The Leader Interview..with Gabrielle Wallace O’Donnell Limerick Civic Trust
THE interview takes place in a room with a view, amid the understated grandeur of the Georgian House in Pery Square – a jewel in the crown of the Limerick Civic Trust.
Across the street, the still, bare branches in the People’s Park are waiting in early spring suspense – waiting, Kavanesque style, for the Word.
This is the face of elegant Limerick, lovingly preserved from the past and as graceful as it ever was, even in a changing architectural streetscape.
It is an appropriate place for the interview, because Gabrielle Wallace O’Donnell, the first woman chairman of the Limerick Civic Trust, loves this house. Apart altogether from her appreciation of the aesthetic, she believes that she has been here before.
“As far as I know, this was the home of my mother’s gynaecologist, Dr McMahon,” she says. A speech and drama practitioner of note, she teaches her classes here now and prepares her pupils for Trinity/Guildhall London examinations as well as Feile Luimni, Feis Maitiu in Cork and Dublin and the National Children’s Theatre. It would be almost impossible to count the number of awards her pupils have won over the years, but generations of Limerick children have taken their cues from Gabrielle. Her pupils have also taken part in the European Children’s Drama/Theatre encounter. Interviewing her at all seemed like a bit of a challenge.
“Is it too late to ditch the Tipperary accent?” I wondered frantically as I made my way to the Georgian House. Luckily, I didn’t try, because Gabrielle Walllace O’Donnell, who is nothing if not gracious, firmly believes that people should always be themselves.
“It is certainly not about accent. I wouldn’t want anyone to change his or her accent. This is about the development of the person through drama, running parallel with the development of the performance. It’s also about effective communication.”
Friendly but reserved, she doesn’t really want to talk about herself at all. But she will do it anyway to advance the cause of the Limerick Civic Trust, an organisation to which she is firmly committed. She’s the first woman ever to be elected to the chair, and the 14th chairman since the organisation was founded over 25 years ago. She takes over from former chairman, Martin Bourke.
“I really love Limerick, both city and county, and I’m very proud to have been elected chair of the Civic Trust for the next two years. I’m looking forward to it immensely.
My first week was fairly hectic. We had a courtesy visit to the Bishop’s Palace from the Belgian Ambassador, Robert Devriese on the Monday. On the Wednesday we were out at UL for the conferring of an honorary degree on our director, Denis Leonard.
“Then on Saturday night we were at the Mid-West Arts and Media Awards in the Radisson where Denis again picked up an award – the Richard Harris lifetime achievement award. It was a great start, I have to say.”
She talks enthusiastically of the Trust’s vision, what it has achieved over a quarter of a century, and what the future holds, and she is confident that the recession will not hold them back now. On the immediate agenda is the erection of slabs at the new Pery Gate entrance to the People’s Park which will tell the story of 1,000 years of Limerick history “communicated through the people of Limerick”.
The restoration of the drinking fountain in the park – the Richard Russell memorial – is also on her programme this year, as is a schools writing competition in which “pupils will write essays on traditions or stories connected with Limerick”. “We have 30 projects for this year, ” she says, “including a lunch time talk by a prominent personality and a musical food evening in the Georgian House on April 23.”
“And,” she adds, tentatively, “we may also have some good news on the Opera Centre and the Catherine Hayes revival centre.” She recalls a visit to the grave of Catherine Hayes in Kensal Green cemetery in London, which the Trusts helps to maintain.
They launched the project in the House of Lords, where she met David Trimble and was very impressed by the former Ulster Unionist leader. Her pride in Limerick and its heritage is unbounded. This is where her roots are firmly planted. She grew up in the North Circular Road, one of three children and the only daughter of the Nancy and Michael K Wallace, who was a Chartered Accountant.
It was a privileged upbringing, she agrees. Her mother, an avid fan of the late Anew McMaster, instilled an interest in drama in her children at an early age, and one of Gabrielle’s brothers, Kevin now has his own production company in London. But she was always conscious of being socially involved. “It was a fantastic upbringing. My parents were of that generation who gave so much and were so involved in the city.”
Her father, a great rugby supporter was also a director of Limerick soccer in its heyday, with Billy Higgins, Ned Cussen and Ren Cusack. She’s a rugby fan herself too. “I was so happy to be at the All Blacks game in November. My dad and my brother Michael were at the first one.” She lives now in the lovely family home in North Circular Road, where she can indulge her intense love of reading and literature.
“My father had a huge collection of books and it’s great to be able to dip into that whenever I feel like it.” Her only son, Thomas is studying Law at the Kings Inns after getting a Masters at UCD, and is waiting to be called to the Bar. Her brother, Michael, is following in their father’s footsteps and is a Chartered Accountant. He’s a past president of the Munster branch of the IRFU and was honorary treasurer of the branch for 17 years.
Her other brother, Kevin runs the KWL production company in London and is producer of the stage musical “Lord of the Rings”. “Having obtained the world stage rights from Saul Santz, he will now produce ‘Lord of the Rings’ in other countries around the world, including a world tour scheduled to start in New Zealand in 2010.” said Gabrielle. Kevin’s company is also preparing a new musical for 2011.
The ‘Lord of the Rings’ incidentally, was last month voted one of the ten greatest musicals of the last 30 years by the dress circle’s public vote. “We were all at the opening night in the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 2007 and it was a great gathering of family and friends,” she said. Gabrielle is a member of the Society of Teachers of Speech and Drama and holds a Licentiate from Trinity College, London and the London College of Music.
And while her pupils usually sweep the boards at Feile Luimni, Gabrielle herself was a former winner. She even got to keep one cup, having won it three years in a row. As well as her private practice, she also teaches drama at the Catherine McAuley School, from primary to secondary level – the Leaving Cert Applied, she points out, has a drama module. But what most people don’t realise is that Gabrielle Wallace O’Donnell is also a very talented artist.
She’s a graduate of the Limerick School of Art and Design and worked originally as a secondary school teacher at the Mercy Convent in Spanish Point and later at Bruff FCJ school. “Art and drama compliment each other. It’s the visual aspect that appeals to me especially when I’m working on mine”. She says that she never really left her art. “But I often felt guilty for having run off to speech and drama, when really I wanted both,” she said.
She has exhibited at the Oireacthas exhibitions and the Winter Artist’s in Limerick and has also exhibited her works in Dublin and Ennis. Her most recent exhibition was at the Bishop’s Palace in 2004. “Since that exhibition I have sold nine paintings through commission – in fact I sold one this week.” She is very grateful she says to her son Thomas, and to her brothers for “their encouragement and persuasion in getting me back to my painting”.
Rooted in old Limerick and a lady to her fingertips, the new chairperson of the Civic Trust is poised, cultured and very gracious, and the Trust couldn’t have found a better person to articulate its vision and take it to the next stage of restoring and preserving the city’s proud heritage.