Down and Out in Carrickmore: Why Orwell's a Tyrone homecoming for Phelim Drew

As Phelim Drew prepares to take his one-man play Down and Out to Carrickmore, the actor son of legendary Dubliner Ronnie tells Gail Bell why Co Tyrone always feels like home

Phelim Drew on stage in Down and Out in Paris and London
Gail Bell

HE has never been down and out himself but Dublin actor Phelim Drew – son of legendary Dubliner Ronnie – is set to bring George Orwell's memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London passionately to life on a small stage in Co Tyrone tomorrow.

The visit to Carrickmore's Patrician Hall has prompted much excitement and represents a sort of homecoming for the actor whose grandfather, Dr Patrick McCartan, was born in the village in 1878 and is still remembered with much affection by the community today.

"My grandfather was one of Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and although he went to medical school and practised in Carrickmore for a while, he was deeply affected by the injustices he saw," Phelim explains.

"It will be great to bring the play to Carrickmore – I was there last Easter for an exhibition at The Patrician which was a fantastic show incorporating music, dance and drama and depicting events around 1916. I look forward to seeing a few familiar faces as well as, hopefully, some new ones."

No doubt his grandfather would be pleased with the Orwell play (a monologue in which Phelim is the sole performer) as it too draws on great social injustices while portraying a man drifting through life, scraping by in dead-end jobs and soaking up the rich underbelly of Parisian life.

Despite the premise, however, as well as empathy, a wry sense of humour hums throughout the story which recalls Orwell's time in both cities, when he worked in a hotel washing dishes and later lived as a tramp.

The story was adapted by Phelim for stage and, after opening in Dublin in 2014 for the 'Show in a Bag' initiative – part of Dublin Fringe Festival – it has been reprised for a whirlwind 14-date tour across Ireland, including a notable stop-off in Greystones, Co Wicklow, where the actor grew up.

Although aware his childhood was not 'the norm' in the conventional sense, it became the new normal for his younger self, as he and sister Cliodhna were exposed to music and performing from a young age.

Patrick McCartan, on left, with fellow republican leader Liam Mellows in 1917

"From a very early age, I used to go and see The Dubliners play and I was aware that my upbringing was slightly different to other people's," Phelim recalls. "My dad was away a lot, but my sister I still had a routine of school and homework with our mother. I guess we just got used to it, as kids do."

Sadly, his father, Ronnie, and mother, Deirdre, both died from cancer several years ago – last September the family organised a fundraiser, 'Here's to You, Ronnie Drew', in aid of the Cancer Clinical Research Trust at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, where they passed away within a year of each other.

The death of another Dubliner, Eamonn Campbell, last week at the age of 70, also prompted nostalgic memories for Phelim, who remembers Campbell and his dad "really making each other laugh".

"I travelled with Dad and Eamonn to see the shows and, above all, I remember the strong sense of humour between them," he says. "They were not just band members, they were good friends."

Although undoubtedly influenced by The Dubliners' music, Phelim – who is married to Sue Collins of comedy trio The Nualas – found his natural home on stage after joining a local amateur dramatics group and then studying at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin.

The Dubliners with founding member Ronnie Drew front right

"I love music and I play a bit, but I have always felt more comfortable acting," he says. "People always ask, do you prefer stage or television, but really, you just go where the work is."

Over a 30-year career in the business, that has taken him in diverse directions in both mediums, with roles in My Left Foot, The Commitments, Angela's Ashes and as piano store owner Billy in the hit musical Once.

This is the first time, however, that he has dipped his toes into producing his own work.

"Adapting a novel for the stage was definitely a new departure for me," says the 48 year-old father-of-four. "It has been a lovely exercise, but it's a bit like playing a musical instrument; if you don't keep working at it, your brain starts to play tricks."

It was Ronnie who introduced him to George Orwell and he enjoyed reading many of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm. The Down and Out story, though, is a favourite for its tone, colour, characters and wit.

"Set in the early 20s in Paris, it is romantic and funny, but the real reason I was drawn to it is due to the underlying social message about injustice and poverty," Phelim concludes.

"The book was a real eye-opener for me – George Orwell's take on poverty, its causes and effects and how, at any point in time, we are all just one step away from washing dishes. It is still a story for our times."

:: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, adapted and starring Phelim Drew, is on stage at The Patrician, Carrickmore, on Friday October 27.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 to get full access