Eithne McGuinness: An Appreciation

 

EITHNE McGUINNESS (49), who has died in Dublin after the sudden onset of cancer, was a gifted actor and writer whose death has deprived Irish Theatre of a popular, dynamic force.

A great-granddaughter of poet, playwright and revolutionary Tom MacDonagh and cultural nationalist Muriel Gifford, Eithne was a fluent Irish speaker. She initially worked in hotel management in Ireland and in the US, where she lived for 10 years.

Shortly after coming home in the 1990s, she left this secure career-path for the more precarious life of a full-time actor and writer. It was a characteristic move: forthright, brave, uncompromising.

Never one to sit in a corner and complain about a lack of good roles for women, Eithne soon began to write her own. One of her earliest pieces was The Queen of Sheba(1996). It was a role she delighted in, portraying a character who asserts a flamboyant sense of self-worth against the world's expectations and lives on her own terms - as Eithne herself did.

Her best-known play was Typhoid Mary, first produced at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 1997 and later adapted for RTÉ radio. No one who has seen it is likely to forget the bewildered fury of Eithne's Mary Mallon, the Tyrone-born cook accused of infecting the New York families she worked for with typhoid fever - a charge she always denied - and forcibly put into quarantine. The story raises the difficult social issues which Eithne never shied away from: with Typhoid Mary, she tackled race, class and immigration; with Limbo(2000, 2001), she asked similar questions through a story set in an Irish dole office at the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom; in A Glorious Day(given rehearsed readings at the Peacock and in the IFI, 1999), she portrayed her formidable ancestors, the Gifford sisters, as they immersed themselves in nationalist and feminist politics during the early years of the 20th century. Later projects with community groups in Dublin would revisit such contentious territory.

The roles Eithne played were often challenging and dark - Delo, in Cellby Paula Meehan, and Sister Clementine in Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters- but she was also a skilled comic actor, charming RTÉ viewers as Gracie Tracey in Glenroe, or singing and dancing her way through Menopause the Musical.

Many will remember Eithne for her work with the Dublin Writers' Festival (2004-2008), as well as for the many community projects she facilitated. In 2005 she received Dublin City Council's first public art commission for a playwright and worked with community groups in Poplar Row, Ballybough. With David Kelly she ran drama workshops filmed by Brid McCarthy, which explored the history of the area; her commission resulted in a rehearsed reading of a new play Tin Cans.

Eithne was a regular artist with Dublin City Council's area-based arts service, working with Artane Active Retirement Group, Klear Adult Education Programme (Kilbarrack) and Lourdes Day Care Centre. Her creative and professional approach, tempered by a wicked sense of humour, endeared her to everyone she worked with.

But perhaps her greatest personal gift was for friendship. She had many friends, and a close inner circle. She was funny, honest, clear-sighted and loyal, the kind of friend who would tell you things you might not want to hear but need to know.

In 2005, she graduated with distinction from the MPhil Creative Writing programme at Trinity College. Miss Delicious, a play about sexual abuse which she began writing while at Trinity, was later workshopped in the Abbey Theatre. Plans for a production were interrupted by her illness, as was an international tour of Typhoid Mary. A popular resident at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and at the Blue Mountain Centre in New York, she had recently been awarded a residency at the McDowell artists' colony in New Hampshire. Her illness prevented her from going.

She is survived by her parents, Kevin and Iseult, her sisters Maura and Niamh, her brothers Barry and Dermot, her nieces and nephews and many friends.

LM & MG