Members of the Ballina Dramatic Society (BDS) who are bringing Welcome To The Stranger to stages in Ballina and Westport.

Epic Famine production on stage locally

A STUNNING production by the Ballina Dramatic Society depicting the ravages of the Great Famine as it impacted on the population of Mayo will be staged in Ballina Arts Centre this week and in Westport Town Hall Theatre next week, writes Tom Gillespie.

Welcome To The Stranger recounts the extraordinary journey of an American woman, Asenath Nicholson, who witnessed the ravages of the Famine in Mayo and left an unflinching account of her experience.

In association with Keepsake Theatre, Ballina Dramatic Society will present the play in Ballina Arts Centre from today (Thursday) until Saturday (April 13) and in Westport Town Hall Theatre on Good Friday (April 19).

For this unique production, featuring 19 local actors, playwright Rua Breathnach and Belgian director Rémi Beelprez have created an epic play that casts new light on the most traumatic event in modern Irish history.

Late last year a unique challenge presented itself to the society, courtesy of new member Tanya Flynn, when they were afforded the opportunity to collaborate with the Cork-based playwright Breathnach and director Beelprez to stage Welcome To The Stranger.

This contemporary piece of theatre about the Great Famine is based on historical records but relayed through a very different approach, including the undertaking of rehearsals in blocks of five days and/or via Skype; taking on several roles; and working with an external director and a moving set.

Ballina Dramatic Society relished every minute of the challenge. Featuring a cast ranging in age from seven to 70 years and numerous new faces, Welcome To The Stranger centres around American writer and philanthropist Asenath Hatch Nicholson. She was the proprietor of a New York boarding house where she met many Irish emigrants fleeing their famine-ravished homeland.

In 1844, this progressive, brave woman crossed the Atlantic to witness the conditions in Ireland at first-hand. She documented her experiences in her journals.

When she arrived in north Mayo, Asenath was faced with unparalleled poverty and, haunted by the scenes she witnessed, returned to that area again in the cruel winter of 1847 when the Famine was at its peak, doing everything she could to alleviate the suffering of the ordinary people.

In Welcome To The Stranger, Breathnach cleverly weaves this factual historical account of the Famine into a sequence of scenes that explores the complexity of Irish society during that era, affording a graphic insight into the conditions that prevailed through the eyes of the real people that Asenath encountered on her journey.

Tickets for the Ballina shows on April 11, 12 and 13 cost €12 and can be booked on (096) 73593 or The production will be staged in Westport Town Hall Theatre for one night only on Friday, April 19, at 8 p.m., and admission is also €12. Bookings can be made on (098) 28459 or by emailing