Annie Horniman and the Abbey Theatre: A generous but exasperating benefactor

In new book about Horniman family, Clare Paterson reveals how Abbey founder Annie Horniman was cut out

Tea heiress Annie Horniman always wanted to create an English national theatre but early in the 20th century ended up making an Irish one instead. Irish actors disliked the thought of being under the thumb of an English proprietor and their unlikely benefactor was not always welcomed. “I hope it will be a long, long time before I am obliged to go to Dublin again”, she once wrote to her friend W B Yeats, ”to be snubbed & affronted by snarlers and sulkers ...”

Since then, her role in the creation of the Abbey Theatre has been effectively erased by other Abbey figures who were better at writing their places into the history books.

Annie Horniman was, in her own words, a “middle-aged, middle-class, suburban spinster”. She also had an inheritance from a successful family business, Horniman Tea. ‘”I can only afford to make a very little theatre and it must be simple,” she wrote to Yeats, whose literary genius she wished to support even after he insisted on staying in Ireland. She intended to stage his work as well as that of other serious, international dramatists, to replace the livingroom dramas of popular theatre with one with “a higher artistic ideal”. She found a site, commissioned an architect and the curtain opened on December 27th, 1904.

The ruling triumvirate at the new theatre consisted of playwrights Yeats, John Millington Synge and the aristocratic Lady Gregory. Yeats spent 20 summers at Gregory’s mansion at Coole where, as well as offering creature comforts, she was invaluable at improving his scripts with her knowledge of the Irish language. Horniman spent much of the 1890s working tirelessly as his unpaid assistant and scribe. Both women vied for the attention of the hopelessly impractical poet.


It was the production of Playboy of the Western World in 1907 that brought the complexities of the Abbey and its English owner into focus

As Yeats’ biographer Roy Foster points out, Gregory provided him with Bovril, pork pies and champagne while Horniman was busy eradicating moths from his curtains and washing his floor.

Lady Gregory was landed gentry, intellectual and politically complicated, but savvy. Annie Horniman was proud to say she came from trade and often compared funding the theatre to running a shop. The pair did not get on. Gregory wrote to Yeats: “I have never treated her as an equal without regretting it.”

One disastrous weekend, Horniman was invited to Coole, as an equal. She later threatened that if she were ever invited back, she would slop around in an old dressing gown and sit on the sofa with curlers in her hair, dropping cigarette ash on the carpet. Unsurprisingly, she never got the chance.

Horniman loathed politics and despised Irish nationalism, which she considered to be “insolent insularity”. She disliked politics in general, perhaps because both her father and brother were politicians. She stipulated that at the Abbey there should be no politics. This was naive in the febrile atmosphere of Dublin. “I wonder how soon we shall commit some political crime!” joked Lady Gregory.

Perhaps Horniman got her own back on her collaborators in 1904, when the Yeats’ portraits were hung at the Abbey

When the theatre was about to open, Annie Horniman was not able to register a patent as all Irish theatres had to do, because she was not resident in Ireland. Gregory replaced her, so from the start, her role as proprietor was diminished. So as not to be left out, she commissioned six portraits of key theatre personnel from Yeats’ father, artist John Butler Yeats. Four of them, including one of herself, adorned the main foyer on opening night.

It was the production of Playboy of the Western World in 1907 that brought the complexities of the Abbey and its English owner into focus. This comedy by Synge was seen by some of its audience as an insult to Irish culture. The audiences yelled “Kill the author!”, police were called and many column inches were filled. Horniman was thrilled at the furore and one Irish dramatist was moved to say that “her hatred of everything Irish amounts to lunacy”.

Horniman continued to try in vain to persuade Yeats to make a new theatre in England. Finally in 1907, she moved without him to Manchester, and succeeded in creating a school of regional writers and a repertory company. Meanwhile, she funded the Abbey until the day in 1910 when King Edward V11 died and the Abbey, unlike most other theatres, failed to close its doors. This mark of disrespect could not be forgiven and their English patron’s funding came to an acrimonious end.

Denigrating her input in the Abbey’s creation, Lady Gregory wrote that Annie Horniman only ‘made the building, not the theatre.’ She wanted to aggrandise her own role, a strategy very well used by Yeats, who had a talent for exploiting what Roy Foster calls his ‘increasingly powerful sense of his own history.’ Between Yeats and Gregory, Horniman was edited out of the story.

Horniman’s involvement at the Abbey then and since has frequently been sidelined, not just because of the powerful characters around her or her nationality but also because she was a woman who did not fit the mould. With her scratchy personality, she lacked diplomacy. She smoked, drank beer and twice rode a bike across Europe. She was unmarried, kept cats, and has been endlessly accused of being hopelessly in love with Yeats or emotionally unhinged.

She suffered from these aspersions in all her activities, but in Ireland the invective was strongest. “It is evident that the Irish patriots don’t like me, because I’m English,” she told one interviewer. “I’m proud of being English. I am prouder still of being a Londoner, and I should be prouder still if I were a cockney.”

But perhaps Horniman got her own back on her collaborators in 1904, when the Yeats’ portraits were hung at the Abbey. There were paintings of theatre stalwarts actor Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, actor and producer brothers Frank and Willie Fay, and Annie herself. She did not commission a portrait of Gregory, Synge or Yeats. For once she engineered to put herself in pole position.

The Abbey would not have happened without this generous and exasperating benefactor, although her refusal ever to compromise her ideals made for repeated clashes. But if you walk into the Abbey Theatre today, Annie Horniman’s portrait is still there, keeping a watchful eye on her gift of the theatre.

Mr Horniman’s Walrus: Legacies of a Remarkable Victorian Family by Clare Paterson is published by Michael O’Mara Books