seamus dubhghaill

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


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Death of John Cowley, Actor & Animal Welfare Activist

John Ultan Cowley, actor and animal welfare activist, dies on February 13, 1998, in Navan, County Meath. He is best known for his role as pater familias, Tom Riordan, in the long-running RTÉ Television drama series, The Riordans.

Cowley is born September 8, 1923 in Ardbraccan, Navan, County Meath, the third child of Patrick Cowley, a small farmer, and his wife Margaret. Educated at the local national school, he leaves at the age of thirteen to work on the family farm. He also works with a horse and cart drawing stones from a local quarry. He is an enthusiastic amateur actor and learns his trade in the fit-ups of the forties and fifties. Moving to England, he gets parts in television shows such as Z-Cars and No Hiding Place. During the 1950s and 60s, he is also very active in theatre, and has a long association with the Globe theatre company in Dún Laoghaire, which he joins in 1956. He also plays in the Abbey, Gate and Olympia theatres, travels Europe in 1960–61 with John Millington Synge‘s The Playboy of the Western World, and stars in the early Hugh Leonard play I Loved You Last Summer.

Cowley is best known for his portrayal of the bluff countryman Tom Riordan in RTÉ’s rural drama, The Riordans. First airing on January 4, 1965, it runs until May 28, 1979. One of RTÉ’s most successful programmes, it has a huge audience and a considerable social impact through its treatment of controversial topics such as divorce, contraception, and mixed marriages. When it ends in 1979 Cowley is bitterly disappointed and accuses RTÉ of throwing him on the scrap heap. After this he continues to work in theatre and has occasional appearances on screen, including a part in Jim Sheridan‘s The Field (1991) and the British espionage television series, The Avengers.

Cowley also writes poetry and a play, A Fool and His Money. His other hobbies include a passion for history (particularly the 1798 period), hurling, Gaelic football, boxing, and swimming. A patron and a founder member of the Irish Council Against Blood Sports in 1967, he is a leading opponent of hare coursing, popularising the cause through an appearance on The Late Late Show in 1967.

In 1953 Cowley marries Annie D’Alton, an actor who later appears with him in The Riordans, two years after the death of her first husband, the dramatist Louis D’Alton. They have one son.

Cowley dies in Navan on February 13, 1998. His wife precedes him in death in March 1983.


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Birth of Anew McMaster, Anglo-Irish Stage Actor

Anew McMaster, Anglo-Irish stage actor, is born in Birkenhead, England, on December 24, 1891. During his nearly 45 year acting career he tours Ireland, Britain, Australia and the United States. For almost 35 years he tours as actor-manager of his own theatrical company performing the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights.

McMaster is born as Andrew McMaster, the son of Liverpool-born Andrew McMaster (1855–1940), a master stevedore, and Alice Maude née Thompson (1865–1895). A number of sources make the erroneous claims, based on details supplied by McMaster himself, that he is born in 1893 or 1894 or even 1895 in County Monaghan in Ireland but, according to the Birth Register and the 1901 United Kingdom Census, he is actually born in 1891 in Birkenhead, England. Like his future brother-in-law Micheál Mac Liammóir, who is born in London as Alfred Willmore but claims to have been born in Cork to Gaelic-speaking parents, McMaster reinvents himself as Irish and claims for himself the town of Monaghan as his birthplace, and Warrenpoint, County Down, as the scene of his earliest memories.

At the age of nineteen McMaster gives up a career in banking to pursue one on the stage. He moves to Ireland and tours the country with the O’Brien-Ireland theatrical company from 1910 to 1914. Success quickly follows with his appearance as Jack O’Hara in Paddy the Next Best Thing at the Savoy Theatre (1920). From 1921 he tours Australia in this and other plays, and in 1925 forms his own company, the McMaster Intimate Theatre Company, a ‘fit-up‘ company to tour in the works of Shakespeare, mainly in Ireland but also in Britain and Australia, touring with his theatrical company until 1959. One of the last actor-managers “of the old school – and an epitome of the type,” on occasions he persuades a ‘big name’ to act with his company as a draw for audiences. Frank Benson (1928), Sara Allgood (1929) and Mrs. Patrick Campbell appear with him.

In 1933 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon McMaster appears as Hamlet opposite Esme Church as Gertrude, Coriolanus, Macduff in Macbeth, Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet, and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. His greatest roles are as Othello and as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, to which he adds King Lear in 1952. Just before World War II he and his company appear at the Chiswick Empire in a Shakespeare season. He tours the United States as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill‘s Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1956. Having ‘a great organ voice,’ Harold Pinter, who acts in his company in Ireland from 1951 to 1953 and calls him ‘perhaps the greatest actor-manager of his time,’ later describes McMaster as ‘evasive, proud, affectionate, shrewd, merry.’ In his brief biography Mac (1968), Pinter recalls, “Mac gave about a half dozen magnificent performances of Othello while I was with him… At his best he was the finest Othello I have see. [He] stood dead in the centre of the role, and the great sweeping symphonic playing would begin, the rare tension and release within him, the arrest, the swoop, the savagery, the majesty and repose.”

McMaster’s only film role is an uncredited appearance as the Judge in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960).

In 1924 McMaster marries the actress and designer Marjorie Willmore (1894–1970), the sister of Micheál Mac Liammóir. They have two children, the actors John Christopher McMaster (1925–1995) and Mary-Rose McMaster (1926–2018).

Anew McMaster dies at the age of 70 at his home in Dublin on August 24, 1962. He is buried with his wife in Deans Grange Cemetery in County Dublin.

McMaster trains a generation of actors who tour with his company and go on to achieve success as actors. These include Pauline Flanagan, Milo O’Shea, T. P. McKenna, Kenneth Haigh, Henry Woolf, Harold Pinter, Donal Donnelly and Patrick Magee. It is while they are touring with McMaster’s company that the actor and dramatist Micheál Mac Liammóir and the actor and producer Hilton Edwards first meet and begin their lifelong partnership.

McMaster’s biography, A Life Remembered: A Memoir of Anew McMaster by his daughter Mary-Rose McMaster, is published in 2017. Harold Pinter also publishes a short biography, Mac, in 1968.