John B Keane said she was 'best dramatist in Ireland'

Siobhán Ní Shúilleabháin: 1928-2003

Siobhan ni Shuilleabhain

Siobhan ni Shuilleabhain


Siobhán Ní Shúilleabháin, who has died aged 84, was a short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter and playwright. Awarded the Irish Life award for plays in 1974, she also won 30 Oireachtas literary awards. The playwright John B Keane described her as the “best dramatist writing in Ireland”.

Her plays are of their time, and a number were staged at Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe. Cití (1975) tells the story of a woman unwilling to be a patient, suffering wife which leads to bitter quarrels with her husband. It is one of the most successful plays to have been staged at the Taibhearc.

Madge agus Martha (1976) is the story of two liberated young women. In Is Tú mo Mhac (1990) a married man with four children emigrates to the US. There he falls in love, forcing his wife to consider her options.

Compassion and poignancy
Her award-winning novel Aistriú (2004) is set against the background of the establishment of the Meath Gaeltacht in the 1930s. Pól Ó Muirí in this newspaper wrote: “Aistriú is a work of great compassion and poignancy and Ní Shúilleabháin tells the story fluently. Her use of dialogue is particularly impressive, giving the reader the immediate sense of what is said but, magically, also conveying a second meaning behind the spoken one. It is the sound of speech and the whisper of a sigh that adds so much to a wonderful novel.”

Born in Imileá, near Ballyferriter in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, she was one of six children of Séamus Ó Súilleabháin and his wife, Máire Feiritéar. Educated locally, she won a scholarship to Coláiste Íde in Dingle. She wrote stories as a schoolgirl and was also a budding artist, winning the gold medal for art in the Intermediate certificate examination. Her wood carving of the Madonna and Child stands outside the chapel at Coláiste Íde, donated to the school as a token of her appreciation.

She trained to be a teacher at Carysfort College, Blackrock, Co Dublin, and taught in a national school in Cabra from 1948 to 1952. She was then seconded to the Department of Education to work on Tomás de Bháldraithe’s English-Irish Dictionary. Colleagues included Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Donncha Ó Céileachair.

In 1955 she married the academic Patrick Leo Henry. The couple lived for six years in Belfast, and she worked part-time in the Celtic department at Queen’s University. In 1969 her husband was appointed professor of old and medieval English at NUI Galway, where she worked part-time in the Irish department.

Their home was in Newcastle, and they had a holiday home in Inverin, Connemara.

Influenced by the writers of Corca Dhuibhne, including her brother Mícheál, she began writing in the early 1950s. Her books for younger readers include Triúr Againn (1955), Mé Féin agus Síle (1978) and Rósanna sa Gháirdín (1994). Among her novels is Ospidéal (1980).

She published a collection of poetry, Cnuasach Trá, in 2000. One of her stories was published in translation in The Webster Review (1980), and an excerpt from her story Dis is on the Leaving Cert syllabus.

Ken Gray of The Irish Times nominated her television play Saolaíodh Gamhain as the best of RTÉ’s offerings on St Patrick’s Day in 1971. Other plays for television are An Carabhan and Teacht agus Imeacht. She also wrote radio plays in both Irish and English. And she wrote a series of plays for Aisteoirí Bhreanainn, an amateur drama group from Corca Dhuibhne.

Her series for Raidió na Gaeltachta Scéalta Méinín ran from 1972 to 1979. She also regularly participated in the programme Leagan Cainte. In addition to Irish Life and Oireachtas awards, her work won honours at Listowel Writers’ Week on several occasions.

A loving wife and mother, she was predeceased by her husband in 2011; her sons Eric and Séamus and daughters Maoilíosa, Moya, Aideen and Tina survive her.