A portrait of the actress as Mother Ireland

  • 1 October 1985
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Siobhan McKenna, the grande dame of the Irish theatre, has just returned to the Dublin stage in "Arsenic And Old Lace". She is, at 62, a living symbol of Romantic Ireland.  By Fintan O'Toole

Siobhan Ni Mhainin was brought from Ballyferriter to help in the house. While her father recited Hiawatha, and read Thomas Hardy, he also read to .the children from Jimin Maire Thaidhg' and Siobhan Ni Mhainin taught them prayers in Irish. At the Dominican Convent in the Falls Road, Siobhan's. sister Nancy delivered recitations in the concert hall, dressed in a green dress with Celtic embroidery. The nuns said she had a golden voice.

Siobhan too developed a taste for the exotic and the dramatic. She reemembers being taken to the Opera House to see Cinderella, "all white and glitter and wonderful." There were real white ponies on the stage and a coach that sparkled with diaamonds. "Never have I seen anything quite so magical since," she would recall, "except for the countryside itself when covered in the first unntrodden fall of snow." The tinselly glitter of the stage and the wild attracctions of the landscape came together in her imagination to create the perrsona of Siobhan McKenna on stage.

She began to dramatise herself. For her first confession in Belfast she had been warned not to waste the priest's time with trivia, so she invented a big .sin. She told the priest in a loud stage voice that she had stolen a hundred pounds from her mother's pocket. Later, when a man died in the neighhbourhood, and she went with the local children to see his body laid out in his house, she noticed that the man's wife wore a peculiar smile and surmised that she must have poisoned him. Her mother scolded her and told her that the smile might just be a nervous twitch. That afternoon she began to practice a nervous twitch in her mother's mirror and drove herself to tears by imagining her mother's death. Thirty years later when she was playying in Saint Joan she could weep real tears on the stage when the Dauphin told her that she was no longer wanted and that she could go back to her father's farm.

When Siobhan had just turned five, her father became Professor of Mathematical Physics at University College Galway, and the family moved to the West, a place she has since regarded as "wild and un tameable and soaring." Whereas their house in Belfast was small and hedged in by the surroundding streets, Fort-Eyre, their new house in Shantalla on the outskirts of Gallway, was a huge rambling large-roomed building, full of hideaways and turrets.· They were on the edge of the countryyside, with fields, animals and open spaces around. The village still had its thatched cottages and its old, blind piper. The new-found freedom and the nearness of traditional Gaelic culture had a profound effect on her.

Although they were not allowed to go to the pictures in Galway, Siobhan and her sister were taken to the theaatre, to see Anew McMaster on his inn. cessant tours, playing Oedipus or Hammlet to his daughter's Ophelia. MeeMaster represented the grand heroic style of acting and some of his fonddness for large gestures rubbed off on her own style. With the local children she used to put on plays ina nearby barn, Siobhan playing the villains and her sister the heroines. She enjoyed the acting, but no one had any idea that she would be an actress, least of all herself. It was assumed that, like her father, she would be a mathemaa·tician.

When she was sixteen and attennding boarding school at the St Louis Convent in Monaghan, she performed in operetta under a professional director, Lionel Cranfield. The bishop and the mother superior were deelighted with her performance, and Lionel Cranfield recommended to her father that she should be sent straight to the Abbey to become an actress. Neither herself nor her father took the suggestion seriously. Siobhan was going to be a mathematician. When she went to UCG she took on six subjects, mathematics and arts, and decided not to take part in the drama activities in the college. Only when Walter Macken, the romantic novelist who was manager and principal actor of the Irish-language theatre An Taibhearc asked her to act in a pageant did she reconsider.

It was the love for the Irish language which she shared with her father that persuaded them both that involvement in An Taibhearc would be permissible. "I don't think my father would have approved of me going into An Taiibhearc except that he thought it would promote the Irish language." Her first play was typical enough of much of the Irish drama at the time, a pageant about Saint Patrick. She played one of two princesses who were baptised by the saint and then died. The other princess just dropped dead; Sio bhan died gracefully. Walter Macken was very pleased.

She became more and more innvolved with An Taibhearc, acting in translations of O'Casey or O'Neill and herself translating J.M. Barrie's Mary Rose. When she began to act in the theatre first audiences were very small, but she was not above devious methods to increase them. Her father was superrvisor of examinations for the local Galway schools and she went to visit the same schools. "I would demand to see the principal saying that Professor Eoin McKenna's daughter wanted to see them, and they would come because they might want a favour from my father. And I would lecture them on sending boys out to the theatre rather than letting them go to the pictures."

On another occasion, when they were doing an Irish language version of Macbeth, she put the rumour around the town that Eamon de Valera himmself, a noted enthusiast for the Irish language, would attend. "So of course on the first night they were hanging out of the rafters. He never turned up, but we played to packed houses."

After her first year at UCG, as she became more involved in the theatre, she took the fateful decision to drop her studies of mathematics and to choose words as her medium. It was a difficult time. "I always remember the night I told my father that I was droppping mathematics. He was really sad. We went for a walk along Salthill, on my mother's advice to go for a nice quiet walk before I'd tell him. I talked about form and poetry and that sort of thing and when we got home he took down a book of calculus and said 'That's poetry to me'." Years later, when she argued with the actress Ria Mooney about wanting to create literal and understandable characters on the stage, Ria Mooney would say "Oh dear, that's the mathematician in you."

She worked hard in her final examiinations to get first class honours and not to disappoint her father. He agreed that she could go to Dublin on a travellling scholarship, thinking that it would be good to get her away from An Taibhearc, not knowing that she was going to Dublin to be nearer to the Abbey. She auditioned for the Abbey, before the manager Ernest Blythe and the director Frank Dermody, imagining the speeches of another actor and reaccting to them with "Yes" and "No". Blythe was unhappy. "Nach bhfuil aon shpeak fada agat?" he demanded. When she had finished he asked "Can ye type?" The older players who were watching, including her future hussband Denis O'Dea, nicknamed her "the mad girl from Galway". But evenntually she was offered a part in an Irish language play and got a contract worth £4 a week (£2 a week during rehearrsals).

It was a time in the Abbey when the old standards, the plays that had proved so popular over the years were constantly revived and the same players would play the same parts as they got older. Denis 0 'Dea was still playing the romantic male lead in The New Gosoon when he was forty. There were ways of doing things as they always had been done. "You'd have May Craig in the wings saying 'Ah Siobhan, when Eileen Crowe played that part she always plumped the cushions while she was saying that speech'." Contrary to Ulick O'Connor's recent statements, she does not beelieve that this ever constituted what could be called an Abbey style of acting ("I don't understand what Ulick means by an Abbey style. of acting. The actor's style is just truthhfulness, being this person that you're playing.") But the Abbey did have a major influence on her work, teaching her many of the practical details of her business.

It was not, however, an entirely happy time for her. "There were about eight months when I didn't get a part, except for some Irish language plays, and it was terribly depressing. 'Obbviously' I thought, 'I've made a grave mistake. I can't be any good'." She was offered a leading role in a film, The Dark Stranger and decided to leave the A bbey. Blythe arrived at her digs with an immediate offer of a nummber of good parts and F.J. McCormick, one of the actors she admired most told her "If you want to be a real acctress, stay here." She stayed.

In 1947, during the Ab bey holidays, she played a small part in another film Hungry Hill and was warmly received both by the critics and by the film moguls. There were offers of contracts in Hollywood, but she again decided to tum them down. "I turned down Hollywood because I couldn't bear the thought of not seeing my father and mother for a long time, and also I had married Denis by then. I really love this country and I wanted to stay here, and besides I'd heard awful things about what they did to actors in Hollyywood, changing the shape of your nose or cutting off. bits of you here and putting them on somewhere else, and I really believed it. Also actors like Sara : Allgood and Barry Fitzgerald, who were so good when they were here, went out to Hollywood and you saw them on the screen and there was nothing there anymore." She played in a number of English films, such as Daughter of Darkness, but she found in the end that they were "rubbish" and decided against doing any more films until the Playboy came along. Since then she has concentrated on stage roles in Dublin, London, Strattford and New York.

In all of those moves from one city to another her way of acting has channged little. She is still an actress in the grand style, probably the nearest living equivalent to Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, the great heroic acctresses of the last century. The style demands an almost operatic flow of emotion and a sweep of gestures, drawing on a time when the image of , women was as the bearers of humanity's suffering. Unlike method actors she uses no tricks to enable her to turn on the emotion on stage. She throws herrself so completely into a part that she believes she can feel what her characcter would be feeling in the situation. "Micheal Mac Liammoir used to dissagree with me on this. He used to say 'Everyone knows that I'm Mac Liammmoir and everyone knows that you're Siobhan,' and I told him that I don't want to be like me on the stage, I want to be the person I'm playing. He said 'No, I'm Mac Liammoir as the person I'm playing,' whereas I would really want to be the person and to throw out as much of me as didn't suit and get into the skin of that person." When she worked with the great director Tyrone Guthrie in Toronto, he wanted her to play a stylised scene in Shakespeare - she objected that that was not the way the character really was. "Oh yes," said Guthrie, "I forgot - she's Abbey." _