O'Neill, Maire (1885–1952)

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O'Neill, Maire (1885–1952)

Irish actress. Name variations: Mary Allgood; Molly Allgood or Molly O'Neill. Born Mary Allgood in Dublin, Ireland, on January 12, 1885 (some sources cite 1887); died in Basingstoke, Hampshire, England, on November 2, 1952; daughter of George Allgood and Margaret Harold Allgood; sister of actress Sara Allgood (1883–1950); married G.H. Mair (a journalist), in 1911 (died January 1926); married Arthur Sinclair (an actor), in June 1926 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Pegeen and John.

Maire O'Neill was born Mary Allgood, though she would always be known as Molly, in Dublin in 1885, the product of a mixed marriage. Her father George Allgood, a printing compositor of English stock and a member of his local Orange lodge, insisted his eight children be raised Protestant while her mother Margaret Allgood smuggled them to Catholic services. Not surprisingly, the marriage was unhappy. Apart from religious differences, there were marked differences of temperament, and the children had to indulge their love of singing, dancing and acting when their father was out of the house. However, George died in 1894 when his children were still young, and when Margaret went back to work, Molly was sent to a Protestant orphanage from which she eventually ran away. This appears to have been her only period of formal education.

After leaving the orphanage, Molly was apprenticed to a dressmaker and then worked in a shop. Her sister Sara Allgood had joined Maud Gonne 's Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland), which took a particular interest in drama. Sara joined William Fay's Irish National Theatre Society and in 1904 became a full-fledged professional actress in the first Abbey Theatre company. Molly was equally determined to be an actress, but wanted a separate identity from her famous sister. As Maire O'Neill, she first appeared on stage in February 1905 in a walk-on part in J.M. Synge's The Well of the Saints. Synge, the Abbey's most gifted dramatist, was soon attracted to O'Neill and gave her roles in two of his plays: Cathleen in Riders to the Sea and the more important Nora in The Shadow of the Glen. The relationship between them was looked on with disfavor by Sara, who had expected to be cast in the leads, and by Lady Augusta Gregory , one of the Abbey's three directors (with Synge and Yeats), who thought that O'Neill, poor, uneducated and 14 years younger, was no match for Synge.

Physically, she was more beautiful than her sister. O'Neill had, as Elizabeth Coxhead observed, "the heartbreaking prettiness which can be so much more dangerous than classical beauty…. She had the combination of virginal Irish innocence and strong come-hither so well calculated to drive men mad." Her relationship with Synge, though known at the time, was ignored in the early biographies and memoirs about the Abbey. Yeats and Lady Gregory disapproved, as did Synge's family from whom Synge was estranged when he became secretly engaged to O'Neill. It was not until 1959 and the publication of the biography of Synge by David Greene and Edward Stephens that O'Neill's personal and artistic importance to Synge was made widely known. They became engaged in 1906 but quarrels were frequent as Ann Saddlemyer , editor of their correspondence, has noted. Both had violent tempers, and Synge's tendency to play Pygmalion to O'Neill's Galatea exasperated her with his scrutinizing of her friends, her clothes, her reading, in fact her entire lifestyle. O'Neill was by temperament a rebel and was often impatient and careless with Synge. But their love endured, and in January 1907 there were the first performances of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, in which O'Neill created the role of Pegeen Mike with which she became indelibly associated. However, even before they met Synge was suffering from Hodgkin's disease which gradually worsened. He died in March 1909 and left the draft of a final play for O'Neill, Deirdre of the Sorrows, which was performed in January 1910. He also left her a small income which helped her in later years when she was in straitened circumstances.

O'Neill remained at the Abbey until 1911. She performed the role of the Woman in Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet and, according to Lennox Robinson, brought unaccustomed tears to the dramatist's eyes because of the power of her portrayal. In 1911, she married G.H. Mair, a distinguished journalist on the Manchester Guardian, and moved to England. She joined the Liverpool Repertory and appeared in The Shadow of the Glen, Hauptmann's Hannele, and Shaw's Candida. In 1913, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree engaged her as Nerissa in his production of The Merchant of Venice. The following year, she was invited to appear in America in George Birmingham's comedy General John Regan. She returned to the Abbey in 1916 to play in Lennox Robinson's Whiteheaded Boy, and also appeared in the London production. Whereas Sara Allgood's tragedy was "grandiose, Molly's was intimate and personal," wrote Robinson. "She could be deliciously impish."

O'Neill's husband died in January 1926. It had been a happy marriage and so her children were shocked when just six months later she married Arthur Sinclair, with whom she acted in a London production of Juno and the Paycock. After their marriage, they and Sara toured Britain and America regularly in O'Casey's plays, although the two sisters were often not on speaking terms. The marriage to Sinclair proved unhappy and eventually ended in divorce. O'Neill's only son was killed in 1942 and she had increasing problems with alcohol. Her last 20 years were, as Coxhead writes, a formidable rake's progress but it was not a completely tragic story: "she was a naturally gay soul, and contrived to get a large amount of fun out of her predicaments." She continued to act until the end, and died of burns received in an accident just before she was due to broadcast a radio production of O'Casey's The Silver Tassie.


Coxhead, Elizabeth. "Sally and Molly" in Daughters of Erin: Five Women of the Irish Renascence. London: Secker & Warburg, 1965.

"Maire O'Neill," in Irish Times (obituary). November 3–4, 1952.

Saddlemyer, Ann, ed. Letters to Molly: John Millington Synge to Maire O'Neill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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