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Kathleen Gallagher - concerned social activist, poet, playwright, story teller

Dorothy -- 16/04/04

Kathleen's life has been enriched by experiencing different cultures in a range of countries, living with the less favoured people in those societies and being strongly impressed by their selfless care for all the people in their groups. Her life has been filled with poetry, drama and music. These elements have blended to develop

  • a poet who has published collections of her own poetry, Tara, Gypsy, Twilight burns the Sky, and coedited With Our Eyes Open
  • a playwright who has produced a number of her own plays published in Peace Plays, and plays workshopped by Women's Action Theatre in Mothertongue
  • a story teller in Gallaghers of Cronadun and Kathleen's Story and especially for children Mr Twho.

Kathleen Gallagher
Kathleen Gallagher
Photo source: Kathleen Gallagher
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Where did Kathleen's love of poetry and drama begin?
Kathleen grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with a very strong oral and singing tradition. Every few weeks there would be a party to celebrate a Feast Day or a birthday somewhere in the family and whenever there was a party there was singing and poetry, traditional or original, and Irish dancing.

She learnt speech and drama from about the age of nine till she was sixteen from Elizabeth Crutchley, Joan Crutchley and Shirley Richards, all of whom she describes as "fine teachers", and gained her ATCL in speech and drama.

Her secondary education was at Villa Maria College and she especially valued her English classes in the sixth and seventh form.

"We had an excellent English teacher in the sixth and seventh form - Mrs Ruth Fry. Particularly in the seventh form I felt that through her inspiring teaching I got access to a huge range of material.

Poets group
"In the seventh form we set up a poets group with boys from St Bede's College. We read work by other poets and wrote and read out our own. Some of us are still writing. Bill Direen now lives in Paris writing poetry, producing plays and writing novels. Jeff Cheyne had three collections of poetry published before his death. I have been writing ever since."

During her first year at university Kathleen began reciting her poetry at gatherings at the university and at pubs around the city.Poets groups continued to meet. During her last year at university both Keri Hulme and Kathleen were reading at a poetry evening. Both read one of their own unpublished poems, and strangely both were called Tara.

Kathleen graduated BA majoring in history and religious studies. Later she did papers in Maori and Drama. Her interest in Maori had begun when she was an undergraduate and joined the University of Canterbury Maori group performing waiata (songs) and haka. She followed this up some years later when she was living in Wellington. She joined Te Reo Maori, a political Maori group. She also became involved in learning waiata, old Maori chants (oriori) and haka. This influenced the music and rhythms in the plays in Mothertongue.

In her first university summer vacation she hitchhiked with her partner Sean round Australia, going as far north as Broome and Darwin.

"People were amazing in the Northern Territory. They were really warm and welcoming and people shared food and made sure that everyone had enough to eat. They have cyclones and earthquakes and their conditions can be extreme which develops their warm, generous way of life."

Further travel took her to San Francisco where she linked up with a women writers group at Berkeley, meeting and performing with them regularly. After hitch hiking around the USA and Canada she went through Central America and on to South America spending time in Peru and Chile. While there she wrote a lot of poetry, and played her clarinet. She describes how the travel broadened her outlook.

"Being in South America totally politicised me in a way that nothing else ever did, so that informed a lot of my work. It was the same thing I learnt about in the Northern Territory in Australia. In South America the people were materially very poor, but in fact were a lot happier than the people in North America. The difference was so glaring that it almost blew me away. I realised that material wealth is not much real help to people in finding joy. That is something different. The manner in which people live together is probably more important than how much money they have.

"On my return to New Zealand I was active politically and that informed a lot of my writing."

Return to New Zealand
Meanwhile Kathleen had decided that she wanted to be a writer and to live in New Zealand. She decided to study accountancy so that she could support herself with part-time work as an accountant, and completed a postgraduate diploma in accountancy at Victoria University in 1979.

She lived in Wellington for two years and while there she wrote and performed poetry and became a member of a poets collective which included Rachel McAlpine, Louis Johnson and Rosemary Wildblood.

In 1980 she moved back to Christchurch, worked part time, and lived in a community flat with fourteen people in a huge old house. In 1981 she became heavily involved in the Springbok tour protests. Whatever the cause of any protest in which she became involved she used her writing skills to highlight the theme. In Twilight Burns the Sky there is a powerful poem about the Springbok tour protests.

The Catholic Worker
After the 1981 Springbok Tour demonstrations, Kathleen joined Ploughshares and what would later become the local Christchurch Catholic Worker Community, a loosely organised group of people scattered in communities around the world. There is no structure or hierarchy. The people in the group are committed to their common principles. They are kept in touch by their newsletters. At present Kathleen is one of the editors of The Common Good, the local Christchurch newsletter.

Dorothy Day and Peter Mourin founded the group in the US in the 1930s. In 1905 Dorothy Day was a child in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake. After the disaster people lived together and cared for each other. That, she believed, was the heart of community, and people should live as though there had been an earthquake or there was to be one the next day. In New York in the 1930s she put her beliefs into practice and set up food kitchens and places for the destitute to sleep during the Great Depression.

This vision behind the philosophy of The Catholic Worker is followed by thousands of people living a life of voluntary poverty in loosely linked groups around the world. Most of them are young, drawn by a vision and a way to serve others without being tied to a conventional group situation. The Christchurch group meets each week for a shared meal, liturgy, reflection and prayers for those in need. People travelling from other countries often join the gathering. Houses in the community offer shelter to people in need like ex-prisoners, psychiatric patients, and homeless teenagers.

Christchurch meetings of the group are held every Wednesday at Suzanne Aubert Catholic Worker house, 8A Cotterill St Addington Ph 3387105, Anyone is welcome. Common Good texts are available from

Every Friday this group would go out to the airport and pray, sing and display placards protesting against the United States presence in New Zealand. Kathleen was involved in other protests like rowing out into Lyttelton Harbour to oppose the presence of US nuclear submarines.

In 1982 hundreds of women joined in a march through Hagley Park entitled Women reclaim the night. On such occasions Kathleen would speak poetry, sing or chant to reinforce the theme.

Early plays
After the tour protests finished Kathleen became involved in Blue Ladder Theatre set up by Bill Direen and Carol Woodward. For them in 1984 she wrote her first play called The Song of Killidoo. It is a story of the Irish Catholic community in Christchurch during the Springbok tour and includes the imaginative richness so often associated with Irish tales. Killidoo is a leprechaun and he and the little people appear throughout the play.

Killidoo was followed by Veve - a short play about an old blind man and his violinist daughter. Looking back Kathleen sees that in her writing she subconsciously moved through phases of modern drama. In this play she is clearly influenced by the symbolist movement, and in the Irish plays by the Theatre of the Absurd and the plays of Irish playwrights Synge and O'Casey.

Trip to Sydney brings contact with Michlene Wandor
Michlene Wandor was a British playwright who had set up a women playwrights group in England to encourage publication of their plays.

Women's Action Theatre
Kathleen attended a three day play writing workshop conducted by Michlene. Following this, she became more committed to play writing. On her return to Christchurch she set up Womens Action Theatre with Kate Winstanley.Together they wrote Mothertongue. It toured the country and was such a huge success that Creative NZ funded all of their seven future productions.

In 1987 the birth of Kathleen's first child directed her interest to the lives of new parents and she wrote Offspring with Jen Rippingale.

Later they wrote Banshee Reel, a story of the West Coast goldminer Biddy Godwin. Kathleen co-wrote Jacaranda with Kate Winstanley in 1991. It premiered at The Globe Theatre in Dunedin. Womens Action Theatre continued until the death of Kate Winstanley in 1993.

Writing inspired by family history
In 1984 Kathleen spent three months travelling in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia and then heard that her grandmother was ill. She came straight home. When her grandmother recovered Kathleen interviewed her a number of times, which provided her with the material for her first book, Kathleen's Story published by her grandmother and printed by the Press in 1984. This was followed in 1986 by Gallaghers of Cronadun, the story of the family coming from Cronadun in Ireland to Cronadun on the West Coast of New Zealand. It was based on interviews with elderly members of the family and written with the help of Basil Gallagher, Kathleen's father. As a result of this book a large gathering of Gallaghers from around the world met at a reunion in Cronadun on the Coast in 2001.

In 1987 Nag's Head Press put out Tara, a collection of Kathleen's poetry, and in 1993 Gypsy, a fictional story of an Irish settler in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. The woodcuts used to illustrate these were done by David Nepia, a local sculptor.

Race Gender Class Collective
Kathleen became a member of this collective during the two years in which she was working in the Political Science Department doing research. From 1984 to 1990, she was a writer, editor and reviewer for Race Gender Class, a political science journal produced for university academics.

Melbourne Women Directors Group
In 1986 Kathleen worked in Melbourne with this group for four months as their playwright. A very gifted Polish Australian director, Iwa Czajor, directed Kathleen's play Wehe on the theme of how indigenous Australia and Australians respond to immigrants.

In 1992 Kathleen and Sean shifted to Auckland with their two children.

Radio New Zealand cuts number of radio plays
Kathleen wrote for Radio New Zealand Shanty and the Angel, about an Auckland Street waking up at dawn. Around this time the number of plays produced by Radio New Zealand was cut from thirty two to six per year and the drama studios in Auckland and Christchurch were closed. Charlie Bloom , on the theme of radiation sickness, was produced in the Wellington Radio NZ studios and broadcast in 1996. It was highly commended in the NZ Media Peace Awards and the NZ Radio Awards. It was sold to Australia and played on ABC several times.

Recently Kathleen, Sue Macaulay, and Stewart Hoare have been lobbying Marion Hobbs, Minister of Broadcasting, to increase the number of radio plays per year.

Bringing up her children on her own
Kathleen and Sean moved to Nelson where their third child was born in 1994. Shortly afterwards Sean left leaving Kathleen to bring up the children by herself.

"I really had to write. It's as though I have to keep writing to keep well. I had been lecturing in taxation at the Nelson Polytechnic but I decided to leave that job and give priority to caring for the children and writing."

In 1998 she returned to Christchurch and in the following year Mothertongue was published by Publishing Giant Press.

In 1986 Basil Gallagher set up Doygal Press to publish Gallaghers of Cronadun. In 2001 Doygal Press published Twilight Burns the Sky, a collection of Kathleen's poetry, and in 2002 Peace Plays. The artwork for the covers of both these books was by Lucy Mhoma. The cover for Twilight Burns the Sky portrays the nor'west arc and that for Peace Plays was painted on sandpaper and is inspired by the Australian desert.

Kathleen was delighted by the success of Twilight Burns the Sky."That book has sold really well. We had a really successful book launch and sold 250 copies that night."

In 2002 Kathleen co-edited with Peb Simmons With our Eyes Open, a collection of Canterbury poets. The impressive photographs are taken by Stefan Roberts. The description on the cover gives a perceptive comment on the poems: "These poems look out at our world: at its joys, beauty, history, suffering and intimacy .... The poems are intended to touch the reader's inner space and delight the spirit."

In 2001 Kathleen made a short film called Jimmy Sullivan. 2003 brought another new venture - an imaginative children's story called Mr Twho highlighted by delightful drawings by Peb Simmons.

Kathleen recalls how the book grew. "I actually wrote the story when I was working on the poetry collection with Peb. I was sitting in her lounge and I saw the hippopotamus outside in the garden. She left the story with Peb and one day Peb rang and said, 'I can see him', so she drew the pictures. The drawings of the flowers are based on crewel embroidery."

Kathleen in 2004
Kathleen has written and had premiered in professional theatre some fourteen plays and had three collections of poetry published. She is presently working on a radio play on refugees and on a theatre piece set in 1880s West Coast New Zealand.

Kathleen lives in Christchurch with her husband Michael Coughlan and their four children.

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