Keith credits ‘grá for the stage’ to growing up in Athlone
Keith Walsh jokes that he must have got his “grá for the stage” representing the Retreat Area in Community Games finals variety show all those years ago, as he gears up to premiere his first play 'Pure Mental' next month before taking it on tour countrywide.
Although born in Lanesboro, the former national radio presenter spent his formative years in Athlone, going to school in St Mary's NS, Marist National School and the Marist College right up to Transition Year. He, and his family, lived in Willow Park for eleven years, and he even played with Willow Park FC as a youngster.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do, but maybe I didn’t have much to say before,” Keith explains why the play came about now, as he is excitedly preparing to bring it to Athlone on November 25 in the Dean Crowe Theatre, one of 16 venues countrywide. Having finished up a five-year stint presenting, in the pressure cooker that is a breakfast show on national radio, Keith Walsh finally found a bit of time for himself, and he found therapy.
“I suppose (the play) it’s mostly about mental health. The play starts with the breakfast show finishing up and how that affected me. I went to see a therapist to help me deal with the whole thing and he helped me to deal with the traumas of my childhood and find a way forward. Topics include death, domestic abuse and mental health. But there’s lots of fun in it too!!,” he explains, and his autobiographical tale also contains a witty and very identifiable take on growing up in the Midlands in the 1980s and societal expectations of a 40-something man in Ireland.
Asked if therapy has been a good experience for him, Keith is overwhelmingly positive. “I went through an interesting time and I needed help figuring out the next move, therapy gave me the tools to move forward with an open mind and it’s been tremendous. I talk a lot about my therapist ‘Luke’ in the play. He’s a bit of a legend!”
What does he think can be done to improve mental health and help men open up? "I’m not sure. As a mental health advocate, I feel it’s my job to talk about therapy as much as I can, to normalise it. The hope is that more men and women will see it as a useful tool that we can avail of when the sh** hits the fan, or just when you’re trying to figure stuff out. For a nation of talkers, we don’t talk”.
While he agrees that there are barriers to that, saying therapy can be expensive, he does mention organisations out there trying to make it accessible to all. Keith refers, in particular, to Let’s Get Talking (letsgettalking.ie) who will meet with you and figure out an amount you can afford to pay. He says they are “a great organisation” and they’re growing all the time.
His first work as a playwright, Keith has risen to the challenge with the help of director and dramaturg Janet Moran, herself an acclaimed writer and performer, who has helped him to hone the theatrical elements and fine-tune the comedic aspects of this funny, open-hearted new play. The 'Pure Mental' nationwide tour starts in Keith’s home town of Newbridge at the Riverbank Arts Centre on November 19, coming to Athlone on November 25.
“I’m very excited about going to Athlone. I grew up watching shows in The Little Theatre and the Dean Crowe hall. I never managed to make it onto the stage. Athlone people love their theatre and they’re very knowledgeable, so hopefully, they’ll come and have a look and then hopefully they’ll like what they see!!
"I should say that this is very much a collaborative piece of work and myself and director Janet Moran have worked very closely on the writing, and The Riverbank Arts Centre have been immense with support, especially Phil who has been brilliant when it came to the staging. But yeah, it’s terrifying. I feel okay about the performing part, it’s the ‘learning the lines’ part that terrifies me,” jokes Keith, who previously studied drama and has appeared in several TV roles, including in Bridget and Eamon on RTÉ Two. In addition to TV and presenting roles, Keith has performed in the iconic Abbey Theatre’s 24 Hour Plays.
On what he would like people to take from his first work, Keith simply says: “Just to allow yourself to be more vulnerable, don’t be afraid to show weakness and open up. This whole ‘Manning Up’ and ‘Be a man’ and growing a pair of balls is all outdated. Show your weakness, it’s the bravest thing you can do, and you will reap the rewards. No one likes a know it all!”.
While he doesn't rule out writing another play, Keith jokes that he has plenty of stories from his time in Athlone so it could be called Willow Park! A return to radio presenting is not on the cards at the moment, he confirms, as he currently works with an advertising agency called Thinkhouse and he loves the work which keeps him very busy.
With his first tour just around the corner, and Christmas after that, Keith Walsh is looking forward with clear optimism, ending by saying it would be great to bring the play to Edinburgh!