38 – Expressing & Proving Friendship

I know that it is one thing to express friendship and another thing to prove it!

Ria Mooney to T.H.

Aideen is demure, polite in company, speaks her mind only when riled and is often withdrawn. Ria Mooney, on the other hand, has an openness, a friendliness, a forward nature that should make her easier to find. But that hasn’t been the case.

One day in New York, under a sky glinting with the promise of snow, I tramped all the way down to Fourteenth Street, off Sixth Avenue. Leaving Kay and Aideen on Broadway, I was in search of the faintest trace of Ria and her time in the Civic Repertory Company in the late 1920s. (I first wrote about this here: Ria & The Civic Repertory)

The theatre was long ago bulldozed to the ground, but I wandered the streets, noting that the Salvation Army had expanded their small Depression outlet next door to a sizeable piece of real estate. Instead of the Childs’ Restaurant where the penniless actresses eeked hours out of a cup of coffee, I had waffles with syrup in a bright, cheery diner and it cheered me up to find this small space for experimental theatre:

14th St Theatre
14th St Theatre

But of course, that came into being long after Ria left. In The Strand bookstore I passed a few hours perusing books on Eva Le Gallienne and the theatre of her time. Some were mildly useful, but I already had a copy of the definitive biography in my suitcase: that written by Helen Sheehy.

Sheehy had exclusive access to Le Gallienne’s papers (now in Yale University), but her work went further than the dusty boxes in a library. She tried on Eva’s Fortuny evening gown, wore the Eau de Verviene cologne she favoured, listened to her voice, watched videotapes of her, walked the ground that she walked and interviewed more than 150 people who knew her. In short, she has my dream job.

Back in Galway, wondering idly how I could afford to visit Yale University archives next year, I sent a plea out to Helen Sheehy, desperate to know if the name “Ria Mooney” appeared anywhere in her files.

The generosity of her response is one I’ll never forget. For when Helen Sheehy realized I was in Ireland, she offered to trawl the Civic files in the Beinecke library (again) on my behalf. Only somebody familiar with this painstaking work could appreciate what a generous offering this was, and how much it meant to me. There is no way I can ever repay her, but as she suggested, I can pay it forward to the next despairing researcher that comes my way. And do I owe that despairing researcher …

Ria’s friendship with Theresa Helburn (Tessa) of the New York Theatre Guild was re-ignited after Helburn contacted the Abbey in the early 1950s looking to view a script, and they continued to correspond. By then, Ria Mooney was struggling – both personally and professionally, under the management of Ernest Blythe. Her memoirs are carefully worded, but to Tessa she can openly say:

‘Our National Theatre is so hopelessly mismanaged that it is the grave of all one’s hopes.’

Ria reflects on her time with the Civic and confesses something of that period of sickness that assailed her while on tour with The Abbey Company. (NO, you’re not getting all the information. My book will appear eventually.)

BUT I will tell you that in the late 1950s, Ria returned to New York to spend a month-long holiday with her “old friend” Mrs Kick Erlanger (or Rita Romelli).

When it was arranged, she wrote to Tessa:

‘I know visitors can be a damned nuisance to a busy person like you … It would be nice to see you for a few minutes for the sake of old times?’

There is no response to that letter from Tessa to Ria. Instead, Tessa chose to write straight to Mrs Erlanger:

‘If there’s a chance of seeing [Ria], I’m hoping with all my heart there’s a chance of seeing you too.’


The three women didn’t share a room in New York during that visit, although Ria met with Kick. Mrs Martin Beck threw a party for Ria to see as many of her old friends as she could. On her return to the Abbey Ria wrote to Tess:

‘I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back there again. How all that warm friendship one receives in America lifts and enlarges the spirit.’ 

The true pleasure of this work has come not alone from the historical connections it has engendered, but from the real, personal ones. Aideen et al have introduced me to some wonderfully kind people, and the number of strangers (and familiars) who have taken ‘my girls’ to their hearts, asked questions and proffered answers is often the only thing keeping me going.

Doesn’t friendship do just that – lift and enlarge the spirit?

Portrait of Ria Mooney (1943) that is kept backstage at The Abbey
Portrait of Ria Mooney (1943) that is kept backstage at The Abbey


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