Richards, Shelah (1903–1985)

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Richards, Shelah (1903–1985)

Irish actress, manager and producer. Born Sheila Geraldine Richards in Dublin, Ireland, on May 23, 1903; died at Ballybrack, County Dublin, Ireland, on January 19, 1985; daughter of John William Richards and Adelaide Roper Richards; educated at Alexandra College, Dublin, and at finishing school in Paris; married Denis Johnston, on December 28, 1928 (divorced 1945); children: Jennifer Johnston (b. 1930, a novelist); Michael Johnston.

Born in 1903, Shelah Richards came from a Dublin legal family with no involvement in the theater, although in her own generation she and her cousin Geraldine Fitzgerald became two of the most prominent Irish actresses of their time. Richards described her mother Adelaide Roper Richards as "a wonderful woman who was a vegetarian and for a time had been a suffragette who had even chained herself to the railings in St. Stephen's Green until my father said that he could not run a respectable practice if she did these things."

Richards' interest in the arts developed early. Her godmother was the artist Beatrice Elvery (Lady Glenavy) whose salons she attended with her parents when still a child. When she was 16, Richards met W.B. Yeats, and he was reported to have inquired, "Who is the girl with a head like a lion?" She started acting with the Dublin Drama League, and at 12 hours' notice was asked to replace Eileen Crowe in the role of Mary Boyle in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock at the Abbey Theatre. According to family lore, the first her father knew of her acting career was when friends congratulated him on her Abbey success. In 1926, Richards created the role of Nora Clitheroe in O'Casey's next production, The Plough and the Stars. She was also the first actress to tackle the lead in Yeats' The Player Queen since Maire O'Neill . "Everyone said how glorious Molly O'Neill had been," said Richards, "and that intimidated me a bit. I was very young." She played other leading roles at the Abbey and traveled to New York with the company.

Richards married the playwright Denis Johnston in 1928. In 1938, she left the Abbey to appear on Broadway in Molly Keane 's Spring Meeting which starred Gladys Cooper and A.E. Mathews. When war broke out the following year, Richards was advised to stay in America, but her two children Michael and Jennifer were in Dublin and she returned. During the war years, Richards ran her own company with Nigel Heseltine at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin; they scored particular successes with Paul Vincent Carroll's The Strings are False and Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me. Her daughter, the novelist Jennifer Johnston , used to creep into the theater to watch her mother rehearse. "My mother was of course the epitome of the career woman. She did marvelous things on stage, but then my mother was a very extraordinary person. She wasn't like other people's mothers…. You just had to be so different to cope with the sort of life she was leading." By the end of the war, however, Richards' marriage to Denis Johnston was over.

Richards took over the Abbey School of Acting and employed such designers as Louis le Brocquy. In the 1950s, she produced J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in Edinburgh, London and Dublin with Siobhan McKenna , who was a close friend. She directed the same play in Toronto's Library Theatre in 1965. For many years, she was also a drama adjudicator in Irish amateur drama competitions.

The Irish television service, RTE, was launched at the end of 1961, and at the age of nearly 60 Richards became one of the first producers and one of the few women to work for the new station. She had the distinction of directing the first Irish play during RTE's opening week and of being nominated for a Best Actress award in another RTE production, "Trial at Lisieux." Although she specialized in drama, Richards produced a wide range of other programs, including documentaries, religious telecasts, and soap operas. Of the latter, she produced the first two important soaps ever screened by RTE, Tolka Row (written by Maura Laverty ) and The Riordans. Of her drama productions for RTE, the most notable were Denis Johnston's The Moon on the Yellow River, Shaw's Arms and the Man and Synge's Riders to the Sea, with Siobhan McKenna. One of her colleagues recalled her ability to coax quality performances from her actors, who respected her directorial qualities. Another felt that "she managed, with her marvelous expertise and experience to bridge the gap between theater and broadcasting, to translate the theatrical experience into a completely different medium."

In the early days of RTE Richards attracted the attention of a government watchdog who was scrutinizing the staff for any signs of leftwing radicalism. Richards was, he reported, a "non-Catholic" who had shown a lack of respect towards one priest who was being interviewed for a program. He suggested that she be replaced by a more Catholic producer. She wasn't. She retired from RTE in the early 1970s, and later made a number of recorded interviews in which she recalled the highlights of her career and the personalities she had known. On her 80th birthday in 1983, a special party was held at the Abbey and the song "Nora," which Jack Clitheroe sings to Nora in The Plough and the Stars, was sung to her. She was by that time the last surviving member of the original 1926 cast. The song was sung again in 1985, at her funeral in St. Anne's Church in central Dublin, where she had been married.


Irish Times. Dublin. January 21–23, 1985.

Quinn, John, ed. "Jennifer Johnston" in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. London: Methuen, 1986.

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