Creggan Pantomimes

1973 Creggan Pantomime Cast with Phil Coulter, James, Fr Rooney, Jim Campbell (Producer)

While it was clearly inadvisable to try to attract audiences into the heart of town when there was so much destruction and danger, there was no reason whatsoever why parochial entertainments should feel constrained in the same way. As city centre events lost their appeal and the commercial heart rapidly declined, many people were still prepared to attend concerts, shows or other events provided they didn’t have to leave their own immediate locality. In the absence of the big shows and attractions which audiences had flocked to in St. Columb’s Hall there were opportunities for other venues to flourish. One such was St. Mary’s Community  Centre in Creggan.

Fr Martin Rooney was the administrator for the Creggan parish which had a large and growing population. He was also the proud manager of a brand new community centre and wished it to become the social hub of an estate which suffered from high levels of deprivation. As well as this he had a close friendship with James Mac Cafferty. After some discussion they soon concluded that a Christmas Pantomime would be an ideal means of introducing the local residents to this new amenity.

January 1st 1973 saw the first of a series of pantos which ran until 1978. Cinderella brought together again a seasoned team who had enjoyed so much  success in “The Hall”. Along with James as M.D.  Neil Mc Mahon was the producer and script - writer once more. The orchestra had been with James through many productions. New young performers from Creggan got their first stage experience now and took on bigger roles as the years went on, but the principal parts were taken initially by veterans of previous shows. Mary Mc Laughlin made her debut as sole choreographer and she and her husband, Don O’Doherty, took more to do with production subsequently, but for now he was taking his first steps in a principal part as one of the ugly sisters.

The recipe was a sound one and it packed the community centre during those years. James’s pantomimes were always readily identifiable by the high musical content with solos, duets, adults and children’s choruses and a lot of four - part harmonies. He also did much of the instrumental arranging for the orchestra.

Over the years inevitable changes took place. Neil Mc Mahon was replaced by Don O’Doherty who obtained Jack Cruise scripts from Dublin and adapted them for local audiences, but they never seemed to have the same appeal as Neil’s. And by the end of that run of pantos James had been joined by Mary and Don as an established production team.                                                                                             

The seventies drew to a close and, although the troubles had not abated, Fr Con mc Laughlin was anxious to recapture the magical attraction that St. Columb’s Hall had held for Derry audiences. He invited James and the team to take up residence once more. As he was to discover, it wasn’t just as easy as Fr Daly had made it look.