Maire Nic Shiublaigh of the
By Alice Tracey
name "Maire Nic Shiublaigh" is practically unknown in Carlow but
nevertheless this actress who achieved fame in the early days of
the Abbey Theatre had a strong association with the town.
grandfather, Francis Walker, a County Kilkenny man. had a book
binding business in College Street, then known as Chapel Lane.
He carried on his trade in the premises now occupied by Mr.
Byrne, Auctioneer, and resided in the Catholic Institute nearby
where he acted as honorary librarian for the collection of books
housed there and popularly known as "Dr. Doyle's Books" from the
fact that they circulated mainly amongst the members of The
Catholic Doctrine Society which had been founded by J.K.L.
eldest son Matthew, had a printing office and published a local
newspaper "The Vindicator". His premises were at first in Tullow
Street and he later transferred to Dublin Street. Matthew lived
on the Athy Road in the house where Mr. P. J. Ryan now resides.
His wife, nee Marian Doherty, a native of Dublin, carried on a
dressmaking business and catered for a select clientele.
course of time Matthew moved to Dublin where he joined the staff
of “The Daily Express” and was, it is first claimed the first
Linotype operator in the city.
worked as a compositor with "The Irish Times" which he left to
found "The Tower Press" in Cornmarket.
national principles, he attracted much custom from the various
Irish societies and as business expanded he moved into more
spacious premises at 30 Upper Liffey Street as the proprietor of
"The Gaelic Press".
press much of the literature and printed propaganda for the
Irish cause emanated and in the years of crisis the office was
the object of much unwelcome attention from Government
Matthew's family was growing and Maire was born at 37
Charlemount Street in 1888. A winning child, she showed signs of
talent at an early age and her intelligence and vivacity
attracted notice. There were at the time numerous social
societies with national outlook in the metropolis and their
interest assisted the upsurging of a cult for drama and amateur
theatricals which took the popular fancy and resulted in
productions being staged in all parts of the city.
became a member of a non-sectarian group Ingrid na hEireann
which held classes and debates on various subjects of national
interest, encouraged cultural activities and sponsored the
production of tableaux depicting scenes from Irish history and
occasionally, produced full length plays by Irish playwrights.
Alice Milligan, the Tyrone poetess, was its director and
produced its maiden effort in a Temperance Hall in Clarendon
Street. The Fay brothers were the directors and two plays were
successfully staged "Deirdre" and "Kathleen ni Houlihan". Maire
had a part in each play and acquitted herself creditably
notwithstanding her extreme youth.
Gregory, who with W. B. Yeats and Edward Martyn had made an
ambitious effort to found a theatre in Dublin in 1898, was in
the audience that night. The Irish Literary Theatre, as the
trio's venture was named, had ended in dismal failure after
three years, but Lady Gregory, ever impulsive and optimistic had
been impressed by the spirit of the players that night and in a
fortnight's time she launched them as the Irish National Theatre
precludes a detailed account of their efforts to make good but
let it be said that hard work was not shirked. Practically all
concerned were wage earners by day and their evenings were
devoted not only to rehearsals but also to making and setting up
props and generally converting the back shed of an egg and
butter store in Camden Street into some semblance of a bijou
theatre, and "bijou" was the operative word.
describes in her memoirs of those days her first visit to the
premises. Difficult to locate, but once there, in a matter of
minutes she was dealing with a pile of dusty curtains, and
acting as assistant stage carpenter to Willie Fay who was
setting up the framework. Sawing, painting and sewing, their
object was achieved and within six months from the formation of
the society they presented their first play, and five months
later these valiant pioneers of the Irish National Theatre were
entrancing by their performances blase London audiences in
Queen's Gate Hall.
special mention from the dramatic critic of the London "Times".
After referring to the pleasure of listening to "English spoken
with watchful care and timorous hesitation as though it were a
learned language .... these Irish people sing our language and
always in a minor key." He continued: "These Irish gentlemen and
ladies are good to look at; the men are lithe, graceful,
bright-eyed and at least one of the maidens with the stage name
of Maire nic Shiubhlaigh is of a strange wan disquieting beauty
..."He comments on a delightful effect of spontaneity and adds
that the scenery is of Elizabethan simplicity, sometimes no more
than a mere backcloth . . . 'The Irish Theatre is entirely of
its own kind and of none other, with its sustained note of pure
gravity, with here and there faint harmonics of weird elfish
freakishness. It is entirely Irish and entirely delightful".
This visit to London had an unexpected and pleasant sequel.
a rumour that a wealthy English woman, Miss Horniman, had seen
the performances and was anxious to do something for the
company. Her first gesture was a visit to Dublin and an offer to
dress the production of one of Vests plays for them. Miss
Horniman was a well-known patron of drama in England and a
friend of Yeats. She proved as good as her word and putting up
at a leading Dublin hotel, she opened bales of expensive
materials and imported a team of English theatrical costumiers
to make them up. She spared neither time nor money to make the
production of the chosen play "The King's Threshold" a success,
which it undoubtedly was.
after her return to England she informed the company that she
was prepared to build a theatre for them. Naturally the offer
was immediately accepted and the Abbey Theatre was built on the
site of the former city morgue and its neighbouring building, a
music hall. The Abbey, as it soon became affectionately known,
opened its doors on 27th December, 1904. That night Maire played
the name part in "Kathleen ni Houlihan" for the first time. Two
other plays followed "Kathleen"; Yeat's "On Baile's Strand"
produced for the first time, and Lady Gregory's "Spreading the
News", thus the Abbey Theatre was well and truly launched.
peculiarity of the Abbey group was that in spite of having now a
proper theatre, the members still kept their amateur status and
did not accept that of professionals.
limited company was formed with three directors and the players
as shareholders it had an adverse effect on the latter who felt
that the business footing interfered with the old policy of
co-operation It must he borne in mind that the members still
worked during the day and drew no salary for their histrionic
suggestion that at least the leading members should be paid a
salary, the immediate reaction was that all but four of those
affected withdrew from the Abbey, feeling that the acceptance of
the subsidy offered by Miss Horniman would imperil their
and take from them the ideal of being part of the national
AN ENGLISH TOUR
As prior arrangements had been made by Miss Horniman for a short
English tour, which had been much publicised in the areas to be
covered, Maire, in response to appeals from Lady Gregory,
remained with the company until the end of the year and went
with them to England.
The seceded members meanwhile formed another group and named it
the Theatre of Ireland and by amicable arrangement staged their
plays in the Abbey, rehearsing in a loft at the rear of a house
in High Street which the Walkers possibly occupied at that time.
This venture ran successfully for six years and closed down in
1912 due to so many of its members being engaged in volunteer
and other national activities.
Meanwhile the Abbey company was having a stormy passage due to
the production of Synge's "Playboy of the Western World".
In 1907 the youngest of the Walker sisters, Gipsy, made a
memorable debut in "The Turn of the Road" making the fourth
member of the family to take up a stage career. Frank, like
Maire, used the Gaelicised form Suiblaigh', Gipsy as Betty King
and Eileen, the second youngest, faced the footlights as Eileen
O'Doherty. Both these girls had successful careers as character
MAIRE SIGNS HER FIRST CONTRACT
In 1910 Lady Gregory approached Maire to rejoin the Abbey group
and as she said, Yeats had purchased Miss Horniman's interest in
the theatre, the invitation was accepted. Though Maire had been
ten years on the stage and her reputation as a first class
artiste was well established. She had not hitherto signed a
contract nor had she ever earned a shilling by her stage work.
At this juncture she signed a contract for the "princely' sum of
15/- per week!
In 1911 she did another successful tour of two months with the
company in England and later went on the first Abbey tour to the
United States. There they had for the most part enthusiastic
audiences though in a few centres they met with organised
hostility owing to the inclusion of Synge's "Playboy of the
Western World" on their programme.
On her return to Dublin, Maire made a few more appearances on
the Abbey stage and she assisted Padraic Pearse's productions at
his school, St. Enda's and also helped with many amateur efforts
in the city.
Willie Pearsc and his sister had organised the Leinster Stage
Society and both Maire and Gipsy appeared in Dublin and Cork
with this group.
At this stage National affairs were rapidly approaching a crisis
and with the founding of Cumannna mBan, Maire's political work
intensified and from the end of 1913, like so many of her
compeers, she- wholeheartedly engaged in preparation for the
page in Irish history which opened with the proclamation of the
Provisional Government of the Irish Republic on Easter Monday,
Living in Glasthule at the time. Maire-cycled into the city that
morning unaware of what was happening, and finding herself in
company with some other members of Cumann na mBan, in the
vicinity of Jacob's biscuit factory, they made their way inside
where they remained until the surrender, cooking meals for, and
rendering first aid to, the Garrison installed there under the
command of Thomas McDonagh, whose staff included Michael
O'Hanrahan. who, like Maire, was closely connected with Carlow.
Maire's career as an actress covered a span of fourteen years
and during that time she came into contact with most of the
notabilities on and off stage- connected with the theatre and
the National movement, and her memoirs of the period 1902-16
have been well named "The Splendid Years."
In the former year she made her stage debut in "Deirdre"
produced for the first time, as was the second play on the
programme that night "Kathleen ni Houlihan" written socially for
Maud Gonne who played the name part. Her one and only appearance
on a stage. Maire played the part of Delia Cahill and what a
foil the young girls "strange, wan disquieting beauty" must have
made for the older woman with her rich golden hair and burning
eyes set in a pale, sensitive face. Maud Gonne was reputedly the
most beautiful woman in Ireland and, it has been claimed, the
inspiration of the whole revolutionary movement. It can well be
credited, as many can remember her, stately even in extreme old
age, moving with dignity through the Dublin streets. Maire, as
mentioned previously, played the same part in later productions
and always modelled her interpretation on Maud Gonne's creation
It is a matter for congratulation that six portraits, which hung
in the vestibule of the Abbey, were saved from the conflagration
which razed it to the ground. These portrayed Maire Nic
Suiblaigh, Lady Gregory, Miss Hornimian. and the brothers Frank
and Willie Fay, painted by J. R. Yeats. Another of Sara Allgood
was the work of Sara Purser.
We may assume that these will have an honoured place in the new
Abbey Theatre in due course.
It is on record that Maire came twice to Carlow and appeared on
the Town Hall stage. The first occasion was for the production
of an opera given by the boys of St. Mary's College, Knockbeg.
and her second appearance was at a Gaelic League concert on St.
Patrick's night, 1921. She was accompanied by her sister, Gipsy.
Mr. Sean T. O'Kelly addressed the audience and the two Walker
girls contributed to the programme.
Gipsy, and her sister Daisy, the eldest girl, who are now the
sole survivors of their talented family have a vivid
recollection of the enthusiastic reception given to the
Maire's earthly pilgrimage ended on 9th September. 1959. and she
was buried in Glasnevin. She had married in the 1920's, Major
General Price of the National Army.
She and the others of the theatrical world of those days deserve
to be remembered. Many famous names were amongst them and if
this inadequate sketch revives some memories of those "splendid
years" it will have served its purpose.
Source: Carloviana 1962 Edition Vol. 2. No. 11
p.10, 11 & 38 & 39.
Walker Records in Carlow: