Geraldine Neeson, whose family kept theatre people when they visited Cork, described Mícheál MacLiammóir ‘as beautiful as a young god’, and his companion Hilton Edwards as a man endowed ‘with exuberant spirit and all-embracing gestures,’ diplomatically hinting that perhaps he was somewhat less prepossessing.
Nevertheless the two men, who were life-long partners and colourful theatre impresarios, enjoyed brilliant careers both on stage and film. While Mícheál was busy setting up An Taibhdhearc in Middle Street, Galway, which was to become Ireland’s only Irish language theatre, they were both planning the Gate Theatre in Dublin, which would eventually become an international triumph for its introduction of new talent, and innovative set designs.
Mícheál was born Alfred Willmore into a theatrical family in London on October 25 1899. He was a boy sensation on stage, adored by such theatrical celebrities as Noel Coward: “Raptures! dear boy. Raptures!” He studied painting at London’s Slade School of Art, and painted and designed the most elaborate stage sets throughout his life. While touring Ireland in the company of his brother-in-law Anew Mac Master (a famous, if totally over-the-top, Shakespearean actor-manager ), Mícheál met the two loves of his life. One was the English born actor Hilton Edwards, and the other was Ireland itself. He developed a life-long passion for both. He reinvented himself by changing his name to its Irish version. He learned Irish which he spoke and wrote fluently. And he presented himself as a descendent of an ancient Irish Catholic family from Cork.
A young soldier
The play Mícheál chose to open An Taibhdhearc was his own version of the mythical story Diarmuid agus Gráinne. In the lead up to the opening night, he worked tirelessly creating the sets, getting the theatre ready, building, rehearsing, designing costumes, and painting. Of course he chose the main part of Diarmuid for himself, but introduced some interesting young people in the other roles. Gráinne was played by Máire Ni Scolaidhe, a well known sean nos singer. The young poet Mairtín O Direáin had a minor role, while Liam Ó Briain, one of the founders of the theatre, played Fionn MacCumhail.
Prionnsias MacDiarmada played Oisín. Prionnsias was a member of the Irish speaking battalion at Dun Ui Mhaoiliosa, An Céad Cath, and an enthusiastic actor. As Hilton was often away working on their Gate project, Mícheál developed, in the parlance of the day, a ‘crush’ for the handsome young soldier on loan from Renmore barracks.
A pretty daughter
While all this was going on Mícheál and Hilton stayed in digs over Tigh Neachtain’s. Their bedroom was the room with that glorious oriel window on the corner, one of the city’s architectural gems. Their landlady (name is withheld ) had a daughter, whom she would have loved to have married ‘one of these fine gentlemen,’ and become a famous actor. There is a well known song by Noel Coward Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington. The landlady’s song was something like Do Put My Daughter On the Stage Mícheál. She plied them with large helpings of wonderful food, and her pretty daughter served them shyly, but with a certain swish which she hoped would catch their eye. It says something for the innocence of the day that neither the landlady nor her daughter knew that it was all a futile excerise.**
The biographer of Mícheál and Hilton,* Christopher Fitz-Simon, writes that there was tremendous excitement at the opening performance on August 27 1928. ‘Here was a new theatre, the first and only theatre dedicated to the presentation of plays in Irish, and a brand new play in the same language; it looked as if the oft-ridiculed language -revival movement, and the clause in the Constitution of the new State which enshrined Irish as its first language, were being justified in a highly significant way.’
The great and the good of Galway, and elsewhere, were invited for the opening night. Lady Augusta Gregory ‘elegant in a black cloak and buckle shoes’ was there. Perhaps not everyone appreciated MacLiammóir’s interpretation of the well known story. The costumes were certainly Celtic, but the play was presented in the contemporary European style. It was ambitiously avant garde; more Moscow Arts Theatre rather than the accepted formal style of the Abbey Theatre. If Gregory (a co-founder of the Abbey ) was miffed, she did not say. Later she had great praise for MacLiammóir.
It is possible, however, that any play, in which the actors remembered their words, and the scenery did not actually crash down on the audience, would have been well received in that euphoric atmosphere, on that historic night. The whole evening was a sensation. And it deserved to be so.
More next week
NOTES: The Boys - A biography of Mícheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards by Christopher Fitz-Simon, published by Nick Hern Books, 1994.
** I am grateful to Dick Byrne, a long-time director of An Taibhdhearc, and presenter of the Summer show Séoda for many years, for this story.