Mooney, Ria (1904–1973)

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Mooney, Ria (1904–1973)

Irish actress, teacher, director, and first woman producer at the Abbey Theatre. Born Catherine Marea (one source cites Maria) in Dublin, Ireland, in 1904; died at St. Luke's Hospital, Dublin, on January 3, 1973; following a requiem mass at the Church of the Holy Cross, Dundrum, was interred at Glasnevin Cemetery; never married; no children.

Studied dance at Madame Rock's Dancing Academy in Dublin; began acting at age six; sang with Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society in her teens; studied art at Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin; invited to join Abbey Theatre, Dublin (1924); selected by Sean O'Casey to play Rosie Redmond in initial presentation of The Plough and the Stars (1926); toured England and America with Molly Allgood; made U.S. acting debut (1927); joined Eva Le Gallienne at New York's Civic Repertory Theatre, serving as assistant director of plays (1928–34); joined Edwards-MacLiammóir company at Gate Theatre Company, Dublin (1934); produced verse plays at Abbey and Peacock Theatres for Austin Clarke's Dublin Verse-Speaking Society/Lyric Theatre Company; appointed teacher at Abbey School of Acting (August 1935); directed Abbey's experimental Peacock Theatre (1937); directed Gaiety Theatre School of Acting, Dublin (1944); became first woman producer of Abbey Theatre (1948); retired (1963). Member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.

Selected theatrical performances:

appeared as Alice in Brinsley MacNamara's Look at the Heffernans! (1926), Rosie Redmond in Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (1926), Mary Boyle in O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (1928), Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1933), First Fairy in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1933), Miss Rowland in Eugene O'Neill's monologue Before Breakfast (1933), Lady Brute in John Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife (1933), Bride in E.W. Tocher's Storm Song (1934), Catherine Earnshaw in the stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1934), Ludmilla in Squaring the Circle (1935), Annie Kinsella in Teresa Deery's The King of Spain's Daughter (1935), Village Wooing (three short scenes by George B. Shaw, 1935), Miss Logan in Boyd's Shop (1936), First Musician in Deirdre (1936), Eileen Connolly in The Wild Goose (1936), Miss Jemima Cooney in Brigid (1937), Sister in Big House (1937), Cressida Pommery in Pommerys (1937), Nance in Frank O'Connor's Time's Pocket (1938), Hessy in A Spanish Soldier (1940), Mrs. Kennafick in Elizabeth Connor's Mount Prospect (1940), Nun in Francis Stuart's Strange Guest (1940), Sara Tansley in George Shiel's The Rugged Path (1941), Hannie Martin in Louis D'Alton's Lovers' Meeting (1941).

Selected theatrical productions:

Robert Ferren's Assembly at Druim Ceat (1943); George Shiel's The New Regime (1944); Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me (1946).

Selected radio broadcasts:

A Tree in Coole (feature on Lady Gregory, Radio Eireann, broadcast April 3, 1960); James Stephens' The Crock of Gold (reading with Harry Brogan, Radio Eireann, n.d.).

Selected recording:

(with John Stevenson) "Glass of Beer," "Come to the Hills of Moran," and "The Rivals" from Abbey Theatre Songs and Poems (1937).


(with Donald Stauffer) Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1934).


Wicklow Gold (1922).

Ria Mooney was born in Dublin in 1904—the same year that the newly formed Abbey Theatre, which would play a singular role in her life, produced its first play. She began her acting career at age six in an annual production of Madame Rock's Dancing Academy at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre. In The Abbey Theatre: The Rise of the Realists, 1910–1915, Robert Hogan includes an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript in which Mooney recalled her childhood perceptions of the Abbey and the "odd" people she believed were connected with it. While gazing at passersby through her father's shop window, she would notice "the occasional oddlooking person" and be told that they were from the Abbey Theatre (e.g., W.B. Yeats and Æ [George Russell]—whom she remembered as tall and lanky men who walked with their hands behind their backs, the former with his head held high and the latter gazing downward—as well as James Stephens, a small "gnome"-like man with a big hat and long coat who wrote tales about the little people). Convinced that "only odd-looking people belonged to this theatre," she decided that despite her "sneaking desire to be like them," it would not be at the expense of being attached to that "strange place."

When she was eight, Mooney recalled, her father took her to the Abbey Theatre to audition for the part of the Faery Child in Yeats' early play The Land of Heart's Desire. Possessed of a beautiful speaking voice, she read well and impressed the director, who offered her the part and suggested that she go into the mountains and return when she could read the lines "like the wind sighing through the trees." Thinking him "a little mad," Mooney had her early suspicions about oddity at the Abbey confirmed. As it turned out, she didn't get the part, much to the delight of her mother who, although desirous of a career at the Abbey for her daughter, thought the play a "pagan work."

Mooney's own childhood interests inclined to singing and dancing. She took lessons at Madame Rock's Dancing Academy for several years and sang with the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society in the Rathmines section of Dublin until age 16. A year or so later, she briefly considered becoming an artist and enrolled at Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art. Although she had gained recognition as a talented actress in her native city while still in her teens, it was not until 1924 that Mooney turned her interests and energy fully to the stage, to which she devoted the rest of her life.

An intense nationalism prevailed throughout the country at this time, and the Abbey Theatre (founded primarily by W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory , John Synge, and Annie Horniman ) was born out of this national pride. It evolved out of the National Irish Theatre Society for the purpose of producing native plays on native subjects. The Dublin population, which viewed the arts and its artists suspiciously, was powerfully concerned with the depiction of Irish tradition abroad. And in the fractious provincialism of the era, the Abbey Theatre and its playwrights endured much criticism and journalistic ridicule. "The Abbey," noted Thomas MacAnna, "has been attacked for being anti-national, anti-Irish, anti-Dublin Castle, anti-clerical, pro-government, and finally pro-Irish."

In 1924, at age 20, Mooney was invited to join the Abbey Theatre "after giving a striking performance at the Dublin Arts Club in Chekhov's Proposal," wrote Henry Boylan. She debuted in a performance of George Shiels' The Retriever and her improvement over the next two years was such that in 1926 Sean O'Casey personally chose Mooney to play the part of the prostitute Rosie Redmond in the first production of his new play, The Plough and the Stars (the third of O'Casey's plays to be produced at the Abbey). O'Casey was a nationalist himself, but rather than seek the spirit of Ireland in folklore and legend he was a socialist who turned to the realism of contemporary urban life for his characters and themes, finding heroism in the survivors of society's ills.

Although Mooney turned in a critically acclaimed performance, a riot ensued when the audience took offense at the portrayal of a prostitute on the stage, and the author was attacked for disparaging Irish culture. According to Kit and Cyril O'Cérín, O'Casey's choice of Mooney to play the part was "vindicated, not only by her memorable performance, but also her defiance of the play's critics in the controversy that followed when even the threat of kidnap hung over her head." Mooney's collaboration with O'Casey continued throughout her career, and the O'Céríns note that controversy again beset the two 20 years later when Mooney directed O'Casey's Red Roses for Me.

Mooney appeared in a variety of roles at the Abbey before joining the Irish Players in London and touring England and America with Arthur Sinclair and Molly Allgood (whose stage name was Maire O'Neill ), sister of the Irish character actress Sara Allgood . She made her U.S. debut in 1927, and was offered a contract as a junior actress under the direction of Eva Le Gallienne at New York's Civic Repertory Theater (formed in 1926). A year later, she became assistant director of plays there, a position she held until 1934—just before the company's demise the following year.

After returning to Dublin, Mooney appeared with the Hilton Edward and Micheál MacLiammóir company at the Gate Theatre, performing in numerous plays. According to an Irish Times obituary, MacLiammóir characterized Mooney and her acting during this time: "Small, with night-black hair and long, slow-glancing green eyes, she had … a curious intensity like a steadily-burning inner fire, and her acting was poised, shapely and full of intelligence."

Rejoining the Abbey in 1934, with which she twice more toured the United States, Mooney began teaching at the Abbey School of Acting in August 1935 and directed her first play in 1937. She was also affiliated with F.J. McCor-mack and Fred Higgins in their work at the Abbey, and specialized in the production of verse plays at both the Abbey and Peacock Theatres for Austin Clarke's Dublin Verse-Speaking Society/ Lyric Theatre Company. She left the Abbey in 1944, to become director of the Gaiety Theatre School of Acting, numbering among her students the Tony Award-winning actress Anna Manahan who, like her mentor, would also survive a riot during a Dublin performance (of The Rose Tattoo, in 1957).

Mooney directed the 1946 London production of O'Casey's Red Roses for Me before once again returning to the Abbey Theatre in 1948 to accept a position as its first woman producer—a post she held until her retirement in 1963. As a producer at the Abbey, she revived several plays of J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Sean O'Casey, and others. These were arduous years for Mooney, during which she had to transform an essentially inexperienced group of actors culled from amateur dramatic societies into successful performers. Under her leadership, the Abbey delivered between 12 and 17 productions each season, but the challenges she endured evidently extended to her directors, as well. As Joseph Halloway pointed out, a year into her tenure as producer, she "seemed thoroughly disheartened by the way some of her directors cross her endeavors." Her dedication and commitment to the theatre were well known and were certainly proved on the evening of July 17, 1951, when a fire destroyed the Abbey. Due largely to her efforts and determination, The Plough and the Stars resumed production the next evening at the Peacock. When the Abbey moved to the Queen's Theatre during the construction of its new home, she moved with it.

Mooney continued to perform throughout her long career. Noted for an extraordinary variety of facial expressions, she was considered a gifted character actress. Lennox Robinson and Micheál ÓhAodha wrote that her performance in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1962 "came at the end of a long career of fine characterisations" and, as noted by the O'Céríns, represented one of her greatest stage achievements. Upon her death in Dublin in January 1973, an Irish Press obituary published tributes from several of her colleagues. Playwright John McCann, who wrote a perennial Abbey favorite from the 1950s, 20 Years A-Wooing, thought that "she was never given full credit for all she did as a producer." Citing Mooney's legendary devotion to her work, another colleague recalled, "She was unsparing in her efforts to get the best out of every production she undertook." At the time of her death, Mooney had been working on her autobiography, "The Days Before Yesterday."


A Dictionary of Irish Biography. 3rd ed. Edited by Henry Boylan. Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1998.

Irish Press [obituary]. January 4–5, 1973.

Irish Times [obituary]. January 4–6, 1973.

Joseph Halloway's Irish Theatre. Robert Hogan and Michael J. O'Neill, eds. Dixon, CA: Proscenium Press, Vol. 1: 1926–31, 1968; Vol. 2: 1932–37, 1969; Vol. 3: 1938–44.

MacAnna, Thomas. "Nationalism from the Abbey Stage," in Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland. Edited by Robert O'Driscoll. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971, pp. 89–101.

Mikhail, E.H., ed. The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1988.

Modern Irish Lives: Dictionary of 20th-century Irish Biography. Edited by Louis McRedmond. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Mooney, Ria, "Players and the Painted Stage" [an unpublished manuscript]. Edited by Val Mulkerns, in Robert Hogan, The Abbey Theatre: The Rise of the Realists, 1910–1915. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979, pp. 115–118.

O'Cérín, Kit and Cyril. Women of Ireland: A Biographical Dictionary. Minneapolis, MN: TírEolas Irish Books and Media, 1966, pp. 154–156.

ÓhAodha, Micheál and Lennox Robbinson. Pictures at the Abbey. Mountrath, Portlaoise, Ireland: Dolmen Press in association with The Irish National Theatre Society Limited, 1983.

Sharon Malinowski , Detroit, Michigan