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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Francis Walker


Maire Nic Shiublaigh of the Abbey Theatre

By Alice Tracey

 THE 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.

Her 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.

NEWSPAPER PROPRIETOR

His 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.

In the 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.

He later worked as a compositor with "The Irish Times" which he left to found "The Tower Press" in Cornmarket.

Of strong 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".

From this 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 authorities.

YOUTHFUL TALENT

Meanwhile 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.

 

Maire 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.

NATIONAL THEATRE

Lady 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 Society.

Space 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.

Maire 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.

"TIMES" CRITIC IMPRESSED

Maire got 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.

WEALTHY PATRON

There was 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.

ABBEY THEATRE

Shortly 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.

AMATEUR STATUS

A 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.

When a 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 performances.

To the 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 independence and take from them the ideal of being part of the national movement.

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 actresses.

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.

EASTER 1916

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, 1916.

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."

MAUD GONNE

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 of it.

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 visitors.

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: WALKER RECORDS


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