Ireland’s first lay speech therapist, and a prolific writer and performer

Obituary: Miriam Gallagher, indomitable, continued working after her cancer diagnosis

Miriam Gallagher: the writer and speech therapist in 1999. Photograph: Pat Langan

Miriam Gallagher: the writer and speech therapist in 1999. Photograph: Pat Langan

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Miriam Gallagher (nee O’Connor)
Born
: February 11th, 1940
Died
: January 15th, 2018

For more than 40 years the playwright Miriam Gallagher combined an internationally recognised writing career with a distinguished practice as one of Ireland’s first speech therapists.

Born Miriam O’Connor in Waterford city, she was the second of five children. Her father, Michael, was branch manager at Bank of Ireland, a job that required the family to regularly move home. This explains why, although Miriam was born on the same street as her future husband, Gerhardt, it would be another 20 years before they met. The O’Connors’ peripatetic lifestyle also suggests why the young Miriam was so enthralled by the idea of running away – a theme she later explored in her work, notably her short film Gypsies (1994).

Gallagher would regale her children with tales of babysitting for Queen Elizabeth’s shoemakers and gatecrashing glamorous parties while scraping by on macaroni cheese

As a child Miriam loved making up plays, using perfume bottles as her characters. In 1957, after attending boarding school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roscrea, where she excelled in English, music and languages, she left Ireland. For two years she au paired in France, Switzerland and Germany; then she arrived in the UK, where, while undertaking a diploma in speech therapy, she also studied drama at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art under the influential Frieda Hodgson. She graduated with honours in speech therapy and received a silver medal in drama.

Later she would regale her children with tales of her student days – babysitting for Queen Elizabeth’s shoemakers and gatecrashing glamorous parties while scraping by on macaroni cheese and black coffee.

Returning to Ireland in 1962, Miriam settled in Dublin, becoming the only lay Irish speech therapist in the country. Her empathy and skill soon saw her working in many clinics, including Rehab, St James’s Hospital and the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, where she formed lifelong bonds with her colleagues. A frequent speaker at conferences, she was a founder (and later chairwoman) of the Irish Association of Speech & Language Therapists.

Miriam Gallagher: the writer and speech therapist with her children, Mia, Etain and Donnacha
Miriam Gallagher: the writer and speech therapist with her children, Mia, Etain and Donnacha

Miriam met Gerhardt Gallagher, a fellow Waterfordian, forester and visual artist, in 1963, on the Dublin folk scene. They married in 1966, and had three children: Mia, Donnacha and Etain. Unusually for Ireland at the time, she successfully combined parenting with her speech-therapy career and emerging writing practice. The result was her first book, Let’s Help Our Children Talk, published by O’Brien Press in 1977 and later translated into Dutch and Japanese.

During the 1980s Gallagher became increasingly focused on her creative work. A member of Dublin Shakespeare Society and Grapevine Arts Centre, she regularly performed on stage while continuing to write. In 1983 she received her first playwriting commission, Fancy Footwork, a one-act play set in the world of boxing, directed by Claire Wilson and performed by men from Mountjoy Prison’s training unit. A unique production in the State’s history, it opened at the Focus Theatre during Dublin Theatre Festival to critical acclaim – and made further headlines when the lead actor escaped during the run.

Last year saw Gallagher launch her second story collection, ‘Night in Havana’. In her last week she was editing a new collection of stories

Over the next 35 years Gallagher wrote more than 20 plays, reaching audiences in Britain, Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Philippines. In Ireland she set up her own company, Alternative Theatre, but also received many commissions. She was also a well-regarded fiction writer. Her books include a novel, Song for Salamander, and two story collections.

In 2012 Gallagher was diagnosed with cancer and kidney disease. Indomitable, she continued writing. Her final five years saw the Irish premiere of her award-winning play A Wasteland Harvest at Ranelagh Arts Festival and a staged reading, in which she participated, of her final play, Girls in Silk Kimonos, celebrating the Gore-Booth sisters. Last year saw her launch her second story collection, Night in Havana. In her last week she was editing a new collection of stories.

She is survived by her husband, Gerhardt, her children, Mia, Donnacha and Etain, and her siblings Valerie, Michael and Fidelma.

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