The Bell Ringer


A new play to be performed in the Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville, from February 2nd to 12th, it is inspired by one of the most tragic accidents ever to occur in Ireland.

On the 26th September 1926, forty-eight people were burned to death in a make-shift cinema in the village of Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick. It was the Stardust Disaster of its day and, coincidentally the same number of people died in both accidents. Now, a grand-nephew of one of the victims of the earlier disaster has written a play that both commemorates the event and re-imagines it entirely.

Charlie McCarthy’s play The Bell Ringer is set in a fictional village and tells the story from the perspective of a lonely outsider who is also the bell ringer for the local church. In the play, this heart-breaking character falls in love with an unattainable young woman and organises the showing of a film to impress her. Tragically, this leads to a fire that kills both her and many others in the village.

McCarthy who is an award- winning writer and director says he too has been haunted by the event ever since hearing about it growing up in nearby Charleville, Co. Cork. Then much later he discovered that his own grand-aunt had been one of the victims. ‘I don’t remember my father ever talking about it. I think there was shame around the unusual circumstances of how she died in the fire- it seems that she was trapped in a window and this may have blocked other people from getting out.’

McCarthy had considered dealing with the story first as a film, then as a drama-documentary but finally decided to explore the material in theatrical form. ‘It was a pandemic project’ he says. ‘ Like most of the country I was in deepest lockdown, television production was in paralysis and I needed a writing project. Once I found a way of telling the story in theatrical form, I felt liberated.’

While the play has a tragic event as its inspiration, McCarthy was as interested in evoking the life of the fictional village and the rich, funny, complex lives that were lived there. ‘ The characters in the play have no idea this horrific event is going to happen, so we first see them, in all their glory, as funny, odd, surprising, sad or happy human beings,’ The play’s wide range of characters will be played by two well-known actors, both originally from Co. Limerick: Susannah de Wrixon and Patrick Ryan.

The two actors, Susannah de Wrixon and Pat Ryan, who will feature in the forthcoming stage production.

McCarthy says ‘ I am thrilled to have Susannah and Patrick on board. Not only are they exceptional talents but they have an innate feeling for the location of the story.’

As lockdown ended McCarthy’ s play was read and admired by a number of Production Companies but each of them had a back log of productions due to the pandemic.’ McCarthy gave the play to his friend in Charleville, Kevin O’ Shea, a passionate stalwart of the local and national amateur drama scene. ‘Kevin loved it and decided the play warranted a professional production.’ And so, he set up Dunmore Productions with support from family members.

Starting on Jan 31st, the Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville will host the premiere of this fascinating new play. Both McCarthy and O’ Shea are excited at the thought of telling this story close to where it happened. They hope the people of North Cork and West Limerick will be both entertained and moved by the play. O’ Shea says “The real test will be whether the play appeals to the people from which it comes, that’s all that matters. If it has a life after Charleville and gets a wider, national audience that will be an extra blessing.”

The Bell Ringer will run in the Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville from Jan 31st to 26th February.

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