Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1936 – Katie Roche, by Teresa Deevy

In the 1930s Teresa Deevy was a star Abbey writer. Then, suddenly, she was dropped. Were the questions she raised about the lives of Irish women too difficult to face?

No fixed self: Derbhle Crotty in the title role of Katie Roche, by Teresa Deevy, at the Peacock Theatre in April 1994

No fixed self: Derbhle Crotty in the title role of Katie Roche, by Teresa Deevy, at the Peacock Theatre in April 1994

 

‘She’s in great danger . . . she doesn’t know how wild she is . . . A girl with such a parentage.” Those words are spoken about Katie Roche, in Teresa Deevy’s play of the same name, by her own father.

Katie was born out of wedlock, and her mother is spoken about but never seen. Katie has been working in the convent, and one line of hers, “When you’d be working for nuns, you’d never be finished”, resonates deeply with later revelations about the hidden Ireland of Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes. A girl such as Katie, born “wild”, is a danger that must be controlled.

Teresa Deevy lived most of her life in her native Waterford or with her sister in Dublin, and never married. Her female characters often seem to live largely in their own heads, and this may well be a reflection of Deevy’s own deafness. She lost her hearing in her early 20s because of Ménière’s syndrome, although she was an accomplished lip-reader. Yet she joined Cumann na mBan during the Troubles.

She also wrote for the most public form – theatre – and did so with striking confidence and originality.

Between 1930 and 1958, she wrote 25 plays, six of them given full-scale productions at the Abbey in Dublin between 1930 and 1936.

Deevy, in those years, was the Abbey’s rising star. She was, the playwright and Abbey director Lennox Robinson wrote in the Dublin Magazine, “the most important dramatist writing for the Irish theatre”. St John Ervine, writing about Katie Roche in the Observer, declared that “Miss Deevy may be a genius”.

Katie Roche was included alongside the staples of O’Casey and Synge on the Abbey’s tour of the US in 1937. And then Deevy was simply dropped by the Abbey, suddenly and without explanation. Her next play, Holiday House, was accepted for production but then shelved, and she was never told why.

It is easy enough to see that she didn’t fit in with the increasingly reactionary atmosphere of the national theatre, however, and that her work raises startlingly blunt questions about the role of women in Éamon de Valera’s Ireland.

Deevy was a nationalist and intensely devoted to a mystical Catholicism, but her depiction of female lives was nonetheless uncomfortable. Katie Roche has fantasy versions of herself, in which she is a saint, a lover or the child of “great people”. But she has no fixed self; such a thing is a luxury her society will not allow her.

This is what makes the play so strange and so compelling. Its central character has no character. She responds impulsively to whatever is put before her and those impulses themselves are drawn between a half-formed sexuality and religious mysticism.

In another context, this would be bad writing, but here it is the point of the play, for what we see is Katie being pulled between three men: her father, the boy who would be her lover, and Stanislaus, the middle-aged architect she marries for no better reason than that he wants her to.

Perhaps this image of a young Irish woman really was too dangerous for the Irish stage. Deevy continued to write and her plays were produced on BBC radio and television. But by the time of her death in 1963, she had fallen into obscurity, and it would be many decades before she would be written back into the story of Irish theatre.

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