seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Ninette de Valois, Dancer & Choreographer

ninette-de-valoisDame Ninette de Valois, Irish-born British ballet dancer, choreographer, and founder of the company that in October 1956 becomes the Royal Ballet, is born Edris Stannus at Baltyboys House in Blessington, County Wicklow on June 6, 1898. She is influential in establishing ballet in England.

In 1908, at the age of ten, de Valois starts attending ballet lessons. At the age of thirteen she begins her professional training at the Lila Field Academy for Children. It is at this time that she changes her name and makes her professional debut as a principal dancer in pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End.

In 1919, at the age of 21, de Valois is appointed principal dancer of the Beecham Opera Company, which is then the resident opera company at the Royal Opera House. She continues to study ballet with notable teachers, including Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Nicholas Legat.

In 1923, de Valois joins Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a soloist. At age 26, however, she quits performing after learning she is suffering from an undiagnosed case of childhood polio. In 1926 she founds her own school, the Academy of Choreographic Art, in London. She also produces dances for Lennox Robinson at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and for Terence Gray at the Cambridge Festival Theatre.

The success of de Valois’s ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing for the Camargo Society in 1931, followed by her association with Lilian Baylis, director of the Old Vic Theatre, leads to the founding in 1931 of the Vic-Wells Ballet Company and the Sadler’s Wells School. She traces the history of the company, from its founding until it becomes the Royal Ballet in 1956, in Invitation to the Ballet (1937) and Come Dance with Me (1957).

Besides directing the company that she created, de Valois choreographs numerous ballets, including Checkmate (1937) and Don Quixote (1950). By drawing from English tradition for her choreographic material, as in The Rake’s Progress (1935), inspired by William Hogarth’s series of engravings, and The Prospect Before Us (1940), modeled on Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of the same name, she creates a uniquely national ballet company. Her narrative ballets include prominent roles for male dancers, giving them artistic opportunities often neglected by other choreographers.

In 1963 de Valois retires as director of the Royal Ballet, although she remains head of the school until 1972. She is created a Dame of the British Empire in 1951 and is named Companion of Honour in 1980.

de Valois keeps her private life very distinct from her professional life, making only the briefest of references to her marriage to Dr. Arthur Blackall Connell, a physician and surgeon from Wandsworth, in her autobiographical writings. In April 1964 she is the subject of This Is Your Life, when she is surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the home of the dancer Frederick Ashton in London. She continues to make public appearances until her death in London on March 8, 2001 at the age of 102.

(Pictured: Ninette de Valois, circa early 1920s)

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Death of Grace Evelyn Gifford Plunkett

grace-gifford-plunkettGrace Evelyn Gifford Plunkett, Irish artist and cartoonist who is active in the Republican movement, dies suddenly in her apartment in South Richmond Street, Portobello, Dublin, on December 13, 1955 .

Gifford is the second youngest of twelve children born to Frederick Gifford, a solicitor and Roman Catholic, and Isabella Julia Burton Gifford, a Protestant. She grows up in the fashionable suburb of Rathmines in Dublin. The boys are baptised as Catholics and the girls as Protestant, but effectively the children are all raised as Protestants. The girls attend Alexandra College in Earlsfort Terrace, and the boys attend the The High School in Harcourt St.

At the age of 16, Gifford enters the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she studies under the Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regards Gifford as one of his most talented pupils. He often sketches her and eventually paints her as one of his subjects for a series on “Young Ireland.” Around this time, Gifford’s talent for caricature is discovered and developed. In 1907 she attends a course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.

Gifford returns to Dublin in 1908 and, with great difficulty, attempts to earn a living as a caricaturist, publishing her cartoons in The Shanachie, Irish Life, Meadowstreet, and The Irish Review, which is edited from 1913 by Joseph Plunkett. She considers emigrating but gives up the idea. Later that year, she meets Plunkett for the first time at the opening of St. Edna’s School, a new bilingual school in Ranelagh, Dublin. Plunkett is a friend of her brother-in-law, another of the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Thomas MacDonagh, who is married to Gifford’s sister Muriel.

Her growing interest in the Roman Catholic religion leads to the deepening of Gifford and Plunkett’s relationship. Plunkett proposes to her in 1915. She accepts and takes formal instruction in Catholic doctrine. She is received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. The couple plan to marry on Easter Sunday that year, in a double wedding with his sister and her fiancé.

After the Rising, her brother-in-law Thomas MacDonagh is executed by firing squad along with Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke on May 3. That same day, Gifford learns that Plunkett is to be shot at dawn. She purchases a ring in a jeweller’s shop in Dublin city centre and, with the help of a priest, persuades the military authorities to allow them to marry. She and Plunkett are married on the night of May 3, 1916 in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol, a few short hours before he is executed.

Grace Plunkett decides to devote herself through her art to the promotion of Sinn Féin policies and resumes her commercial work to earn a living. She is elected to the Sinn Féin executive in 1917.

During the Irish Civil War, Plunkett is arrested with many others in February 1923 and interned at Kilmainham Gaol for three months. She is released in May 1923.

When the Civil War ends, Plunkett has no home of her own and little money. Like many Anti-Treaty Republicans, she is the target of social ostracism and has difficulty finding work. She moves from one rented apartment to another and eats in the city-centre restaurants. She befriends many people and has many admirers, but has no wish to remarry. Her material circumstances improve in 1932 when she receives a Civil List pension from Éamon de Valera‘s Fianna Fáil government. She lives for many years in a flat in Nassau St. with a balcony overlooking the sports ground of Trinity College.

Plunkett’s in-laws refuse to honour her husband’s will, which leaves everything to his widow. Legally, the will is invalid because there is only one of the required two witnesses and also the marriage takes place after the will is made, automatically revoking it. She begins legal proceedings against her in-laws in 1934. The Count and Countess Plunkett settle out of court and Plunkett is paid £700, plus costs.

From the late 1940s onwards, Plunkett’s health declines. In 1950 she is brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital, then in the city centre. She convalesces in a nursing home, which she does not like because it restricts her freedom.

After her sudden death on December 13, 1955, Grace Gifford Plunkett’s body is removed to St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, and among the attendees at her funeral is President Seán T. O’Kelly. She is buried with full military honours near the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Grace Gifford Plunkett is the subject of “Grace,” a song written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara, which becomes popular in Ireland and elsewhere and has been recorded by many musicians.