Saturday 15 December 2018

Exit, stage left

Michael Sheridan on Deirdre O'Connell's devotion to the Focus theatre

THE woman in black she was known as, as daily she glided along the streets of her chosen and beloved city landscape between Dartmouth Square, where she lived in a rambling house, along Leeson Street into Pembroke Street and through the archway to the Focus Theatre. There she met and nurtured her family of actors before visiting the branch office, Hourican's pub at the end of Leeson St and then the last call to O'Brien's of Sussex Terrace where as well as the living, Deirdre O Connell mixed with the ghosts of the past, her late husband Luke Kelly, Paddy Kavanagh, Michael Hartnett.

While she was much-loved in this establishment and always treated with the utmost respect by bar manager Tony Kelly and his wonderful staff, and the customers, everyone ultimately is an island. It was not until recently that the extent of her loneliness and desperation became apparent to those whom she trusted and called for help. Deirdre always carried a clipboard which contained script or notes on performances and the paper paraphernalia associated with a small theatre operation. This was as much a trademark as the black shawl and black skirt. Some considered this an affectation or a prop to establish the distinct theatrical image, the Leeson St version of the Widow Quin, still mourning the loss of her singer husband who she had been separated from for a number of years before he died in 1984. Luke had been living with Madeleine Seiler with whom his brother James had reached a settlement to vacate the Dartmouth Square house which Deirdre subsequently occupied. There is a certain validity in this view because this woman was almost obsessively devoted to her little end-of-lane garage theatre and what better way to advertise it than a distinctive image.

There was always a sense about Deirdre that she was from another era and, although she embraced the Stanislavsky method of acting, in reality she was a traditionalist with an excellent eye for new writing.

The Focus was a poor theatre in the matter of facilities and equipment and the audience capacity so small that it would always have to depend on subsidy and patronage but it was a training ground and the magic of what happened onstage transcended the limitations of the venue. Deirdre struggled to keep it open, moving from crisis to crisis with a lot of help from her friends. There is little doubt that with her extraordinary acting talent she could have pursued a bigger career but she chose to stick to the laneway off Pembroke St.

In recent times, the clipboard was not in evidence and she seemed preoccupied and a little troubled. The one thing you did not do was offer Deirdre O'Connell unsolicited advice or help, she was a fiercely proud individual. Although she lived alone, she had many close friends from the old Focus days including Tom Hickey. Known only to close friends and family she had been diagnosed some months ago with cancer but refused conventional treatment or hospitalisation. Just over a week ago she rang me and asked me to bring her to O'Brien's. As I guided her through the park she said that she had cancer and was becoming blind and she was going to meet a solicitor to make a will. Shocked, I suggested that she get treatment. No point she replied. Once Deirdre O'Connell made up her mind there was no argument.

On stage she had played great tragic roles depicting human suffering and now in life she was enduring the real meaning of facing up to death. Like the great actress she was, she minimised, underplayed the effects, sparing her audience, so to speak. She died alone in her house last weekend and her funeral was in the same church in Whitehall as Luke Kelly's 17 years ago. The Woman In Black is no more. Irish theatre, is the poorer for her passing.

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