wexford's puppet master
Colm Lowney is this month coming of age as Wexford's giant puppet master.
Twenty-one years ago, he and a group of friends from college founded the Bui Bolg street theatre company, which has become synonymous with Wexford in the more than two decades since then. It's fitting that the anniversary falls around St Patrick's Day, as Bui Bolg has become synonymous with the national holiday too, as evidenced even by their diary for this year, as they are represented in Dublin, Blanchardstown, Macroom and Dundalk as well as Wexford.
It's fitting too that it was a St Patrick's Day parade that kicked the whole thing off. It was the Limerick parade of 1993, when Lowney and friends were all still studying at the School of Art and Design there.
'There was a public art project by one of our tutors, Martin Folan (who passed away earlier this year), as he took a group of students who were…let's say 'struggling with the gallery idea!'...and put us to work on a parade pageant,' Colm recalls. 'It was a great success, and we really saw the potential of such a thing.
'We ended up all coming together then in 1994 to found our own operation. One of the lads - Mark Mulqueen - had left college in third year and done a training scheme with Macnas, so the structure of it was his idea, but the interest and desire to do it and to make it work was everybody's.'
Colm was the only Wexford person among that founding group, but the others proved eager to move and set up here, for reasons including the connections that Colm enjoyed here in terms of transport and premises and other factors - and also that they considered it far enough away from the Macnas base in Galway.
'We knew from the start that we'd be compared to them all the time, and people still think that - we're still often described as Macnas-style, even though our designs are quite different. I suppose they're still the market leader, but we do pretty okay too,' he says.
The fledgling operation found a base in the Whitemill Industrial Centre, and the friends behind it all began to live as well as work together. 'It was great craic, it really was,' grins Colm. 'Though it mightn't have been the best business model! You can imagine a crowd of college friends like that - we didn't know how to pick a manager, or even if we really needed one. But the way it worked out, Mark (Mulqueen) evolved into that role, as he was best at dealing with other organisations as regards seeking funding and things. He had a real brass neck on him, which is exactly what we needed at the time!'
Approval for a Fás scheme proved the first real breakthrough, and the first commission was being handed a budget of £400 to do an entry with an 'Irish Stew' theme for the St Patrick's Day parade in Wexford. Colm and the others went to schools and youth groups to get volunteer participants, people like drummer Nicky Bailey and musician Lee Byrne came on board too, and things were really up and running.
It wasn't long before their fame was spreading, and another big break also came through a St Patrick's Day parade - this time when Bui Bolg were judged the best entry in the Dublin event.
They are still regulars in the capital's festival to celebrate the national holiday, while other commissions and bookings have also been arriving for several years now from all over the country and even internationally.
One of the most memorable, Colm says, was when they took part in a parade in Singapore to mark the Chinese New Year. It's the largest such parade in the world, it's televised live across huge swathes of Asia - and the Bui Bolg entry featured giant puppets depicting the All-Ireland hurling final!
'It was a great laugh, but it was hard work too, because of what the weather is like there,' Colm recalls.
'We had to put on a scaled down version of it the following day, and I played one of the hurlers myself. There was a lot of slapstick in the show, and I got knocked over at one stage. I literally couldn't get up again because of the heat and humidity and exhaustion!'
Another international engagement has taken Colm to France for each of the past two Novembers, to work with a street arts creation company called 'Le Fourneau' ('The Furnace'), located in the docklands in the city of Brest. They organise and oversee production of sculptures and other displays for events such as pageants and Christmas markets all around Brittany, and Colm is due back there again next November - though he says the trip may be shorter this time because of how it's difficult to be away from home for so long, and also how it takes him away from other work.
Meanwhile, a commission being worked upon at the moment means that Mr Tayto is a Wexford man.
Bui Bolg have been engaged to produce the giant costumes that are a feature of Tayto Park in County Meath, which is due to re-open later this month. It's proving quite the job, as the outfits have to be able to stand up to all sorts of Irish weather for several hours at a time - and also because they could be worn by people of any shape or size or height. 'Feedback from last year was that one guy was 6' 2" but somebody else was only 5' 4" and tripping over the shoes, so there's a lot to consider before you can get it all right,' Colm says.
Business is somewhat cyclical for Bui Bolg - 'clusters' is a word Colm uses a lot, as he describes how several events tend to come close together, while there are also periods of months a time when he and just one or two others are the only ones knocking around the large workshop at Whitemill - but overall, he can't see himself ever doing anything else.
He admits that 21 years ago, he didn't think he'd still be there in the year 2015, and indeed he's the only one of the original crew still involved as all the others have drifted away over the years for one reason or another.
'I thought at first that maybe I'd give it a few years and then go travel and see the world, but I'm still here and there's no reason to think about getting out of here. It's great to be able to do something you enjoy and something that you're good at - maybe that's part of the problem, but it's not a bad problem to have!' he laughs.
The other founding members of Bui Bolg were:
Mark Mulqueen - went on to manage Cork City Arts Office and the Irish Film Institute. Currently the Press Officer for the Oireachtas
John Murphy - now an artist in the Basque Country.
Lucy Medlycott - now chairperson of the Irish Street Art & Circus Organisation
Maria Moore - now a secondary school art teacher in Athenry
Moray Bresnahan - currently running event management company www.goldiefish.ie
Valerie Kelly - now a clothing designer and manufacturer
Bui Bolg can be virtually assured of being a hit anywhere they go, but a real challenge they constantly face is the fight for funding.
Like many other organisations in the arts and other spheres, cutbacks in recent years have hit them hard, and just two years ago - in 2013 - they received the devastating news from the Arts Council that there wasn't a cent coming their way at all.
Things have since improved a bit in that regard and they're back on the list of Arts Council beneficiaries, but Colm Lowney says that things are still a far cry from how they used to be in that regard.
'Our first ever Arts Council grant was about £10,000 and then it increased each year for a while up to where I think the most we ever got was about €155,000 before it started to be cut again,' he says. 'At one stage, we were in line to receive equal funding with the likes of Macnas and Spraoi, but then the overall Arts Council budget was cut as the economy started to turn and we were one of twenty or thirty groups who were no longer considered in the higher echelons of who might be getting that sort of funding.
'Unfortunately, we've never been back at that same table again, and while we do receive something from the Arts Council, it's now only about one sixth of our turnover, where at its height, it was one third.'
The larger shortfall means there's more pressure on Bui Bolg to turn a profit on performances and other commissions - and also that there's more pressure on getting the money in quickly. Colm's job can be as much about chasing cheques as creating costumes.
'You're only ever set for a couple of weeks at a time after a payment comes in, so you can never plan too far down the line,' he says.
Still, he is always hopeful, and a big task coming up is the drawing up of a three-year plan for the Arts Council, ahead of a meeting with some of its officials.
'Hopefully that will go well and we'll get greater funding over the next few years,' he says.