100-year-old P.E.I. tradition being revived for St. Patrick's week

The Benevolent Irish Society is reviving a tradition that dates back to 1885 — its St. Patrick's week play.

B.I.S. theatre production started in 1885

The Benevolent Irish Society is hoping to revive the tradition of a St. Patrick's week play, which dates back to before the turn of the last century, (Sara Fraser/CBC)

The Benevolent Irish Society is reviving a tradition that dates back to 1885 — its St. Patrick's week play. 

The nearly-200-year old B.I.S. began as a service organization for Irish immigrants to P.E.I. and exists to celebrate and educate about Irish culture, and for 100 years it put on a play for St. Patrick's Day.

"It's a very, very old tradition so I'm really happy to be bringing it back," said Mary Ellen Callaghan, the society's vice-president and chair of the play committee.

'It was a very big deal'

The play stopped in 1985 because there weren't enough volunteers to run it, Callaghan said. The society's membership was aging and dwindling. 

A photo of the B.I.S. players as they staged Robert Emmett for St. Patrick's Day in 1894. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

"When you were young, it was something to look forward to — it happened in March, winter was over," Callaghan said. "It was a very big deal." 

There are photos of former productions on the walls at the society's building on North River Road dating back to 1894. 

"It was always a play with Irish overtones, because of the tradition," she added, like Kitty from Killarney and Jenny Kissed Me.

'Just hilarious'

This year, the society has chosen to stage the popular three-act comedy A Wake in the West. The story takes place in a small fishing village in the west of Ireland in the 1970s. Tom Healy has died and is being waked in his home. 

Joan (Avalon Dennis) serves Father Cassidy (Pat Fitzgerald) a cup of tea at the wake while Martin (Mateo Blacquiere), left, and Barney (Gordon Cobb), seated, look on. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

The story has comedy, romance, religion, and more, Callaghan explains, and all generations can enjoy it. 

The play is being staged in partnership with P.E.I. group A Community Theatre, or ACT. 

"I don't have a sense of humour but it makes me laugh, so if it makes me laugh it's going to make everybody laugh. It's just hilarious!" Callaghan said. 

It'll be B.I.S. president Patrick Fitzgerald's stage debut. He plays Father Cassidy, and he's the only player who won't have to fake an Irish accent.

"I always wanted to be in a play so it was a great opportunity for me to get in there and get involved," Fitzgerald said.

Sponsors being revived, too

The society had also saved programs from dozens of past plays, and leafing through them gave Callaghan an idea. 

The St. Patrick's play Retribution; or a Fisherman's Luck was staged in 1917 in the People's Theatre in Charlottetown. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

Many of the businesses who helped sponsor the play years ago are still a going concern — like Maritime Electric, McAskill's Woodworking, Hyndman and Co. and Purity Dairy. 

Callaghan approached them and asked if they'd like to sponsor this year's play, and 10 of them did. 

"I said you sponsored us 70 years ago, would you like to sponsor us again? They said, 'Yes, no problem!" Callaghan said with a chuckle. 

'Lots of repercussions'

The society had a stage that it uses for musical performances but it needed to make a substantial investment in a new curtain for the play, which cost $3,000.

Mary Ellen Callaghan of the B.I.S. remembers looking forward to the St. Patrick's week plays put on by the B.I.S. when she was a child in the 1960s and 70s. (Submitted by Mary Ellen Callaghan)

"We always had ceilidhs but we've never had theatre here," Callaghan said. Now, they're able to market themselves to other groups in the community who might want to rent the facility for theatre. 

"So, there's lots of repercussions," she said. "To allow the B.I.S. to be a place where amateur theatre can propagate." 

The whole play cost about $7,500 for play royalties, costumes and the curtain. The provincial government has pitched in with a grant of $2,500, she said.

Any profits the play makes will be shared by the B.I.S. and ACT, she said. 

"The money that we make here helps us to do other things," Callaghan said, such as the society's free winter-lecture series.

'This is about our heritage'

"If we're successful this year we'll bring it back," Callaghan said. "It was too bad it fell by the wayside."

The play includes an element of romance — even though it's set at a wake. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

B.I.S. membership has doubled in the last few years to 156, many of them younger members, Callaghan said, so there are once again volunteers on which to draw for the play as well as lectures, ceilidhs and variety shows. 

"This is about our heritage, Irish culture and heritage, and there are 30,000 of us on P.E.I.," said Callaghan, who can trace her family roots back several generations to 1839, when the Callaghans from County Monaghan arrived by ship and settled in Emyvale, P.E.I. 

There's a resurgence of interest in genealogy and family history, she said, because searching on the internet and using DNA kits is now easy and popular.

The B.I.S. and ACT will present the play six times on stage at the B.I.S. on March 7 to 9 and March 12 through 14. 

Tickets can be found online for $20 per person, or $17 for a limited number of B.I.S. and ACT members. 

More P.E.I. news


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at


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