Actress, head tilted, hithering smile/ Advance, advance against me/ Twittering proliferation pruned to style. Denis Devlin
In May, I received a text from an old friend, Béibhinn O’Connor, sending me screenshots of references to this blog and my unpublished thesis, nestled amid a wealth of references used by an Oxford academic, Dr Sarah Bennett. She had recently edited a new collection of letters by Irish modernist poet, Denis Devlin.
Béibhinn is Devlin’s great grandniece: her grandmother Eileen was one of his eight siblings. Another sibling was Moya, an actress with the Abbey and one of the ‘B Company’, as I’ve previously referred to them.
I was shocked but delighted. You never do imagine people will read your thesis. But Bennett’s book, when I went to find a copy, was sold out. So as I waited for the inter-library loan service to do its thing, I poured over the screenshots from Béibhinn and tried to read up on Devlin.
Bennett’s collection is a beautiful read for many reasons: it illuminates the historical, literary and social context as well as tracing the maturation of a modernist poet. But it also holds something special for me: evidence of a passionate love affair with Ria Mooney.
Unrolls with the casual necessity of a bullfight;
Pinned on the Euclidean frame
Of the stage, night after night,
Always our sentence and remand the same.
A bullfight pinned on a Euclidean frame. What a stunning image to recall what it’s like to attend live theatre.
Denis Devlin, five years younger than Ria, was the eldest of nine children. His family relocated from Scotland to Dublin when he was eleven, settling in Upper Mount Street, and his father ran a public house in Parnell Square. After a degree in English from UCD, Devlin taught for a year and then, scrabbling about for a wage while writing poetry, finally managed to pass the Civil Service exam. An international bureaucratic career followed, as he travelled the world with various presidents.
The letters for Washington, Rome and elsewhere are fascinating for lots of reasons. But the diplomatic career is after ‘the fact’ for me. I want to go back to the fresh-faced English graduate of 25, brimming with confidence and ambition.
In September 1933, Devlin attended O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars at the Abbey. He thought the play cheap melodrama, and the next day he described the experience of the evening as ‘a hurly burly mixture of theosophy and big business and selfishness.’
That production starred F.J. McCormick and Shelah Richards, with Barry Fitzgerald as Fluther Good. Aideen did her portrayal of Mollser, a twenty-year-old playing a child. The prostitute was played by … Eileen Crowe … the most unlikely Rosie Redmond ever – so he can’t have met Ria then.
But at some point before 1937, he wrote Actress Attracting, and I have decided—as is my wont—that he wrote it for Ria Mooney.
The poem was included in the first collection of poems he was preparing for publication. Before the eventual release of Intercessions, he removed the poem, along with a few others. It was subsequently published in 1946, in a collection entitled Lough Derg and Other Poems. But the title of the poem had also changed: from Actress Attracting (such a delicious title to recite) to Poet and Comic Muse.
That feels to me as if he elbowed out the female performer to put himself back as the chief subject of it all.
There’s an important juncture in Irish literary history in 1934 where Samuel Beckett, writing under the pseudonym Andrew Bellis in The Bookman, drew a battle line in Irish poetry. On the one side were the antiquarians or ‘twilighters’, including Yeats and our old friend F.R. Higgins. On the other were the erudite upstarts, including Denis Devlin and his contemporary Brian Coffey, who offered ‘the nucleus of a living poetic’. In the Irish Times in 2000, poet Gerald Dawe wrote of how Beckett had ‘forged a critical knot which Irish literary and cultural criticism has taken ages to unravel’.
It speaks so beautifully to Ria’s artistic sensibility, poised between the two traditions and equally conversant with both, that she had a romantic relationship both with the dashing upstart Denis Devlin and later F.R. Higgins. (Forever in my head now as the truculent twilighter.)
Bennett dates the relationship to 1937 and surmises they were introduced by Moya, as Devlin subsequently used his sister to deliver letters to Ria. By March of that year he was sending her ‘My love and inmost thoughts’ and there’s even a poem, never published, specifically addressed to her entitled ‘A Loving Argument’, which begins:
My temperate south / What summer have you lit in me?
Those summer months, the letters show that Ria was up and down to Annamoe in Wicklow, where sometimes Devlin was with her, and sometimes he was at home cursing the distance and the lack of public transport to the isolated cottage. She was busy with the Experimental Theatre, staging work with her industrious charges, but it seems the couple were together as much as permitted—Jim Fanning of Birr Little Theatre hosted him when she was performing there.
There was a difficult but necessary goodbye scene when Ria left for America on tour with the company.He was shocked and sorry to have learned of her illness in New York, in that ‘big can of a hotel and lonely too.’ Amidst everything else going on, which I’ve written about here,
Ria had dyed her hair and it seems she hated the result. While he thought it was ‘foolish of you’, he does assure her she will look ‘much more distinguished and lovely in silver – or silverblack’.
Katie Roche on Broadway was silver-black? Or was this change of hair colour a necessary change of image after the play’s failure?
It also appears that the illness I wrote about wasn’t entirely psychological: on her return to Dublin, Ria was hospitalised for an operation.
The neat narrative I had tied up with a bow has combusted.
Early the next year, Devlin told her he was still thinking about her often ‘You come to my mind very vividly in odd places such as the Fun Palace bus stop.’ I can see Ria there, too, perched on the steps leading to the amusement arcade on Burgh Quay in the day’s dwindling light, eager to get home after a day’s rehearsal, to write a letter or pack a bag for Annamoe.
From a new post in Rome, Devlin penned a tardy response to a letter from her. The relationship was definitively over, but something about the letter delights me. He apologises for his insensitivity and alludes to the guilt he felt after the fury she had shown him. And that is what I’m glad to hear: that she did share her anger and hurt and the upset she had found herself in. She even complained about the ‘verminous company’ she was with. Her travels across America, and ongoing deliberations about staying there or coming home, had contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, but his loss of interest and rude behaviour seems to have been the deciding factor.
Ria often presents as stoic, imperturbable, using her inner turmoil only on the stage. I’m glad Devlin took an earful; he could be an awful cad.
Ria’s angry missive is missing, but somehow a friendship did survive. They stayed in touch sporadically; he cared for her and enquired about her health. She may have followed his career through newspapers and poetry collections and mourned his early death (from cancer at the age of 51). Her connection with this modernist voice lives on; she chose that story to remain in certain published correspondence.
So, I know I have to admit I was wrong—much of my earlier narrative was entirely false. But did I really claim anything else?
I have been thinking about burning letters and journals and writings. And not only because this weather holds the potential to cause a heap of abandoned paper to spontaneously combust, if positioned correctly.
I have been thinking about destroying evidence, clearing past paths, erasing the signs I have been here at all. Sometimes that is something we want to do, to move on, or simply to clarify and streamline the narrative.
There have been IT issues with this site, and the Head of IT (little brother) is too busy to help me sort it out. I gave real consideration to burning it all down to the ground. I might have let the entire enterprise go, except the hosting crowd had already taken my credit card payment so I felt obliged to keep at them. Hours of frustrating support calls later, I was back up with an .ie domain. But then I stared at the site and thought: What now? Is my version of all of these life stories complete? Shortly after that, Beibhinn’s messages arrived.
Actress, head tilted, hithering smile, / Advance, advance against me
In some of her correspondence, held at the National Library, Ria Mooney removed pages. Not many, but some, of the letters are incomplete. Of course, the letters that have been removed entirely, we will never know about. But the pages removed make the point that certain letters she chose to keep and she wanted to live on. Were there other elements of her story she did want told?
I do believe that Ria came back (through Sarah Bennett) to complicate and enrich her story, because that was the sort of woman she was. She will always have the final say on this narrative.