An Taibhdhearc, Ireland’s only Irish language theatre, situated in Middle Street, the very heart of Galway, grew out of a conversation between two remarkable men, Professor Liam Ó Briain and Dr Séamus Ó Beirn.* Both men, passionate Irish speakers, believed that a lively Irish language theatre would promote Irish in an imaginative way.
Helping to run the theatre, acting in many of its plays (many of which he translated from French and Spanish into Irish ), as well as his duties as professor of romance languages at UCG, absorbed Ó Briain’s immense energies once Ireland achieved its independence, and he got war and politics out of his system.
The early days of the Taibhdhearc were hectic. The great, melodramatic, actor Micheál Mac Liammóir, and his partner Hilton Edwards, were entrusted to design and open the theatre, which they succeeded in doing in their unique, sensational way.
I assume that several young actors came forward to offer their services, including men from Renmore barracks. But in August 1931 a young man walked into the theatre. He immediately caught everyone’s attention. He was 16-years-old Orson Wells from Wisconsin, who had just embarked from the SS Baltic in Galway Bay, and was looking for a job. Ó Briain offered him £4 a week to learn Irish and join the cast. Wells however, made his acting debut at the Gate Theatre, Dublin.**
Ó Briain’s most cherished hope was that the Irish language would be revived. He held the view, and his students, who adored him, who appreciated his ‘creative humanism’, believed that a knowledge of modern languages and an openness to new ideas while absorbing European culture, would lead to a de-anglicisation of Ireland. He also worked to set up Galway’s first Irish language primary school.***
Drifted into politics
Outside Galway Ó Briain became a familiar figure in Irish cultural life. He appeared frequently on radio and later on television. He was a wonderful storyteller and conversationalist. People must have wondered how was it that such a man had once lived the fearless life of danger that he did?
He was not a very sanguine man. His early life of danger seemed to have happened almost by accident. He drifted into politics shortly after arriving back in Dublin from Germany, just at the outbreak of World War I. He followed his friends into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (later into the Irish Citizen Army ), and fought under Michael Mallin both at Stephen’s Green and at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was imprisoned three times. At Frongoch he befriended Michael Collins, and other leaders of the rebellion, but Collins was his hero. When he asked Ó Briain to follow up the offer of arms from Italy, his language skills allowed him to do so with ease, he did so gladly and successfully.
When he returned to Dublin from Italy in the summer 1920, he gave Collins a full account of all his adventures. Collins listened ‘very attentively, as he would always listen with that frown between his eyes.’ “Good,” he said, when O’Briain had finished. “Now for your travelling expenses. How much?” Ó Briain said he was owed absolutely nothing. “I never thought in terms of travelling expenses.” They argued, until Collins said: “ Lookit here, would you ever stop wasting my time. Give me a figure.” “OK so,” said Ó Briain. “£10! If you so wish.”
That was the end of the matter, until a month later Ó Briain ran into Collins by chance. “You never got that £10?” Collins asked with a grin. “Never did,” said Ó Briain. “Indeed I was never expecting it or even thinking about it. I knew well that you have other things on your mind besides being preoccupied with sending 10 measly pounds to me.” “Nonsense,” said Collins. “The money was in Joe Vize’s pocket to pass on to you, on the day he was lifted!”
That was the last occasion the two men saw each other. After Ó Briain’s imprisonment in Galway later that year, he was moved to Rath Internment Camp in the Curragh. Standing in front of him one day was Joe Vize - an 1916 veteran and arms smuggler. He confirmed that the money Collins gave him was taken from him on his arrest.
Ó Briain told this story (in Comhar, July 1944 ) to make the point that Collins attended to every matter that came his way with ‘dedicated attention’, whether it was great or small, like a ‘measly £10’.
NOTES: *Ó Beirn (easy to mix up the two names ), a native of Tawin island, was a fluent Irish speaker. As a doctor he was a great champion in the battle against TB, and was infuriated by the fact that doctors were appointed to the Gaeltacht areas, many of whom had not one word of Irish.
** I have written about Orson Wells in Galway and Connemara in Galway Diary April 03 2014.
*** Paul Rouse, Dictionary of Irish Biography.
After his retirement (1959 ) Ó Briain lived in Dublin. He had married Helen Lawlor, who predeceased him. Their daughter Eileen O’Brien was a journalist. His death on August 12 1974 was almost a state occasion. There was a huge attendance of public figures and a military firing party at the graveside. Micheál MacLiammóir gave the oration; while Siobhán McKenna read a lesson.
I am grateful to Essays By An Irish Rebel, translated by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh (on sale €18 ), Simon and Mary Mullin, and Aideen Rynne, for help in this series. Ms Rynne’s late, and still greatly missed husband, Professor Etienne Rynne whose family papers have been deposited in the NUIG archives.