An Taibhdhearc - becomes ‘pathway to success’


Love conquers all: Walter and Peggy Macken at their home near Oughterard.

Love conquers all: Walter and Peggy Macken at their home near Oughterard.

For three years after the opening of the Gate Theatre in Dublin Mícheál MacLiammóir continued to work for An Taibhdhearc. He travelled to Galway as often as three times a week. Despite the Gate's rave reviews for its first play Peer Gynt, for which Mícheál designed its 'symbolic' scenery, money was slow to come in. Mícheál needed the salary that An Taibhdhearc offered. The Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe (who was soon to take over the running of the Abbey Theatre ), and who had taken such interest in the fledgling Galway project, urged its directors to offer MacLiammóir full-time employment. But MacLiammóir felt that his destiny was in Dublin. The Gate opened later in 1928, the same year as An Taibhdhearc, offering Dublin audiences the best of European and American theatre, and rapidly becoming a venue for a new wave of talented Irish writers.

MacLiammóir was frustrated that suitable Irish language playwrights did not come forward in Galway. He appeared as Pierrot in his own translation of Granville Barker's Prunella, with Máire Ni Scolaidhe in the title role, and, the object of his admiration, Proinnsias MacDiarmada, as the Statue of Love. The part necessitated that poor Proinnsias having to stand stationary for lengthy periods. The Connacht Tribune praised his endeavours 'as a national army soldier who stuck to his post with a perfection of posture which must have taxed his resources to the utmost.' 

MacLiammóir and Edwards' biographer, Christopher Fitz-Simon* tells us that MacLiammóir's last production at An Taibhdhearc (until he returned for its 25th anniversary ), was George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man. Shaw wrote to him authorising the translation, Gaisce agus Gaisgidneacht, in which Mícheál appeared as  a flamboyant Sergius. But by now even a part-time advisory relationship with Galway had become impossible. Proinnsias MacDiarmada, on Mícheál’s recommendation, took over from him.

Heavy going

But Mícheál and Hilton were not quite done with Galway yet. They requested the use of An Taibhdhearc for a fund-raising concert for the Gate. The directors generously agreed. 

Boy! It sounds heavy going today. Hilton sang arias from Tannhauser, and Pagliacci, three Shakespearian songs, and several ballads. Mícheál, with the actress Coralie Carmichael, did the closet scene from Hamlet, and the wooing scene from his Diarmuid and Grainne, which the Galway public had not seen in English. Music accompaniment was by Máire Ni Scolaidhe and her sister Móna who also sang. The sisters then gave an exhibition of step-dancing, and concluded their part with  a selection of duets in Irish. 

Mícheál then performed the death of Romeo as a solo, and Hilton and Coralie appeared as the two Macbeths. It had to have been the most dreadful evening ever imagined on stage. The Connacht Sentinel bravely acknowledged 'the deplorable fact that we do not get such treats so often.'

Something extraordinary

An Taibhdhearc zig-zagged along as best it could, overcoming financial and personality difficulties as they arose. And in the best traditions of all great theatres, sometimes there was more drama in the boardroom than on stage. But in 1939, however, its directors made the brilliant decision by offering Walter Macken the job as manager/play director for the princely sum of £3 a week. Macken gladly accepted, and the fortunes of the little Irish language theatre prospered.

Walter Macken, of course, is probably better known as a writer of short stories, novels and plays.** His father was an amateur actor before him, and Macken himself learned his acting trade from the small parts MacDiarmada gave him in a succession of plays at An Taibhdhearc.

The Connacht Tribune's drama critic at the time was Peggy Kenny, the daughter of its proprietor and editor Tom 'Cork' Kenny. Peggy and Walter fell in love, but Tom 'Cork' wasn't having it. He felt that a young amateur actor, who hadn't a bob to his name, was not suitable for his daughter. There was a blazing row at home, followed by Walter and Peggy eloping to London where they married and lived very happily in humble lodgings.

However, after a time they drifted back to Ireland. MacDiarmada, now a director at the Abbey Theatre, offered Walter well paying acting jobs (he later appeared to excellent reviews in MJ Molloy's The King of Friday's Men with the Abbey on Broadway ), and following the offer by An Taibhdhearc, returned to Galway.*** 

Seán Stafford tells that Macken was a ' wonderful worker and a nice friendly man. He was manager, actor, and director. He designed sets, scenery, props, painted the sets, and taught the actors their trade. He organised drama competitions in the schools and encouraged young playwrights. He left in January 1948 having produced 76 plays, six pantomimes, and various sketches.'****

Two years later something extraordinary happened. Fascinated by the story of St Joan of Arc (burnt as a heretic 1431, canonised in 1920 ) but unhappy with the 'whitewash which disfigures her beyond recognition’.  George Bernard Shaw wrote a brilliant play on her life. He presented a realistic Joan: Proud, intolerant, naive, foolhardy, but always brave - a rebel who challenges the conventions and values of her day. The play was a huge success in London; and in early 1950 a beautiful translation of the play, arrived in the Taibhdhearc's post. It was translated by a rising Galway actress with impeccable Irish, Siobhán McKenna. Something in Shaw's play had inspired Siobhán. It was to become her pathway to an astonishing career as a world renowned actress, and reflected very well on Galway's valiant Irish language theatre.  

Next week: Siobhán McKenna's rise to fame

NOTES: *The Boys - A Biography of Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, published by Nick Hern Books, London 1994.

**Walter Macken (May 3 1915 - April 22 1967 ), actor, writer and theatre-manager, perhaps best known for his trilogy of Irish historical novels: Seek The Fair Land, The Silent People, and The Scorching Wind. His attractive Galway novel Rain on the Wind (1950 )  is still a satisfactory read.

*** Did Tom 'Cork' Kenny ever forgive his daughter for running away, and marrying Walter? There is a division within the family on its outcome. I have been told that Tom 'Cork' refused to see his daughter and grandchildren ever again; but I have also been told that in fact there was a reconciliation.

****Taibhdhearc Na Gaillimhe, a talk given by Seán Stafford, printed in Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Volume 54: 2002.



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