Accomplished and versatile stage actor
Ronnie Masterson: April 4th, 1926 - February 10th, 2014
Ronnie Masterson, who has died aged 87, was one of the best-known stage actor of her generation in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1970s, who then built a solid film and television career with RTÉ, and independent directors including Peter Kosminsky, Alan Parker and Neil Jordan.
Masterson and her husband, Ray McAnally, whom she married in 1951 when both were members of the Abbey Theatre’s company, took a considerable risk in the late 1960s in leaving the permanent and pensionable security of the national theatre to set up their own company, Old Quay Productions. The company brought contemporary American and British theatre to Irish audiences, including Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking , Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Bill Naughton’s Alfie , and Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children .
The latter nearly bankrupted the company, having to be pulled early in a 14-week run, when playgoers in Dublin mistook its title as an adverse comment on the children of assassinated – and revered – US president John F Kennedy, whereas the play is actually a series of monologues exploratory of US society in the Vietnam era.
They were rescued by two giants of Irish independent theatre, Phyllis Ryan of Gemini Productions – whose Eblana Theatre the couple had hired- and John B Keane, who had just published The Matchmaker , a novel written as a series of letters between a rural matchmaker and his clients.
Keane gave Old Quay the rights to his book at a greatly reduced fee, Ryan the theatre, and, in a frenetic weekend, The Matchmaker was adapted by McAnally, who enlisted Barry Cassin as director. The show opened the following week as Letters of a Matchmaker , and sold out to packed houses.
Masterson had earlier appeared in the title role in Ryan’s production of Keane’s Big Maggie , to enthusiastic reviews, at the Olympia Theatre in 1970.
Film and television work followed, including many episodes of RTÉ soap opera Glenroe , in which Masterson played Madge O’Regan, and in 1988 her first film, The Dawning , an adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s story The Old Jest , which won first prize as best film at the Montreal Film Festival and where she acted opposite Anthony Hopkins, Trevor Howard and a young Hugh Grant.
Her best film work was probably as a memorable Grandma Sheehan in Alan Parker’s screen version of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1999, where, in her own words in a recent interview with her grandson Aonghus Óg McAnally, available as a podcast from his production company, she said: “Without doubt I had the best script.”
In the podcast, available at riseproductionsireland.com, Masterson gives a fascinating insight into the Abbey in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including a vivid description of the fire of 1951 which destroyed the original building. And she also advances a defence of Ernest Blythe’s often-criticised role as managing director.
Other notable film roles included Fools of Fortune , The Real Charlotte and Kosminsky’s dramatisation of the events which led to the Stalker inquiry in Northern Ireland, Shoot to Kill , where she played Mrs Tighe opposite her old Abbey colleague Peadar Lamb, as Mr Tighe.
Speaking last week to The Irish Times , Lamb remarked how, as a young actor at the Abbey in 1949, Masterson had been a “striking” Kathleen Ní Houlihan in Yeats’s play, her height, green eyes and vivid red hair perfect for the part.
Lamb, who served for many years with Masterson on the committee of Irish Actors’ Equity, paid tribute also to her work for other actors: “She didn’t waste words, but spoke very strongly when she did speak.” RTÉ producer Laurence Foster also paid a tribute to this aspect of Masterson’s career on the Siptu website last month.
Masterson’s last acting role was in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium in 2012, where she played the part of the old woman in the hospital bed in conversation with Saoirse Ronan.
Spotted at the Feis Ceoil
Veronica Masterson, always known as Ronnie, was born in April, 1926 in Dublin, the eldest of three children, to Patrick Masterson, printing manager at the Irish Independent , and his wife Angela Doyle, who were themselves keen theatre-goers.
She was spotted at the Feis Ceoil in 1944 by Blythe, who liked her recitations of poetry in Irish, and who offered her a scholarship at the Abbey School of Acting.
Masterson went on to perform regularly in Irish-language Abbey productions, notably in work by Seán Ó Tuama and in pantomimes scripted by renowned broadcaster Seán MacReamoinn.
Masterson continued her stage work in the 1980s after her separation from McAnally (who died in 1989), touring one-woman shows of Irish cultural interest, and a revival of Letters of a Matchmaker with Frank Kelly, in the US, and appeared notably in Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan’s controversial The Barbaric Comedies for the Abbey, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000.
Ronnie Masterson is survived by her children, Conor, Aonghus, Maire and Niamh, and by grandchildren.