The Legacy of Eugene Hannaway

August 17, 2010

by Peter Makem

Eugene Hannaway of Lislea was one of South Armagh’s great cultural figures. 

A  teacher and school principal of superb academic record, he left a powerful legacy in the wider cultural field notably in the area of drama and was an inspirational figure to his community throughout his active life.

Born in 1927 he attended the local Lislea primary school and went on to the Abbey Grammar in the famous old building. He afterwards trained as a teacher at St Mary’s, Belfast and his first appointment was at Ballinaclosha school to where he cycled from Lislea and stayed in lodgings during the week.  He then took up an appointment at the Abbey Primary in Newry and remained there until the early sixties when his superior teaching gifts came to the attention of the then Parish Priest of Lower Killeavey, Fr Cullen.  Accordingly, Eugene came to teach at “Poppy Fearon’s” school on the Green Road before taking up the position of Principal of the newly built St Peter’s Cloughreagh in 1965.

His record at preparing his pupils for the 11+ exam is legendary and at the Abbey Primary in one particular year, 21 out of his 22 pupils who sat the exam passed. Eugene was twice the recipient of the Blue Ribbon Carlisle-Blake award for the advancement of education.

While his teaching record was outstanding, he is specially remembered for his extra curriculum emphasis which included the wider field of Irish, drama and stagecraft.  St Peter’s twice won the All Ireland Scoil Dramaíocht under his direction and the school was constantly receiving acclaim for its productions.  From early on, he saw the stage as the central means of communication. This was the natural abode of the interpretation of history, where the legends and myths were regenerated and re-interpreted and where society most deeply reflected itself. He would have agreed with Eliot that the natural abode of poetry is the stage.

There was a mystical sense in him that energised his responsibility to family, school and community, but he was no misty-eyed dreamer.  He was a man of action and serious discipline who set challenges and standards at all times and who saw those in his charge, notably his pupils, in terms of their widest potential.  For his pupils, the introduction to the stage under his guidance was their first real sense of self worth and self confidence, being applauded and acknowledged for a challenge met and overcome, praised for their courage and talents.  Many former pupils of St Peter’s and the Abbey attended his wake and funeral simply to pay their respects to a person who had made such a lasting impression on them.  They spoke of Eugene Hannaway’s deep interest in the pupil as a person of potential and who worked to bring alive that potential  both academically and culturally.  One recalled being taught Emmet’s Speech from the Dock, how to project his voice, perfect the pauses, the breathing, the posture, the hand movements – a life’s education in an hour’s lesson.

There were few who matched his sense of surroundings, born under Slieve Gullion and the Ring, heartland of Irish myth and legend, of spectacular scenery and rare geological structure.

In his life long possession with drama and the stage, he gave of his talents freely and enthusiastically. He was a prominent member of the Abbey past pupils drama group and in the 1980s was a founder member of the Sylvan players.

A natural leader and man of initiative, Eugene was the inspirational figure in the founding of the Lislea Rural Drama Festival, a unique venture which next year celebrates its 30th anniversary, and was also one of the main personalities in the creation of the Lislea Community Centre where the Festival is staged.

His own acting abilities are well established along with the multitude of characters he played throughout his long career. His voice, bare and poignant as the chanter of the pipes was made for the recitation of dramatic lines. We are told that in his house he would often break into lines from the Tempest or Hamlet or from Yeats, with perfect recollection and impervious to whoever was present.  He saw rural drama as a mode of education and entertainment within the community, a means of regenerating rural identity, giving the same sense of self worth and self confidence as he generated at school.

The first Lislea Rural Drama Festival opened on 29th January 1982 and in his address on the opening night as Chairman of the Drama Committee, he stated that the dream was “to re-establish rural drama, to give it back the place it once had in the rural community and to present to the people once more the works of old masters like O’Casey, Shiels and Synge”.

Eugene Hannaway was given much and he gave much in return.  His sense of responsibility to family, to pupils, community and district was exceptional and all are recipients of his legacy; love of country, love of district and its people, of literature, notably drama, of his native culture, of the art of teaching and of his boundless generosity of spirit.

Eugene was predeceased by his wife Madge and is survived by his sons Liam, Aengus, Fearghal,Thurlough and daughter Maeve.