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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Birth of Donagh MacDonagh, Playwright & Writer

donagh-macdonaghDonagh MacDonagh, Irish writer, judge, presenter, broadcaster, and playwright, is born in Dublin on November 22, 1912. He is the son of Irish nationalist and poet Thomas MacDonagh.

MacDonagh is still a young child when his father is executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. Tragedy strikes again when his mother dies of a heart attack a year afterwards while swimming at Skerries to Lambay Island, County Dublin on July 9, 1917. He and his sister are then cared for by their maternal aunts, in particular Catherine Wilson.

His parents’ families then engage in a series of child custody lawsuits as the MacDonaghs are Roman Catholic and the Giffords are Protestant. In the climate of Ne Temere, the MacDonaghs are successful.

He and his sister Barbara, who later marries actor Liam Redmond, live briefly with their paternal aunt Eleanor Bingham in County Clare before being put into the custody of strangers until their late teens when they are taken in by Jack MacDonagh.

MacDonagh is educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin (UCD) with contemporaries Cyril Cusack, Denis Devlin, Charles Donnelly, Brian O’Nolan, Niall Sheridan and Mervyn Wall. In 1935 he is called to the Bar and practises on the Western Circuit. In 1941 he is appointed a District Justice in County Mayo. To date, he remains the youngest person appointed as a judge in Ireland. He is Justice for the Dublin Metropolitan Courts at the time of his death.

MacDonagh publishes three volumes of poetry: Veterans and Other Poems (1941), The Hungry Grass (1947) and A Warning to Conquerors (1968). He also edits the Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1958) with Lennox Robinson. He also writes poetic dramas and ballad operas. One play, Happy As Larry, is translated into a number of languages. He has three other plays produced: God’s Gentry (1951), Lady Spider (1959) and Step in the Hollow, a piece of situation comedy nonsense.

MacDonagh also writes short stories. He publishes Twenty Poems with Niall Sheridan, stages the first Irish production of “Murder in the Cathedral” with Liam Redmond, later his brother-in-law, and is a popular broadcaster on Radio Éireann.

MacDonagh is married twice, to Maura Smyth and, following her death after she drowns in a bath whilst having an epileptic seizure, to her sister, Nuala Smyth. He has four children, Iseult and Breifne by Maura and Niall and Barbara by Nuala.

Donagh MacDonagh dies in Dublin on January 1, 1968 and is buried at Deans Grange Cemetery.


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Birth of Irish Writer Frank O’Connor

Frank O’Connor, Irish writer of over 150 works and best known for his short stories and memoirs, is born Michael Francis O’Donovan in Cork, County Cork, on September 17, 1903. The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is named in his honour.

Raised in Cork, the only child of Minnie (née O’Connor) and Michael O’Donovan, O’Connor attends Saint Patrick’s School on Gardiner’s Hill and North Monastery CBS. His early life is marked by his father’s alcoholism, debt, and ill-treatment of his mother. His childhood is shaped in part by his mother, who supplies much of the family’s income by cleaning houses, because his father is unable to keep steady employment due to his drunkenness. He adores his mother and is bitterly resentful of his father. In his memoirs, he recalls his childhood as “those terrible years,” and admits that he has never been able to forgive his father for his abuse of himself and his mother. When his mother is seventy, O’Connor is horrified to learn from his own doctor that she has suffered for years from chronic appendicitis, which she has endured with great stoicism, as she has never had the time nor the money to see a doctor.

In 1918 O’Connor joins the First Brigade of the Irish Republican Army and serves in combat during the Irish War of Independence. He opposes the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and joins the Anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War, working in a small propaganda unit in Cork City. He is one of twelve thousand Anti-Treaty combatants who are interned by the government of the new Irish Free State. Between 1922 and 1923 he is imprisoned in Cork City Gaol and in Gormanston, County Meath.

Following his release, O’Connor takes various positions including that of teacher of Irish, theatre director, and librarian. He begins to move in literary circles and is befriended by George William Russell (Æ), through whom he comes to know most of the well-known Irish writers of the day, including William Butler Yeats, Lennox Robinson, F. R. Higgins and Lady Gregory. In his memoirs, he pays tribute to both Yeats and Russell for the help and encouragement they gave him.

In 1935, O’Connor becomes a member of the board of directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, founded by Yeats and other members of the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1937, he becomes managing director of the Abbey. Following Yeats’s death in 1939, O’Connor’s long-standing conflict with other board members comes to a head and he leaves the Abbey later that year. In 1950, he accepts invitations to teach in the United States, where many of his short stories have been published in The New Yorker and have won great acclaim. He spends much of the 1950s in the United States, although it is always his intention to return eventually to Ireland.

From the 1930s to the 1960s O’Connor is a prolific writer of short stories, poems, plays, and novellas. His work as an Irish teacher complements his plethora of translations into English of Irish poetry, including his initially banned translation of Brian Merriman‘s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court). Many of O’Connor’s writings are based on his own life experiences – notably his well-known The Man of the House in which he reveals childhood details concerning his early life in County Cork. The Sullivan family in this short story, like his own boyhood family, is lacking a proper father figure.

O’Connor’s early years are recounted in An Only Child, a memoir published in 1961 which has the immediacy of a precocious diary. He continues his autobiography through his time with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in his book My Father’s Son, which is published posthumously in 1968. It contains valuable character sketches of many of the leading Irish literary figures of the 1930s, in particular Yeats and Æ.

Frank O’Connor has a stroke while teaching at Stanford University in 1961, and he later dies from a heart attack in Dublin on March 10, 1966. He is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery two days later.


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Birth of Playwright & Poet Lennox Robinson

lennox-robinsonEsmé Stuart Lennox Robinson, playwright, poet, theatre producer, and director who is involved with the Abbey Theatre, is born in Westgrove, Douglas, County Cork, on October 4, 1886.

Robinson is raised in a Protestant and Unionist family in which he is the youngest of seven children. His father, Andrew Robinson, is a middle-class stockbroker who in 1892 decides to become a clergyman in the Church of Ireland in the small Ballymoney parish, near Ballineen in West Cork. A sickly child, Robinson is educated by private tutor and at Bandon Grammar School. In August 1907, his interest in the theatre begins after he goes to see an Abbey production of plays by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory at the Cork Opera House. He publishes his first poem that same year. His first play, The Cross Roads, is performed in the Abbey in 1909 and he becomes manager of the theatre towards the end of that year. He resigns in 1914 as a result of a disastrous tour of the United States but returns in 1919. He is appointed to the board of the theatre in 1923 and continues to serve in that capacity until his death. His Abbey career and production involvement can be found in the Abbey archives.

As a playwright, Robinson shows himself as a nationalist with plays like Patriots (1912) and Dreamers (1915). On the other hand, he belongs to a part of Irish society which is not seen as fully Irish. This division between the majority native Irish (Roman Catholics) on one side and the Anglo-Irish (Protestants) on the other can be seen in a play such as The Big House (1926), which depicts the burning of a Protestant manor home by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Robinson’s most popular play is The Whiteheaded Boy (1916).

Other plays include Crabbed Youth and Age (1924), The Far Off Hills (1928), Drama at Inish (1933), and Church Street (1935). Drama at Inish, which is presented in London and on Broadway as Is Life Worth Living?, is revived as part of the 2011 season at the Shaw Festival  at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, with Mary Haney in the role of Lizzie Twohig. Robinson’s fiction includes Eight Short Stories (1919). In 1931 he publishes a biography of Bryan Cooper, who had recently died. In 1951, he publishes Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, the first full-length history of the company.

He publishes an edited edition of Lady Gregory’s diaries in 1947. In 1958 he co-edits with Donagh MacDonagh The Oxford Book of Irish Verse. He is also a director and producer, in 1930 producing a play by Irish playwright Teresa Deevy called The Reapers. In 1931 he is co-director of A Disciple along with W.B. Yeats and Walter Starkie.

Melancholic and alcoholic in later years, Lennox Robinson dies in Monkstown, County Dublin, on October 15, 1958. He is buried St. Patrick’s Cathedral.