Shiubhlaigh, Maire Nic (1884–1958)

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Shiubhlaigh, Maire Nic (1884–1958)

Irish actress and founder member of the Irish National Theatre Society (1903). Born Mary Elizabeth Walker in Dublin, Ireland, in 1884 (some sources cite 1888); died in Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland, on September 9, 1958; daughter of Matthew Walker (a printer and newsagent) and Marian (Doherty) Walker; married Eamon Price (a major-general), in 1928.

For Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh and many of her contemporaries, their involvement in the theater began in the myriad political and cultural clubs which existed in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Her father's printing firm typeset a considerable amount of the literature and propaganda for Irish nationalist organizations, and the family home was a meeting point for many of those involved in the movement. Her brother Frank was also in the theater, as were two of their sisters, Ann and Gypsy, who acted under the stage names Eileen O'Doherty and Betty King . Maire was the first actor to use the Irish form of her name for stage purposes. She joined Maud Gonne 's Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) which was such a valuable launching ground for other theatrical careers, notably that of Sara Allgood . The Inghinidhe drama group was directed by Frank and Willie Fay who were to have a major influence on Nic Shiubhlaigh's career. By 1902, the future of the Irish Literary Theatre, which had been established by Yeats, Edward Martyn, and Augusta Gregory , was uncertain, and in the spring of that year the Fay brothers agreed to stage Deirdre by George Russell (Æ) and Kathleen Ni Houlihan by Yeats and Lady Gregory. Maire played the roles of the Mother in Deirdre and Delia Cahill in Kathleen Ni Houlihan. In the latter, she took over the title role from Maud Gonne with great success, later paying tribute to the power and beauty of Gonne's Kathleen in her memoirs.

After the success of these performances, the idea of making the group more permanent was considered, and in February 1903 Yeats, Lady Gregory, and the Fays set up the Irish National Theatre Society. Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, a founder member, was on the management committee. In March, the society gave the first performances of Yeats' The Hour Glass and Lady Gregory's Twenty-Five; Maire played leading roles in both. In May, the company visited London for the first time, and critic A.B. Walkley commented on Maire's "strange, wan disquieting beauty." Over the next two years, she created roles in two more Yeats plays, The King's Threshold (1903) and The Shadowy Waters (1904), and in two plays of John Millington Synge, In the Shadow of the Glen (in which she introduced the role of Nora Burke) and Riders to the Sea. Thomas Keohler, another founder member, thought that she made a major contribution to Yeats' early dramatic work: "She represented something of his first early dreams of the dramatic beauty and imagination which have never been realised." Nic Shiubhlaigh, like other actresses trained by Frank Fay, had a beautiful speaking voice which reminded the writer Padraic Colum of "bird calls on a still day."

O'Doherty, Eileen (b. 1891)

Irish actress. Born Anna Walker in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1891; daughter of Marian (Doherty) Walker and Matthew Walker; sister of Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh ; educated in Dublin and studied for the stage under W.G. and F.J. Fay.

In 1905, Eileen O'Doherty made her stage debut with the Irish National Theatre Society at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, as the child in The Hour Glass. During her career, she worked regularly at the Abbey and at the Court Theatre in London, appearing as Babsy in The Shrewing-up of Blanco Posnet, the Old Woman in Deirdre, Bridget Twomey in Harvest, Mary Kate in The Eloquent Dempsey, Mrs. Desmond in The Cross Roads, Mrs. Pender in The Casting Out of Martin Whelan, Maura Morrissey in Birthright, Margaret in The Piedish, Nerine in The Rogueries of Scapin, Miss Joyce in Hyacinth Halvey, Mary Brien in The Mineral Workers, Maria Donnelly in Family Failing, Mrs. Keegan in The Supplanter, Kate Moran in Crusaders, and Mrs. Geoghegan in The White Headed Boy. O'Doherty also toured in England, Scotland, and the United States.

In 1904, Annie Horniman , a wealthy Englishwoman who admired Yeats' work, offered to provide a permanent home for the society, and in December 1904 the Abbey Theatre gave its first performances. But serious disagreements emerged over the following year when Horniman offered a grant to enable the actors to turn professional. The nationalist core of the company, many of whom had belonged to Inghinidhe na hEireann and other nationalist groups, felt it was a betrayal of their original ideals to accept salaries from Horniman. Nic Shiubhlaigh, who had a job at the Dun Emer Industries run by Yeats' sisters Elizabeth and Lily Yeats , was uncertain whether to accept the Horniman offer. Yeats and Lady Gregory were anxious to retain her at the Abbey, but she finally decided to follow the Fays who were setting up their own company, the Theatre of Ireland, which became a formidable rival to the Abbey for a while. Maire was its leading actress, but the company would disband in 1912. In 1910, she returned to the Abbey at Lady Gregory's invitation, and in 1911 she toured England and the United States with the company. On her return to Ireland, she became increasingly involved with various amateur dramatic groups, including William Pearse's Leinster Stage Society, the drama group at Patrick Pearse's school, St. Enda's, and the Irish Theatre of Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh. All four men would be executed after the 1916 Easter Rising.

In 1914, as political events moved to a crisis in Ireland with the passing of the Home Rule Bill, she joined the nationalist Cumann na mBan (the Women's League) and did concert work for the organization. At Easter 1916 when the Irish republican rebellion broke out in Dublin, she joined one of the rebel garrisons but managed to leave before it surrendered. In later years, Nic Shiubhlaigh continued to work for various amateur dramatic groups around Ireland and also did some radio broadcasts of the early Abbey plays. She married Eamon Price, a senior officer in the Irish army, in 1928. In 1955, she published a valuable and illuminating book of memoirs, The Splendid Years, which brought the first decade of the century to vivid life. She declared that she had never regretted her long involvement with amateur drama and in fact dedicated the book "To All Other Dramatic Societies." Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh died in September 1958. Her husband had died some years before, and she had moved to County Meath to be near her sister Gypsy. Yeats' father, the artist J.B. Yeats, painted two exquisite portraits of her; one is in the National Gallery of Ireland and the other hangs in the Abbey Theatre.


Hogan, Robert, and James Kilroy. The Abbey Theatre: The Years of Synge 1905–1909. NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.

——. Laying the Foundations 1902–1904. NJ: Humanities Press, 1976.

Shiubhlaigh, Maire Nic. The Splendid Years. Dublin: James Duffy, 1955.

Tracey, Alice, "Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh of the Abbey Theatre," in Carloviana [Carlow]. Vol.1, no. 11. December 1962.

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