Final act, curtain . . .

A founder actress of the Abbey Theatre, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh recorded the surrender of Jacob’s garrison

Thu, May 23, 2013, 10:00

Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh (Mary Walker), was a founder actress of the Abbey Theatre, and its first leading lady when it opened in December 1904. Her wan, ethereal beauty captivated audiences and critics in Ireland, London and the US. Portrait artists queued up to paint her. Revolutionaries and poets wrote plays for her. The Pearse brothers, AE, Countess Markievicz, Synge, WB Yeats (albeit grudgingly) all admired her. Dublin loved her.

In 1916, Máire, my grandaunt, put her acting career on the line when she took part in the Rising. While her father, brother and brother-in-law published the Irish War News for Pearse, and her sister carried dispatches for Cathal Brugha, Máire led the Cumann na mBan ‘girls’ in Jacob’s biscuit factory.

Once the State had gained its measure of independence, she quietly faded out of public view. Only her portraits in the Abbey and the National Gallery remain as testament to her extraordinary beauty.

In the mid-1950s my father, Ted, persuaded Máire to allow him to write up her memoirs. The Splendid Years was well-received but Ted was unhappy with the final edit and took it out of print in 1958. I have his revisions in a folder beside my desk and, some day, will get around to making them. What follows are abridged extracts, notably from her account of the surrender at Jacob’s garrison.

Máire spent the day before the Rising with Éamonn Ceannt and his family. Forty years on, as the embers grew dull in her hearth, she could still recall the rustling of papers and the hushed voices in the next room. Ceannt was struggling to countermand Eoin MacNeill’s cancellation of the general mobilisation order. He looked tired and strained as he walked her to the front door that evening. “Goodbye, Máire,” he said. She never saw him again.

She was at Mass in Glasthule the following morning when her father slipped into the church with a telegram. She was ordered to join Ceannt’s battalion as the “manoeuvres” were now going ahead.

On her way into town, a British military vehicle collided with her bike and badly gashed her knee. The “boy” soldier driving it was deeply upset at having injured such an important-looking woman. A bizarre battle of wills ensued as he tried, in vain, to put Máire and her bike into his car to take her to a doctor. She later recalled the bewildered Tommy scratching his head as she pedalled away to join the Volunteers who, by then, would have shot him on sight.

She arrived safely in town but failed to locate Ceannt, so she made her way to Thomas McDonagh’s garrison at Jacob’s just as the barricades were going up . . .

Extract from The Splendid Years
“The days passed quickly,” she would later write. “How can I describe how I felt this week? All the time I was divided between the excitement of being in Jacob’s, and worries for those whom I had left at home. I had no means of knowing what was happening in Glasthule. But mostly I was conscious of a great excitement. I am sure everyone in the building felt the same. I seldom felt tired, I never felt the need of much sleep for the four days.

“The great spirit of this whole period was all around us in Jacob’s, the enthusiasm, the wonderful feeling that underlaid every worthwhile activity in Dublin in those years. No one had any regrets – why should they have had? Until the surrender there was not a word of complaint from anyone I met. You never thought much about what the result of it all would be. You never assumed that victory was certain, but neither did you think of defeat. What might happen if we lost meant nothing: life or death, freedom or imprisonment, these things did not enter into it at all.

“The great thing was that what you had always hoped for had happened at last. An insurrection had taken place, and you were actually participating in it. The pity was that it ended so soon. The news of the surrender, when it came, was heartbreaking.

“Tom McDonagh was an excellent leader and had hid his responsibilities and his worries behind his good humour throughout the week, never allowing anyone to think other than that the fighting was going well. It was only when he sent for me at the end that his humour faltered slightly. Then he bore himself with dignity.

“He was standing behind his desk, beside Major MacBride. ‘We are going to surrender,’ he said, very simply. He seemed the same business-like person we had always known, until he spoke; his voice was quiet, and he seemed very disillusioned. He said, ‘I want you to thank all the girls for what they have done. Tell them I am issuing an order that they are to go home. I’ll see that you are all safely conducted out of the building.’

“I started to protest, but he turned away. One could never imagine him looking so sad.

“I went downstairs and into the bakeroom. I will never forget that scene. Almost everyone in the building had assembled on the ground floor. The announcement of surrender had just been made. It had not been taken well. There were shouts of ‘Don’t give in . . . we can’t give in now.’ Everyone was talking at once. The noise was deafening.

“I saw a man throw down his rifle and put his hands over his face. Another was smashing the butt of a gun against a wall. Some of the men seemed confused, as though they could not believe it. The officers were calling for order and trying to explain why surrender was necessary.

“Tom MacDonagh came in. He climbed on to a table and held up his hand. The noise died away at once. He said, very sadly: ‘We have to give in. Those of you who are in civilian clothes, go home. Those in uniform stay on. You cannot leave if you are in uniform.’ He stepped down.

“A Volunteer officer, Thomas Hunter, pushed his way through the crowd and climbed on to a bench. He held up his arms and shouted, ‘All I say is, any of you who go home now ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Stand your ground like men!’ There was a murmur of approval. No one moved.

“I gave the girls MacDonagh’s order. They did not want to leave. I could understand their feelings. They were my own; I did not want to go, myself. I told them what MacDonagh had said. He was anxious to have all girls out of the building before he surrendered. He feared that we would be arrested. If this had been the only consideration, I would have ignored his plea, and stayed; but he thought that the sight of the girls being arrested might upset the men. He wanted everything to go as quietly as possible.

“On the other hand, Sara Kealy said that it might be useful for a few girls to stay behind. They could write letters for the men and take messages to relatives. She announced her decision to remain. I did not press the matter.

“In the midst of much confusion, some Cumann-na-mBan women came in. They were on their way home and asked me to go with them. MacDonagh came through the crowd and asked, ‘Will you go now, please?’‘I don’t know, Tom. All the girls insist on staying’.

“MacBride was standing just inside one of the exits. ‘It would be better for you to go,’ he said. As we shook hands, he asked that a message be taken to some friends at Glasthule. ‘Tell them, too, that we had a good week of it,’ he added simply. Outside, a British officer was standing near one of the gateways. He said, ‘I’ll see you over the roadway, ladies.’

“We walked down the roadway and turned the corner into Camden Street. It was a route I had taken many times through the years. I cannot remember what we talked about – if we talked at all, for there did not seem very much to say. I felt confused and disappointed. All at once, I had begun to feel very tired.

“Along Camden Street the shop windows were shuttered and dark. We passed few people on the footpath. Everything looked strange, even the street was different. It was as though I had never seen it before. Despite what was going on inside, Jacob’s looked very dark, very empty. Dublin seemed unnaturally still.”

Back in the factory, a young Volunteer captain named Eamonn Price had been instructed to marshall the garrison for the surrender. He would later become director of organisation of the IRA and fight alongside Michael Collins.

He had spotted Máire joining the men on Easter Monday and had fallen hopelessly in love. Nine years later, surrounded by the ghosts of dead comrades, they were married in the city they had helped to liberate.

From The Splendid Years , Nic Shiubhlaigh/Kenny. Copyright David Kenny.