Wrenmaker and moonshiner

Lillian
Lillian Simmons
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Actor John Ryan of Colliers still carries out the tradition of the Wren on St. Stephen’s Day. He attaches a figure of a wren at the top his wren stick, which he takes on his visits to neighbours and friends in the community on Dec. 26. — Photo by Lillian Simmons/Special to The Telegram

The only black eye John Ryan ever got happened in 1951, before he was even born.

While his mom was going through the pangs of labour inside the house, his father was outside in the yard, pacing.

“A neighbour was helping Mom and Dr. O’Kelly,” Ryan says. “She went out in the yard and, as a joke, told Dad he had twin boys because I was so big.”

Because of his size it was necessary for the doctor to use forceps during the birth.

“So, Dr. Kelly blackened one of my eyes. I was 13 pounds — and I haven’t grown since,” he jokes.

Sixty years later, Ryan still lives in the house in Colliers where his parents Bridget (nee McGrath) and James Leo Ryan raised him and siblings Jim and Marie.

A teacher and actor, Ryan married Anita Veitch, his colleague in both fields. Anita died in 2008.

Paintings, sketches, books, photographs and CDs line the walls and spill over the shelves of his small living room.

An old Franklin stove sits in the fireplace opening. Above hangs a portrait of Ryan, by well-known Newfoundland artist Gerald Squires.

Ryan recalls how he came by it. Aside from acting, back in the day he was also skilled in the art of making moonshine.

“My cousin, Jim McGrath, picked up Gerry and Gail (his wife) and came in to visit my mother, who was his favourite aunt.”

McGrath wondered aloud where Ryan was.

“He’s out in the shed doing something,” his aunt told him.

“I was running off moonshine,” Ryan says, his eyes twinkling with mis­chief. “When I came in to visit with them, Gerry said if I made him some moonshine, he would paint my portrait.”

The next day, Ryan bought a gallon of molasses and a few packs of yeast.

“That’s all you make it out of. It’s basically a rum. The other recipe I have, you use potatoes. But I don’t make moonshine anymore.

“Not long after that, Gerry had a heart attack. So he drinks mainly red wine now.”

 

Centre Stage Players

After graduating from Roncalli High School in Avondale in 1967, Ryan went on to study English, folklore and social studies at Memorial University.

“I did part of a BEd, and I actually went to work teaching English in Buchans. I think I was 22.”

He soon returned to teach at Roncalli and moved back into the house where he was born.

He met his wife Anita while attending university.

“It’s not supposed to be done in the Catholic Church, but we eloped. We went down to North River and another couple stood up for us. I think Father (Richard) Terry wanted to make sure he had enough witnesses because he brought some nuns out from the convent too, and we were married.”

While teaching at Roncalli, Ryan and his wife started an amateur theatre group called Centre Stage Players. They won the all-Newfoundland festival in Stephenville in 1990 with a play called “Sea Marks.”

“A beautiful play, just two of us in it, written by a chap called Gardner McKay, who used to be a very famous television star, an Irishman, then he turned to writing plays.”

Centre Stage raised enough money to take the play to the Theatre Canada Festival in Regina, where Ryan won the award for best actor.

“Actually, after we had won in Regina, I was here one day and the phone rings and I answered the phone, and this beautiful voice said, ‘Am I speaking to Mr. John Ryan?’”

It was Gardner McKay calling from Honolulu.

“He had been hoping to get to Regina to see the performance at the festival, but his wife got sick and he wasn’t able to leave. He has since died.”

The following summer, Ryan be­gan working with Rising Tide Theatre’s summer festival in Trinity. “I spent 14 or 15 years doing the pageant there.”

In between, he did a brief appearance in the 1999 CBC-TV series “Dooley Gardens,” played one of the uncles in “Young Triffie’s Been Made Away With” and did a short TV piece for Pope productions, “Legends and Lore.”

Compared to live theatre, TV work is simple, he says.

“You do one brief scene and they probably want you to do 10 takes to do one scene, and if you don’t know your lines by then! The whole scene probably ends up being two minutes in a whole film.”

He was scheduled to do a crowd scene on “Republic of Doyle” back in March, but while he was waiting to go on, the scene got rewritten.

“By the time I read what magazines were there and drank endless cups of coffee, that was it. An assistant came in and told us we weren’t needed because Allan Hawco was rewriting the scene as we spoke.”

Happily, he got paid for his time.

“A little bit of that kind of work is good once in a while,” he smiles.

During his stint in Trinity, Ryan took a year off to act and direct a play in Brigus, about artist Rockwell Kent, who owned Kent Cottage in 1915.

“Kent Cottage was eventually bought by Jake Folensbee, and Jake left it to the historical society as a retreat for visiting artists. So I spent that summer in Brigus. In that cottage Jake had a Franklin stove, much like mine. He couldn’t get all the way out the path (to the road) by vehicle, so he carried that stove in his arms about a mile and a half to the cottage. He was a powerful man.”

In the fall of 2001, Ryan and his wife toured Ireland with a troupe of actors performing Al Pittman’s play, “West Moon.” Inishbofin Island was among the tour stops.

“We couldn’t bring our lighting equipment with us on the ferry because there was no room. We did the show in this community auditorium and Ken Livingston had brought along these big church candles for all the characters. As each character came to life, he lit the church candle and held it up to his face. I still have the candle from that trip.”

Among his other favourite performances are “Quiller,” “A Soldier’s Heart” and “Head, Guts and Sound Bone Dance.” The latter was performed as part of the Trinity summer festival, in an old fishing stage in New Bonaventure.

“During the play I had to knit a hole in a fishing net and sing a little song. Before I entered to start the play this old fisherman who was sitting right in front of the net couldn’t help himself. He picked up the wooden needle and started to knit the net himself. As I entered he laid down the needle. I sat down facing him, knitting the net, singing and pretending I had forgotten how the song went. When I’d stop he’d say, ‘Don’t lose her now b’y, don’t lose her now,’ just the same as if he was at a party. He loved it and he loved the show.”

 

The Wren

It’s possible Ryan’s passion for the stage was kindled in childhood by an Irish tradition passed down in the community — The Wren.

On St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26, Ryan says, children would go around to neighbours’ houses in the morning, while men would go around in the afternoon. They carried sticks with an effigy of a wren (king of the birds) at the top.

“There’s a song you’d sing: ‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds/St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. … Off with the kettle and on with the pan/give us a treat to bury the wren.’”

Ryan stops mid-story to leave the kitchen, then emerges from a back room with a gnarled piece of wood.

“This is my wren stick. Children would look for a quarter (a treat) from people. In the afternoon men went around, they weren’t looking for money,” he laughs. “There’d be people waiting for us to show up, because they’d have a bottle or something all ready for us.”

He and others in the community continue the tradition each year. It gives people a chance to visit with each other, and more particularly with those who can’t get out.

In 2007, during his wife’s illness, Ryan discontinued his work with the Trinity Festival.

“She died here in the house. … I went into a major depression. I drank myself silly and wasn’t able to work.”

But gradually the light is returning to his life.

“I’m ready to get back at it,” he says. “There are quite a number of things that I would love to do.”

One of them is returning to Ireland to do more theatre work. And, he says, there’s an upcoming production “between Barbara Doran’s company and a Montreal company being shot in Trinity South in May or June. I would love to get involved in that.”

 

telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Roncalli High School, Catholic Church, Rising Tide Theatre CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Colliers, Regina Trinity Avondale Buchans North River Stephenville Brigus Canada Ireland Honolulu Dooley Gardens New Bonaventure Montreal Trinity South

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