is nigh on impossible to pick out a favourite role that she portrayed. But two shows stand out for me. One was her direction of ‘Interview’ by Jean Claude Van Itallie which she directed for Kilkennys New Theatre Group and would go on to win the All-Ireland drama finals. It later toured to Sweden representing Ireland at the International theatre festival.
Her direction was awarded a special trophy. But for me it was her bravery in taking on this show and seeing its potential that impressed most.
Ahead of her time, no doubt.
The second was her portrayal of Rosie in Dancing at Lughnasa as a Watergate ‘In house production.’
Directed by Barnstorms Philip Hardy, this production had panache, charisma and a dramatic punch that left the audience breathless.
The five Mundy sisters (Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rosie, and Christina), all unmarried, live in a cottage outside of Ballybeg. These characters were played by Mary Cradock, Ann Widger, Jo Donovan, Colette Browne and Ann Hurley
It was possibly the best female ensemble playing at the Watergate alongside Steel Magnolias of which Ann also performed in.
One member of the ‘Lughnasa’ team, Mary Cradock said that: “Ann was always very creative and very much the perfectionist, who made great use of her talent”.
Storytelling in her DNA
We are a nation of storytellers. Ireland’s commitment to the art of weaving a good tale lies at the very heart of this island’s famously sturdy sense of nationhood.
Artists are we, our cultural heritage the bricks and mortar that bridge us to an ever present past.
This statement is as true of Kilkenny as it is of the country as a whole.
Though famed for its thriving arts scene, theatre, in Kilkenny, has long been at the helm of the county’s social and cultural life; an art form that has not only survived the generations, but one which has thrived in its passage through time, carrying with it the stories and lives of those performers who allowed for its sustenance through the years, connecting us forever to the storytellers of our past.
A quick glance at Peter Farrellys book ‘600 years of theatre in Kilkenny’ proves this point.
Nowhere is the arts’ capacity for connectivity more obvious than in its habit of seeping from one generation into the next, from parent to child like a gift that sings with the voices of its ancestors.
Miss Kitty Free bestowed such a gift upon her daughter, one Ann Hurley.
This was a “baton-passing” occasion which would mark, for Ann, the beginning of a long and auspicious affair with the stage.
NATURAL ACTING ABILITIES
Kitty Free was widely recognised as the most competent stage actress of her time, performing regularly with the Gaelic League Dramatic Class in Stallards, the building on Patrick Street
where Zuni’s now stands. “Crohoore of the Billhook” (1927) and “The Mayor of Windgap” (1929) are just two of the many plays that saw Kitty Free charm audiences with her natural acting abilities and luminous stage presence.
One review from the Kilkenny People of Free’s performance in “The Mayor of Windgap” read “Perhaps the greatest success of all, at least as far as the ladies were concerned was Miss Kitty Free as Miss Annie Kennedy, the leading lady.
“From start to finish she displayed a talent that won well deserved applause; a matter of special note being the fine, rich, clear voice with which she spoke her part.”
NATURE BREAKS THROUGH
Kitty Free’s generous contributions to the arts in Kilkenny has been mirrored by her daughter Ann’s distinct, enduring presence in the world of performing arts, both locally and nationally. In 1971, Ann joined The New Theatre Group, starring as Nora in Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars”.
Ann was also a prominent member of Kilkenny Musical Society, Clubhouse Players, Gaslight Theatre Group, and Pan Productions, with whom she bore the tremendous artistic weight of delivering a one woman show in 1977 entitled “I Remember it Well”.
Founding member of Young Irish film makers, Mike Kelly, who had the distinction of being Ann’s stage husband on four different occasions said that Ann’s death was an enormous loss to the Arts. “She was a wonderful advocate for the theatre movement” said Mr Kelly.
It was not long before Ann’s instinctive grasp on the fundamentals of dramatic performance drew her toward the Director’s Chair. It was a role she blossomed in. In 1987, the Kilkenny native travelled to Sweden and, later, Czechoslovakia to direct “Interview”, a play by Jean Claud Van Itallie.
Her role as director brought her around the globe, to Aruba in 1994 and Korea in 1995 with James McClure’s “One Season’s King” and, a little closer to home, to Wales in 2000 with “Bench at the Edge” by Luigi Januzzi. She has directed three All Ireland winning one act plays; “Interview” (1986), “PVT Wars” (1992) and “Bench at the Edge” (1999). Suffice to say, Ann had proved her creative prowess both on and off the stage.
Former chair of the New Theatre Group, Dick Holland told this paper that: “Ann’s drive and commitment to the Arts was always evident and she always gave one hundred percent”
In 1997, Hurley relocated to Naas, Co. Kildare where she took on the position of Regional Director for the Special Olympics’ Leinster Division.
Naturally, she continued to act and direct, nurturing that undeniable talent for artistic expression for which she had become both widely recognised and highly regarded. She joined Naas drama group, “The Moat Club” and, whilst there, undertook a litany of acting and directorial roles to add to her ever expanding theatrical C.V.
Speaking to the Kilkenny Observer, Mary Newman from The Moat Club said: “Ann was a strong and resilient woman with a great sense of fun and a gift for friendship. It was no surprise when Ann was made honorary president of The Moat Club, Naas for 2023/24.
Ann’s gift for acting has earned her much praise and esteem within the acting community and has, over the years, been regularly acknowledged with various awards and accolades, including two All-Ireland nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her performances in “By the Bog of Cats” and “Steward of Christendom”. In 2000 she won the award for her role in “Portia Coughlin”.
How fortunate we are. Theatre, here in Kilkenny and beyond, is the better for having her be a part of it.
“Like mother, like daughter”, as the old saying goes.
Among the large attendance at the removal were family members, former work colleagues and members from various arts communities.
The Kilkenny Observer would like to thank Eilish Rafferty from The Moat Club Naas for her help with photos used in this article.
At home on the stage
I remember seeing you at the Clubhouse
In your one-woman show, Red Biddy,
as you brought theatre to a different level.
Throughout your life you introduced us to such diverse characters
as Cass McGuire, The Catwoman and Mother Therese.
You shone brightest in Virginia Woolf, Portia Coughlan,
By the Bog of Cats, the Steward of Christendom and Lughnasa.
Your talent lit many theatres
as director, actor, and make-up artist.
Local, National and International awards
sat deservingly at your home.
Autumn was boasting her golden hues
when I called to you at Vincent’s Ward.
Showing your gift of acceptance,
you told me you were ready for the journey ahead.
Our farewell hug, reminiscent of many shared at the close of a show.
This one marking the finale, as the ‘grand drape’ closed.
Patron Saint of the Arts, Catherine of Bologna, espoused
‘That you be what God meant you to be
and you will set the world on fire’.
You did that Ann, and some.
Kitty Free would be proud.