97-year-old Betty O’Donnell, a founding member of Carlow Little Theatre Society in 1945, has fond memories of her acting debut all those years ago
By Charlie Keegan
BETTY O’Donnell is the last surviving link to the origins of Carlow Little Theatre Society (CLTS). Betty was a founder member of the society in 1945 and now, 76 years later, is the only survivor from that first meeting of the group, which was held in December 1944.
The former Betty Prendergast was a member of a well-known Carlow town family, who lived at Cox’s Lane.
Born on 29 August 1924, Betty now lives in the Athy area of Co Kildare.
She was part of the cast for the first CLTS production in 1945, when she appeared in BG McCarthy’s three-act play The whip hand, playing the part of Mrs Fogarty’s maid. While she had a relatively small part, Betty can still, at a distance of 76 years, recite her speaking part in the play, word for word.
Mrs Fogarty is the central character in the play, which went onstage at the Coliseum Cinema on Wednesday and Thursday 23-24 May 1945. Mrs Fogarty was played by Carmel Duggan, later to be Carmel McDonnell, who was a long-time Fine Gael member of Carlow County Council and former cathaoirleach of the local authority.
All of the action in the play takes place in the kitchen of Mrs Fogarty’s farm and occurs in the first three weeks of July.
Betty’s late brother Pearse Prendergast was also a member of the cast of The whip hand, playing the part of Larry Fogarty, Mrs Fogarty’s youngest son. And her first cousin Joe Donohoe played the part of Dan Keogh, described in the programme as a ‘warm’ farmer.
Betty, through her daughter Una Daly, provided a programme from her first stage venture. That was when the pupils of St Leo’s secondary school in Carlow staged Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs over four nights in January 1936. The name Betty Prendergast appears among a big list of ‘Fairies’ in the operetta.
Betty is the last surviving member of the Prendergast family, which was well known in the Carlow area – Betty’s brother Seán was a long-time member of Carlow County Council and Carlow Urban District Council, being cathaoirleach of both local authorities in his time. The Prendergasts were, in Betty’s words, “a good Fianna Fáil family”.
A programme was produced for The whip hand, with its front and back covers produced in a deep shade of blue. The programme, which sold at three old pence, was supported by advertisements from a number of local companies and firms – a number of which still exist in the commercial life of Carlow town.
Betty remembered that a man called Frank Webster, who was an ex-Abbey Theatre actor, took part in the play. She regarded him as an outstanding stage performer.
The following reference was made to Betty in the review of the play, which appeared in The Nationalist: ‘What we saw of Betty Prendergast as Norah the maid, makes us look forward to her in a bigger role in future productions.’
Of Pearse’s performance, the reviewer wrote: ‘Pearse Prendergast had the difficult part of the chronic medical student for which he was well cast, his diction was somewhat indistinct, but he has plenty of ability as an actor.’
The whip hand was the only three-act play in which Betty O’Donnell appeared, to her memory. She did perform in a number of one-acts. She gave up on theatrical life when she married Jimmy O’Donnell and moved away from Carlow. Betty went on to have a family of eight children – husband Jimmy passed away in 1971.
Betty was the youngest in a family of six children and is the last surviving member of the Prendergast family. She is predeceased by brothers Seán, Pearse and Eamon and by two sisters Ita Burke (Dublin) and Maura Coady (Wimbledon, London).
The full cast for that inaugural play by Carlow Little Theatre in May 1945, just weeks after the end of World War II, was: Mrs Fogarty, Carmel Duggan; Paul Fogarty, Uncle Paul, her brother-in-law, Tom Walshe; John Fogarty, her eldest son, Terence O’Moran; Larry Fogarty, her younger son, Pearse Prendergast; Berney Regan, intimate family friend, Nancy Neerman; Dan Keogh, a ‘warm’ farmer, Joe Donohoe; Maureen Keogh, his daughter, Kitty Ryan; Willie Brannigan ‘The Fixer’, Frank Webster; Peter Cavanagh, an archaeologist, Robert Carolan; Norah, Mrs Fogarty’s maid, Betty Prendergast.
The whip hand was directed by Stephen Watson, with Robert Collier as stage manager.
This article appears in this year’s Fireside Companion, on sale now.