Bronagh Gallagher: ‘Going to Guildhall during the feis was great – it was like our Wembley’
You know success hasn’t eluded you when your face appears on a stamp in your own country. This happened to Bronagh Gallagher when her image appeared alongside her main co-stars from ‘The Commitments’ when An Post marked the centenary of Irish cinema in 1996.
Bronagh’s first venture into the world of the performing arts had however taken place some years before this accolade. She was just about six-years old.
“I was in primary two at the Nazareth House and we were doing ‘The Gingerbread Queen’. I think it was the Christmas show. It was run by the lovely Miss Kelly, my teacher. She picked out the natural performers in the class.
“I just really wanted the red shiny coat with the gold buttons, the blue soldier’s top hat and the navy trousers. It was the classic drummer boy outfit and I wanted it. But, I ended up playing the queen which I didn’t realise was the lead. It was also under duress because I had to wear my sister’s First Communion dress which I wasn’t too happy about.
“But, I rocked it - wearing a crown and ended up out on the stage singing the line - ‘one day in the palace of the queen the chef did a marvellous thing’. I still remember the song. I just basically stood at the front of the stage and everybody was looking up and adoring me and I just thought, aww this is fab. This is me now, I know what I want to do. I already had the adrenalin buzz of appearing on stage,” she said.
Yet, no one including the irrepressible little Miss Gallagher herself, could have foreseen what this first performance at the Bishop Street school would later lead to.
After an appearance in the 1990 film ‘Dear Sarah’ Bronagh Gallagher’s big break came with her role as Bernie McGloughlin in the aforementioned and still beloved 1991 film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Commitments’. This was quickly followed by appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace’, ‘You, Me & Marley’ and ‘Divorcing Jack’ amongst many more. In 2020, Bronagh was included in the Irish Times list of Ireland’s greatest film actors.
Theatre work has included a touring production of ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ and as Rose Narracott in the National Theatre’s production of ‘War Horse’.
‘Precious Soul’, Bronagh’s 2004 debut album featured collaborations with Brian Eno on the songs ‘He Don’t Love You’ and ‘Hooks’ and was followed by the albums ‘Gather Your Greatness’ and the eponymous ‘Bronagh Gallagher’. Touring and notable live musical performances have also become a trade mark of the Derry woman’s musical career.
Bronagh continued: “I always loved performing and acting stuff out in the house and I was always head locking my brother and sister into doing stuff. I think I just loved showing off and performing as a lot of kids do. I think it was because I did so much of it at Nazareth House - they were always great. The feis was such a huge part of that.
“I went to Irish dancing but I wasn’t very good and then I went to dancing classes with a lovely lady called Susan McMillan. I wanted to dance, I always wanted to be a dancer so it was ballet and modern dance. Susan was great and started entering us into competitions all over the north. And then obviously came the feis. I then went to lovely Carita Kerr and did speech and drama. But I also had a great love for Miss Hunt, our music teacher in St Mary’s and the wonderful Cora King. Cora was really important in my development because she encouraged me to take literature seriously. That included classical British literature, including Shakespeare which I still to this day struggle to understand.
“I have never done Shakespeare in any professional capacity but I have worked for years in British theatres including The National Theatre and at the Royal Court and the West End. I didn’t have the most orthodox upbringing or training, but I got there in the end. I didn’t get into any drama schools but I’ve gotten work since I was very young. So, all those teachers really nurtured me.
“At that time in Derry nobody went to acting college, nobody was a stage performer in any big professional capacity. But, I think my teachers took me seriously because I was quite blinded by it all. There was no way that I wasn’t going to do it, although my parents were probably thinking ‘what are we going to do with this wee girl – she’s driving us mad’. But, they really encouraged me and recognised that maybe I had a capability for it.”
As with most people who have artistic leanings there is a family heritage that Bronagh Gallagher can proudly link back to.
“My mum’s dad Jackie Drury would have been involved in a lot of amateur dramatics in Derry. He was a great singer and he loved music. But my mum and dad are also huge fans of music. They’ve great taste in music and always encouraged us to listen to great tunes. They just played great music in the house. They also had a love of great films – Woody Allen, Scorsese and all the great classic American cowboy films.
“My mother also has a great love of fashion and style. So they were very artistic people and still are. My mother is a great dressmaker too. She still sews every night in her studio at home.
“They were always involved in art and used to take us to the Orchard Gallery and to any shows that were going on. At the time my parents were growing up they were so limited to what they were exposed to. If my mum was growing up in Derry now she would have been at an art college. So it’s in the genes. Louise and Paul, my sister and brother are artistic people as well,” Bronagh said.
While the competitive element of Derry Feis for Bronagh came initially through her primary and secondary schools, it is not the tension of competition that she recalls most fondly. Instead, it is the many other aspects of the feis and indeed the build-up to it each year that pleasantly refreshes her memory.
She added: “There was such excitement at that time of year. It was such an amazing time of year for a start. It was the spring and the weather always seemed to be beautiful in Derry around then. I remember we were taken up to the convent in Pump Street which is now The Playhouse and we were rehearsed up there. That always really excited me as a kid.
“I always remember that I had new socks - those beautiful knitted cotton socks that were up to the knee. We used to get them in Scott’s, I think. We always had new patent shoes because they would be your Easter shoes too. This was put together with an immaculate school uniform. Then everyone would meet up and I remember that everyone’s hair would be a bit nicer. You were going into a pageant really.
“After the rehearsal you would walk down the Walls in all your glory in your uniform and into the Guildhall. Going to the Guildhall during the feis was great – it was like our Wembley.
“We just thought we were great. You’d always get something after it like crisps and lemonade. Even to take part was just so exciting whether we won or not, although our school choir did do quite well.
“You’d also enter as a solo artist through Cora King and do speech and drama and through Carita Kerr. I think when I entered through Carita I was able to wear my own dresses. So it was like the highlight of the year really. It was exciting to see all the other schools from other parts of the town that you didn’t know. For kids, meeting other people is so exciting and it opened our minds.
“I remember an adjudicator who gave me a ‘highly commended’ and said that my dress was beautiful and that my voice was strong. She said that I had great potential and that possibly, I could have a journey in the arts. I remember her being so encouraging. As a kid when someone in authority says that to you it gives you great confidence. I didn’t win but I was delighted with that.
“The difference between people making it and not making it is the confidence given to you as a child. If you nurture a child’s talent you’re given them the structural, fundamental bones that they need to keep going in life. Life is about confidence and having the belief in yourself that you can do this. If a child is told, ‘you can’t, you can’t, you can’t’ it can destroy them unless you have an extremely strong spirit.
“My parents never once said no. They were one hundred per cent behind me. When the teachers said I had a capability for it they gave me a scholarship and I went to London and auditioned for about six drama schools. I didn’t get into any of them but I started working in the arts shortly after that anyway. So, confidence is everything.
“I have a 17-year-old nephew now who’s a drummer and he showed capability a few years ago in my house. He went onto my drum kit and I said to myself ‘oh, oh, he’s got it!’ Now he’s at a music college in Belfast. He and his mates are waiting to talk to me later because they are obsessed with being in a band. It’s about passing that confidence on and telling them that they’re great and to write their own songs.
“I know so many great actors and musicians who had really troubled journeys because their parents told them they didn’t have the ability. It’s cruel beyond words when you don’t give children that confidence. We were all children at one point. Some of the greatest artists we know were given cushioned guidance throughout. I also see people with confidence that doesn’t necessarily match their talent and they’ve made extremely good careers.
“The feis was absolutely a great platform to hone those skills. Without a shadow of a doubt. That’s where you learned how to perform. I learned things at the feis that I have kept with me. Even watching other people perform, the advice from the adjudicators and learn, learn, learn. You’re always evolving. Be confident, know your lines and try and be relaxed going on stage. Those are the fundamental things that I got from it.
“I think the cultural legacy of Derry Feis is that it has been a pivotal point of keeping the community together and uniting the community in traumatic times during the Troubles. The feis was inclusive of the community as a whole because it was about children, young people and arts and performance. There aren’t any boundaries with arts and it is our great unifier.
“I think it gave people such a focal point. It gave people such hope and a relief during times that were so difficult and made us come out of our own heads and think about the future. It was song and music and obviously all about our own musical tradition in the town which was and is huge. It gave people that joy that was just needed. It was Easter week and then it led into the summer holidays. It has played a huge part.
“Would I encourage young people to get involved in the arts and performing? Of course. Big time. Technology has made people much more isolated and singular which obviously isn’t a good thing. It has cut a lot of the middle men out in terms of studio time and making records but I just think getting involved in the arts is a wonderful thing to do. For younger people especially, the feis is great. It’s great discipline for young people and if you want to perform it’s just a great experience for them to have so they can figure out if that’s what they actually want to do.”