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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Playwright Seán O’Casey

sean-ocaseySeán O’Casey, Irish playwright renowned for realistic dramas of the Dublin slums in war and revolution, in which tragedy and comedy are juxtaposed in a way new to the theatre of his time, is born at 85 Upper Dorset Street in Dublin on March 30, 1880.

Born as John Casey into a lower middle-class Irish Protestant family, his father dies when he is six, and thereafter the family becomes progressively poorer. With only three years of formal schooling, he educates himself by reading. He starts work at 14, mostly at manual labour, including several years with the Irish railways.

O’Casey becomes caught up in the cause of Irish nationalism, and he changes his name to its Irish form and learns the Irish language. His attitudes are greatly influenced by the poverty and squalor he witnesses in Dublin’s slums and by the teachings of the Irish labour leader Jim Larkin. He becomes active in the labour movement and writes for The Irish Worker. He also joins the Irish Citizen Army, a paramilitary arm of the Irish labour unions, and draws up its constitution in 1914. At this time he becomes disillusioned with the Irish nationalist movement because its leaders put nationalist ideals before socialist ones. He does not take part in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British authorities.

Disgusted with the existing political parties, he turns his energies to drama. His tragicomedies reflect in part his mixed feelings about his fellow slum dwellers, seeing them as incapable of giving a socialist direction to the Irish cause but at the same time admirable for their unconquerable spirit.

After several of his plays have been rejected, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin produces The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), set during the guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. In 1924 the Abbey stages Juno and the Paycock, his most popular play, set during the period of civil war over the terms of Irish independence. The Plough and the Stars (1926), with the 1916 Easter Rising as its background, causes riots at the Abbey by patriots who think the play denigrates Irish heroes. When first produced in the 1920s, these plays have an explosive effect on the audiences at the Abbey and help to enlarge the theatre’s reputation.

O’Casey goes to England in 1926, meets the Irish actress Eileen Carey Reynolds, marries her, and henceforth makes England his home. His decision to live outside Ireland is motivated in part by the Abbey’s rejection of The Silver Tassie, a partly Expressionist antiwar drama produced in England in 1929. Another Expressionist play, Within the Gates (1934), follows, in which the modern world is symbolized by the happenings in a public park. The Star Turns Red (1940) is an antifascist play, and the semiautobiographical Red Roses for Me (1946) is set in Dublin at the time of the Irish railways strike of 1911.

O’Casey’s later plays, given to fantasy and ritual and directed against the life-denying puritanism he believes has beset Ireland, include Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1958). His last full-length play is a satire on Dublin intellectuals, Behind the Green Curtains, published in 1961.

O’Casey’s three indisputably great plays are The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. All are tragicomedies set in the slums of Dublin during times of war and revolution. Violent death and the everyday realities of tenement life throw into relief the blustering rhetoric and patriotic swagger of men caught up in the struggle for Irish independence. The resulting ironic juxtapositions of the comic and tragic reveal the waste of war and the corrosive effects of poverty. His gifts are for vivid characterization and working-class language and, though he portrays war and poverty, he writes some of the funniest scenes in modern drama. His later plays are not considered as powerful or moving as his earlier realistic plays. In his later plays he tends to abandon vigorous characterization in favour of expressionism and symbolism, and sometimes the drama is marred by didacticism.

Six volumes of O’Casey’s autobiography appeared from 1939 to 1956. They are later collected as Mirror in My House (1956) in the United States and as Autobiographies (1963) in Great Britain. O’Casey’s letters from 1910 to 1941 are edited by David Krause in two volumes (1975, 1980).

Sean O’Casey dies of a heart attack at the age of 84 on September 18, 1964, in Torquay, Devon. He is cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.

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Bill Whelan Receives IMRO Lifetime Achievement Award

bill-whelanTaoiseach Bertie Ahern presents Irish composer and musician Bill Whelan with the IMRO Lifetime Achievement Award at Dublin Castle on March 2, 2001. Such big names as The Corrs, Brian Kennedy, Jean Butler, Jim Sheridan, Paul McGuinness and Moya Doherty join him to celebrate the award.

Whelan is best known for composing a piece for the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. The result, Riverdance, is a seven-minute display of traditional Irish dancing that becomes a full-length stage production and spawns a worldwide craze for Irish dancing and Celtic music and also wins him a Grammy Award. It is released as a single in the United Kingdom in 1994, credited to “Bill Whelan and Anúna featuring the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.” It reaches number 9 and stays in the charts for 16 weeks. The album of the same title reaches number 31 in the album charts in 1995. He also composes a symphonic suite version of Riverdance, with its premiere performed by the Ulster Orchestra on BBC Radio 3 in August 2014.

Whelan is a native of Limerick and is educated at Crescent College, University College Dublin and the King’s Inns. While he is best known for his Riverdance composition, he has been involved in many ground-breaking projects in Ireland since the 1970s. As a producer he has worked with U2 (on their War album), Van Morrison, Kate Bush, The Dubliners, Planxty, Andy Irvine & Davy Spillane, Patrick Street, Stockton’s Wing and fellow Limerickman Richard Harris.

In theatre, Whelan receives a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for his adaption of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s H.M.S. Pinafore. He writes original music for fifteen of William Butler Yeats‘s plays for Dublin‘s Abbey Theatre and his film credits include, Dancing at Lughnasa (starring Meryl Streep), Some Mother’s Son, Lamb (starring Liam Neeson) and the award-winning At The Cinema Palace.


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Birth of Playwright Tom Murphy

thomas-murphyTom Murphy, Irish playwright who has worked closely with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and with Druid Theatre, Galway, is born in Tuam, County Galway on February 23, 1935.

Murphy attends the local Archbishop McHale College and later becomes a metalwork teacher. He begins writing in the late 1950s, saying, “In 1958, my best friend said to me, why don’t we write a play? I didn’t think it was an unusual question, because in 1958 everyone in Ireland was writing a play.” His second play, A Whistle in the Dark, is written in his Tuam kitchen on his free Friday and Saturday nights. It is entered into a competition for amateur plays, which it wins, and is eventually performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London in 1961. It causes considerable controversy both there and in Dublin when it is later given its Irish premiere at the Abbey having initially been rejected by its artistic director.

Though Murphy is religious as a boy, education by the Christian Brothers leaves him largely irreligious. His 1975 play The Sanctuary Lamp is produced in the Abbey Theatre and receives a hostile reception due to its anti-Catholic nature, with theatregoers walking out and much negative criticism in the media.

Considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest living playwright, a title also often given to Brian Friel prior to his death in 2015, Murphy is honoured by the Abbey Theatre in 2001 by a retrospective season of six of his plays. His plays include the historical epic Famine (1968) which deals with the Irish Potato Famine between 1846 and spring 1847, the anti-clerical The Sanctuary Lamp (1975), The Gigli Concert (1983) and for many his masterpiece, the lyrical Bailegangaire and the bar-room comedy Conversations on a Homecoming (both 1985).

Murphy’s work is characterised by a constant experimentation in form and content from the apparently naturalistic A Whistle in the Dark to the surreal The Morning After Optimism and the spectacularly verbal The Gigli Concert. Recurring themes include the search for redemption and hope in a world apparently deserted by God and filled with suffering. Although steeped in the culture and mythology of Ireland, Murphy’s work does not trade on familiar clichés of Irish identity, dealing instead with Dostoyevskian themes of violence, nihilism and despair while never losing sight of the presence of laughter, humour and the possibilities of love and transcendence.


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Birth of Daniel Corkery, Writer & Academic

daniel-corkeryDaniel Corkery, Irish politician, writer and academic, is born in Cork, County Cork on February 14, 1878. He is unquestionably best known as the author of The Hidden Ireland, his 1924 study of the poetry of eighteenth-century Irish Language poets in Munster.

Corkery is educated at the Presentation Brothers and St. Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin where he trains as a teacher. He teaches at Saint Patrick’s School in Cork but resigns in 1921 when he is refused the headmastership. Among his students are the writer Frank O’Connor and the sculptor Seamus Murphy.

After leaving St. Patrick’s, Corkery teaches art for the local technical education committee, before becoming inspector of Irish in 1925, and later Professor of English at University College Cork in 1930. Among his students in UCC are Seán Ó Faoláin and Seán Ó Tuama. He is often a controversial figure in academia for his “nativist” views on Irish literature, views which result in conflict with many Irish Language scholars, most notably Pádraig de Brún and his niece Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Ó Tuama, however, is frequently a staunch defender of Corkery’s reputation.

In his late twenties Corkery learns Irish and this brings him into contact with leading members of the Irish Language revival movement, including Terence MacSwiney, T. C. Murray and Con O’Leary, with whom he founds the Cork Dramatic Society in 1908. His plays Embers and The Hermit and the King are performed by the society. Later plays are staged at the famous Abbey Theatre, including The Labour Leader (1919) and The Yellow Bittern (1920).

Corkery is also a writer of short stories, including the collections A Munster Twilight (1916), The Hounds of Banba (1920), The Stormy Hills (1929), and Earth Out of Earth (1939), and a novel, The Threshold of Quiet (1917).

Corkery also writes non-fiction works, including The Hidden Ireland (1924), a highly influential work about the riches of eighteenth-century Irish poetry. In this he attempts to reconstruct a worldview preserved by Gaelic poets amongst the poor and oppressed Catholic peasantry of the Penal Laws era, virtually invisible in the Anglo-Irish tradition that has dominated the writing of Irish history. “An instant, influential classic,” writes Patrick Walsh, “its version of the past provided powerful cultural underpinning to the traditional nationalist history that became, in the 1930s, the educational orthodoxy of the new state.”

Corkery serves as a member of Seanad Éireann from 1951 to 1954 when he is nominated by the Taoiseach.

Daniel Corkery dies on December 31, 1964. His papers are held in the Boole Library of University College Cork.


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Birth of Edward Martyn, Playwright & Activist

edward-martynEdward Martyn, Irish playwright and early republican political and cultural activist, is born in County Galway on January 30, 1859. He serves as the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908.

Martyn is the elder son of John Martyn of Tullira Castle, Ardrahan and Annie Mary Josephine (née Smyth) of Masonbrook, Loughrea, both of County Galway. He is educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and Wimbledon College, London, both Jesuit schools, after which he enters Christ Church, Oxford in 1877, but leaves without taking a degree in 1879. His only sibling, John, dies in 1883.

Martyn begins writing fiction and plays in the 1880s. While his own output is undistinguished, he acquires a well-earned reputation as a noted connoisseur of music, both European classical and Irish traditional. He is a fine musician in his own right, giving memorable performances for guests on an organ he has installed at Tullira. He uses his wealth to benefit Irish culture.

Martyn is reportedly pivotal in introducing William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory to each other in 1896. The three found the Irish Literary Theatre, for whom Martyn writes his best and most popular plays, The Heather Field and A Tale of a Town. He covers the costs of the company’s first three seasons, which proves crucial to establishing the company and the future of the Abbey Theatre. He later parts ways with Yeats and Gregory, something he later regrets, but remains on warm terms with Lady Gregory until the end of his life.

Martyn is a cousin and friend to George Moore (1852–1933). The two make frequent trips all over Europe, where Moore influences Martyn’s views on modern art, which result in the latter purchasing several works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Kitagawa Utamaro, all later donated to the National Gallery of Ireland. Moore does not share Martyn’s fenian ideas nor espousal of violent means to achieve national sovereignty. Their different political opinions eventually drive their friendship apart.

Martyn is descended from Richard Óge Martyn, a leading Irish Confederate, and Oliver Óge Martyn, a Jacobite who fights in the Williamite War in Ireland. Yet by his lifetime, the family are unionists. Martyn’s outlook begins to change in the 1880s after studying Irish history, as well as living through the events of the Irish Land War. He comes out as an Irish republican when he famously refuses to allow “God Save The Queen” to be sung after a dinner party at Tullira. By this stage he is involved with the political work of Maude Gonne and Arthur Griffith, and is a vocal opponent of the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1897. He also protests the visit by Edward VII in 1903, this time as chairman of the People’s Protection Committee. He is the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908. In 1908 he resigns from the party and politics in general to concentrate on writing and his other activities.

He is on close personal terms with Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Pearse, and deeply mourns their executions in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. A parish hall and church that he founded at Labane, near Tullira, are burned by the Black and Tans. He supports the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Martyn dies at Tullira on December 5, 1923 after years of ill health. Friends and family are shocked at a provision in his will that directs that his body be donated for the use of medical science and, after dissection, be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The Palestrina Choir sings at his graveside. He bequeaths his papers to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street in Dublin, who subsequently misplace and lose them. Portraits of Martyn exist by, among others, John Butler Yeats and Sarah Purser. On his death the senior line of the Martyn family dies out. His property is inherited by his cousins, the Smyths of Masonbrook and Lord Hemphill. Tullira is sold by the latter forty years later changing ownership several times since.


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Death of Actor Henry Wilfrid Brambell

henry-brambell-john-lennonHenry Wilfrid Brambell, Irish film and television actor best known for his role in the British television series Steptoe and Son, dies of cancer in Westminster, London, on January 18, 1985.

Brambell is the youngest of three sons born to Henry Lytton Brambell, a cashier at the Guinness Brewery, and his wife, Edith Marks, a former opera singer. His first appearance is as a child, entertaining the wounded troops during World War I. Upon leaving school he works part-time as a reporter for The Irish Times and part-time as an actor at the Abbey Theatre before becoming a professional actor for the Gate Theatre. He also does repertory at Swansea, Bristol and Chesterfield. In World War II, he joins the British military forces entertainment organisation Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).

His television career begins during the 1950s, when he is cast in small roles in three Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier productions for BBC TelevisionThe Quatermass Experiment (1953), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), and Quatermass II (1955). All of these roles earn him a reputation for playing old men, though he is only in his forties at the time.

It is this ability to play old men that leads to his casting in his best remembered role, as Albert Steptoe, the irascible father in Steptoe and Son. This begins as a pilot on the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, and its success leads to a full series being commissioned, running from 1962 to 1974 including a five-year hiatus. There are two feature film spin-offs, a stage show, and an American incarnation entitled Sanford and Son, some episodes of which are almost exact remakes of the original British scripts.

The success of Steptoe and Son makes Brambell a high-profile figure on British television, and earns him the supporting role of Paul McCartney‘s grandfather in The Beatles‘ first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). In 1965, Brambell tells the BBC that he does not want to do another series of Steptoe and Son and, in September that year, he goes to New York City to appear in the Broadway musical Kelly at the Broadhurst Theatre, however, it closes after just one performance.

Apart from his role as the older Steptoe, Brambell achieves recognition in many films. His performance in The Terence Davies Trilogy wins him critical acclaim, far greater than any achieved for Steptoe and Son. Although he appears throughout the full 94-minute piece, Brambell does not speak a single word.

After the final series of Steptoe and Son is made in 1974, Brambell has some guest roles in films and on television. He and Harry H. Corbett also undertake a tour of Australia in 1977 in a Steptoe and Son stage show.

Brambell dies of cancer in Westminster, London, on January 18, 1985, at the age of 72. He is cremated on January 25, 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes are scattered.

(Pictured: Henry Wilfrid Brambell and John Lennon in The Beatles’ first motion picture, A Hard Day’s Night)


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Death of Actress Pauline Delaney

pauline-delaneyPauline Delaney, accomplished stage, TV and film actress who is best known for her role in Circle of Friends and Into The West, dies in London from complications caused by Parkinson’s disease on January 15, 2007.

Delany is born in Dublin on June 8, 1925. Her mother, a keen theatregoer, inspires her love of the stage, taking her on regular visits to the Abbey Theatre and the Gate Theatre. She learns her craft through evening classes at the Brendan Smith Academy in Dublin and later gives up her job as a trainee fashion buyer to tour with a production of Charlie’s Aunt, starring Leslie Phillips.

In the mid-1950s, she marries actor Norman Rodway and they become members of the Globe company, together with Anna Manahan, Maureen Toal and Milo O’Shea, presenting new plays at a small Gas Company theatre in Dún Laoghaire. When financial problems force the Globe to close, she helps form Gemini Productions and stars in its 1960s Dublin Theatre Festival success, The Poker Session, by Hugh Leonard.

When the play transfers to London, Delany moves there. Her marriage to Rodway ends and she subsequently forms a relationship with Gerry Simpson, an Irish-born playwright. She is a familiar figure on the London stage, appearing in several productions, including The Hostage at the Royal Court, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the King’s Head Theatre and Cross Purpose at Hampstead Theatre.

Delany appears in several TV plays including The Dead, Shadow of a Gunman, Stephen D and The Seagull, as well as roles in The Bill, Casualty and Rumpole of the Bailey. Among her film credits are The Quare Fellow, Brannigan, Rooney and Nothing but the Best.