Wednesday 21 November 2018

The Abbey actress at the heart of the insurrection

Memoir: The Splendid Years - The Memoirs of an Abbey Actress and 1916 Rebel, Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh with Edward Kenny. Edited by David Kenny, New Island, pbk, 293 pages, €15.95

Remarkable: Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh
Remarkable: Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh
The Splendid Years: Memoirs of an Abbey Actress and a 1916 Rebel

Anne Cunningham

Despite the inevitable media saturation which currently abounds around 1916, this memoir has a quiet voice all its own. It is not yet another forensic examination of the Rising, nor is it a protest at the haemorrhage of Irish blood in French trenches. It is exactly what it says on the tin; the memoirs of a renowned Irish stage actress - the first to play Kathleen Ni Houlihan in the Abbey Theatre - who took her craft as seriously as she did her politics.

Mary Walker was born in 1883 into a hard-working middle-class Catholic family. Her father, a member of the IRB and a committed Parnellite, was a compositor who worked in printing and publishing all of his life, producing material which was mostly of a nationalist flavour. Her mother was a bespoke dressmaker. Mary (later Máire) and her siblings spent an idyllic childhood in Carlow, which she remembered as "very bright", Carlow being the first Irish town to enjoy electric lighting.

When the family moved to Dublin, Máire immersed herself in the thriving cultural scene blossoming in the wake of the Gaelic League. Celtic revivalism was everywhere and Home Rule seemed to be just around the corner in the early 1900s. It was the theatre that attracted Máire, and she spent every spare moment (she first worked as a finisher in a photography studio) rehearsing with the Irish National Theatre Society, founded in 1902. The members of this society were also those who founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Máire was also a member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, later Cumann na mBan. But it is not so much her politics that pervade this memoir as her countless fascinating anecdotes about her years on stage. They are the makings of this book. We think of only Yeats and Lady Gregory as being the Abbey's co-founders, but according to Máire, it was the entire National Theatre troupe, along with Yeats, Lady Gregory and JM Synge, who founded our national theatre. When Yeats and Lady Gregory consented in 1905 to the theatre "going professional" under the patronage of a single British patron, Miss AEF Horniman, many of the founding members simply left, including Máire. She didn't rejoin the Abbey until 1910.

Her dedication to the nationalist cause kept her busy in her years away from the theatre, culminating in her presence in the Jacob's factory during the Rising. There, with other Cumann na mBan members, she ran a feeding and first aid station under the direction of Thomas MacDonagh. She recounts: "The great thing was that what you had always hoped for had happened at last. An insurrection had taken place, and you were actually participating in it. {…} The news of the surrender, when it came, was heartbreaking".

This memoir was originally published in 1955 and subsequently withdrawn by the author, Edward Kenny, nephew of Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh, a journalist and father of its current editor, Dave Kenny. That this book is a labour of love is indisputable. But it is more than that. It's a personal chronicle of those hopeful years in which some of Ireland's richest literary and theatrical talent emerged, men and women of flesh and bone, courageous, great and often irritating. Yeats, Synge, Countess Markievicz, Lady Gregory, Æ, Joyce, Pádraig Pearse, Padraic Colum and countless others are alive and breathing in these pages. It's a unique slice of history, told modestly, without fanfare and with great generosity of spirit. Máire was a remarkable woman who lived in remarkable times. And next time you're in the Abbey, check out her portrait on the wall, painted by JB Yeats. She's still there.

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