45 – Bullfighting at the Abbey Theatre

Theodosia and Delia Parnell, sisters of Home Rule champion Charles Stuart Parnell.

I sense that their real demeanour was as severe as their portraits: backs held ramrod straight by Victorian decorum and pristine diction. I can see them, their long skirts swishing against the wooden floors of Avondale Hall as they prepare to meet their guests. It is the autumn of 1934. Their dresses are out of date; their manners are of date; they are out of step with the world. Against the lush backdrop of Wicklow, the stone façade of Avondale House stands as a stern relic of the Victorian society they refused to leave.

Avondale House, Rathdrum
Avondale House, Rathdrum

On the doorstep that day was Ria Mooney, with the playwright W. R. Fearon.

In her memoir, the actress describes Parnell’s ancestral home and its inhabitants:

We waited for “the girls” in an over-furnished drawing-room … There were dance programmes with pencils attached, paper fans, paper chains, antimacassars on all the many chairs and sofas, and photos in frames all over the room. Several of these photos were of the great Irish Leader, but there was none of Mrs. O’Shea.

In 1934, Ria Mooney returned to the Abbey Theatre. After a period of playing romantic leads at the Gate Theatre, she was finally starring in her own life as the devoted lover. Fred Higgins, artistic director of the Abbey, wooed her back into the Abbey Company at the same time as their affair began. She took a chance, particularly as the main company was on tour and she was joining the ‘replacement’ cast. But to begin, the No.2 Company did offer Ria challenging new roles. One of her first castings was as Mrs O’Shea in W. R. Fearon’s play Parnell of Avondale.

The figure of the English-born divorcée Katherine (Kate) O’Shea has a complicated reputation in Irish history. Believed by many to be a spy for the British government, her public affair with the nationalist political leader Charles Stewart Parnell led to his downfall. Parnell’s enemies gave her the name ‘Kitty O’Shea’, because ‘Kitty’ suggested a shortening of Katharine/Kate but was also an English slang word for prostitute.

Are you seeing a pattern here? From Rosie Redmond to Kitty O’Shea… Two of the most notorious ‘scarlet women’ in Irish history. In fact, an obscure reference in the National Library notes that Mooney was ‘good naturedly dubbed “the Abbey whore” because of the frequency with which she is cast for that role’.

During that afternoon tea in Avondale House, Ria again found herself defending the character she was to play. The two Miss Parnells still living at Avondale were disgusted at the sympathetic presentation of Mrs O’Shea in the play and looked on Ria as a person with “rather bad taste”. They made it clear to Ria that they could not understand how a respectable Irish woman, such as she, would take it on. Ria notes with a touch of humour: “at least they presumed I was respectable.” For her, notions of respectability meant little. It was always about interpreting the part the author had created, giving the character dignity and emotional truth. Lennox Robinson, as director, cast an actress he knew would relish the part rather than worrying about the historical reputation.

When the curtain went up on Parnell of Avondale in October 1934, the first scene recreated the first meeting of Parnell and Kitty. Ria wore a nineteenth-century dress in black velvet and chiffon that she had designed and Denis Carey played Parnell. From that first meeting, the action shifts to William O’Shea’s discovery of their affair and it concludes with Parnell’s downfall. As Ria herself observed, the affair and Mrs O’Shea take precedence over the political events in Fearon’s plot.

The Irish Times reviewer thought the play a “gallant failure”. He said that Carey’s “physique was rather against him” in the role but he was “competent” while Ria was “excellent”.

Fearon wrote another version of the play for the Abbey, which the critics disliked even more. He never wrote another play. (From my research – I’m open to correction.)

I love the phrase ‘gallant failure’. The critic may have meant it in the ‘chivalrous’  sense. But the word also denotes intrepid courage and fearlessness. In fact, I’ve decided that all my future failures will be ‘gallant’. They may also be spectacular or ambitious.

In a strange alignment of the stars, this week I met Roddy Doyle, John Banville and Anne Enright. I then travelled to Avondale House in Wicklow to hear something from the playwrights: Stuart Carolan, Mark O’Rowe, Deirdre Kinahan, Marina Carr, Owen McCafferty, Dermot Bolger ….

(SOME of this talent has to rub off on me, right?)

All of them, writers and playwrights alike, touched on the utter brutality of rejections and failures. Stuart Carolan, writer of LoveHate, referred to each critical failure as ‘a body blow’ from which he was still recoiling and struggling to recover. The violent metaphor is so apt. Each time you sit down to write something for public consumption, you are steeling yourself against that body blow.

We do, of course, have his TV drama; but for the sake of Irish audiences, I hope Carolan gets back on his feet and gets his work back on the Irish stage soon.

For as Dermot Bolger pointed out, the matadors most admired are not the young foolish ones throwing themselves to the bulls. Those most respected for their guts and courage are those who keep going back, time after time, knowing the risks and still nursing the wounds from earlier injuries.

There was also something about the matador in Ria Mooney, how she continually left and returned to the Abbey. Despite the problems, she was an intrepid champion of the cause. She never, ever gave up. Parnell would have approved.

That’s how progress happens. Otherwise, there’s a danger of being trapped in the past. As beautiful as Avondale house may be, being locked in the past is not a good place for anyone.


One comment on “45 – Bullfighting at the Abbey Theatre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *