Siobhán McKenna - A legend in Irish theatre

Week IV

‘You think that life is nothing but not being dead?’ - Siobhán McKenna in her great role as Joan of Arc

‘You think that life is nothing but not being dead?’ - Siobhán McKenna in her great role as Joan of Arc

French soldiers in World War I carried Joan of Arc’s image into battle at Ardennes, at Charleroi, at the Marne. They wore medals bearing her face around their necks, and tucked her picture into the pockets of their uniforms.

Joan of Arc, surely the most extraordinary of all Christian saints, was convinced, and successfully convinced others, that she was guided by angelic voices. She stepped into the story of her country in the most dramatic way. A peasant girl from the fields, she led the French army to a series of victories at a terrible time for France in the One Hundred Years’ War, bitterly fought, over the succession to the French throne. She was betrayed. On May 30 1431, accused of heresy, she was cruelly burnt alive in a small Normandy town. She was only 19 years of age.

Wonderfully, as British soldiers believed they saw angels over the battlefields of Mons, French soldiers, looking upwards from their own hellish trenches, saw her riding in full armour on horseback through the clouds. She wasn’t yet a certified saint, but French soldiers in the Great War knew Joan of Arc was with them. She was always, after all, devoted to the common soldier who fought and paid for France’s freedom with their lives. They prayed to her, told stories about her, sang about her. After the war, the Vatican hastened to canonise her in 1920.

George Bernard Shaw, capitalising on the still relatively recent canonisation of Joan, brilliantly brought her life to the stage in 1924. It is probably his finest play. Shaw created a provocatively original version of The Maid as a protestant and a nationalist before her time. He had in mind that the famous actress Sybil Thorndike would play the leading role, which she did to wide acclaim. The part has gone on to be a defining role for women.

The challenge was taken up in Galway’s little Irish language theatre when a perfect translation of the play was sent to the directors, who immediately agreed to produce it. The translation was done by a young actress, and fluent Irish speaker, Siobhán McKenna, and the role was to bring her fame beyond her dreams.

Highest accolade

The play opened in Galway in December 1950. It was the talk of the town. People were both moved and awed by Siobhán’s portrayal of St Joan. It was a new departure for An Taibhdhearc. No longer was it just sufficient for a play to be in Irish; it had to be of the highest theatrical standard, evidenced by its acting and presentation.

The play was directed by Ian Priestly Mitchell, but Siobhán insisted on certain changes. She refused to work with two members of the cast whom she claimed were not up to speed. The changes she asked for were all made.

In January 1951 the play moved to the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. In the audience was An Taibhdhearc’s old friend Micheál MacLiammóir who was enchanted. He persuaded Siobhán to present the play at his Gate Theatre, but in the original English version.

Again Siobhán’s performance caused a sensation. Audiences wept when Joan, given a choice of being entombed for the rest of her life on a diet of bread and water, or burned at the stake, desperately replied: "You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness... without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil."

From Dublin the play transferred to London, then Paris (where it took the city by the proverbial storm ), and finally to New York. She was featured on the cover of Life magazine; and in 1956 was the first Irish actor to win a Tony Award, the highest accolade that Broadway can confer.

A star

Siobhán was born Siobhán Giollamhuire Nic Cionnaith into a proudly Irish speaking, nationalist family in Belfast, in May 1923. Her mother was Margaret O’Reilly from Longford, and her father Eoghan was something of a mathematical genius. In 1928 he was appointed professor of mathematical sciences at NUIG, and the family moved into the imposing Fort Eyre, in Shantalla.

Siobhán went to school first to the Dominican Sisters at Taylor’s Hill, and then as a boarder to the St Louis Sisters at Monaghan. While a student at NUIG, she began acting at An Taibhdhearc, and showed such promise that Professor Liam Ó Briain (one of the founders of An Taibhdhearc ) recommended her to the Abbey where she was immediately given a contract. As her career developed she had small parts in films and on the London stage. She received praise from the renowned critic Kenneth Tynan for her role in James Forsyth’s Héloise in 1951, the same year that her St Joan took off internationally.

Rarely out of work some of Siobhán’s other memorable roles include Pegeen Mike from the Playboy of the Western World, directed by Shelah Richards (later made into a film ). She enjoyed leading parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Cyril Cusack in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, and in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago.

Siobhán was the much over-used term, a star, and greatly sought after. In early 1986, the year she died at only 63 years of age, and although seriously ill (of which few people were aware ), she undertook the demanding role of Mammo in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire, which was written with her in mind. It was memorably directed by Garry Hynes (herself a Tony Award winner ), to rave reviews. Siobhán’s contribution became a legend.

Next week: Orson Welles in Galway


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