“A steadily burning inner fire”: Brian Maye on pioneering actor, teacher and producer Ria Mooney

Courage and intensity

The stage and screen actor, teacher and producer Ria Mooney, who died 50 years ago on January 4th, broke new ground by becoming the first female producer at the Abbey Theatre. In her 15 years in that role, she overcame many obstacles and presided over an extensive and well-received body of plays.

There is some disagreement about her date of birth, with one suggestion of April 30th, 1903, but most sources give the year as 1904. She was born in Rathmines, Dublin, her father William running a confectionery and catering business on Baggot Street, and began acting at the young age of six. For many years, she sang with the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society and, on finishing school, attended the Metropolitan College of Art in Dublin.

However, acting proved to be the stronger pull in her life and in 1924 she was invited to join the Abbey Theatre when her role in the Dublin Arts Club production of Chekov’s The Proposal brought her to attention.

Acting was what she had always wanted to do, an ambition which her parents supported, but she was somewhat wary about joining the Abbey.


In an unpublished memoir, she recalled thinking of some of its members at the time, especially WB Yeats and Lennox Robinson, as “odd-looking people”.

This was probably not that surprising as both individuals in question had their eccentricities.

But she overcame whatever reluctance she felt, taking part in many Abbey productions with some of the foremost actors of the time, such as Cyril Cusack, Máire O’Neill (stage name of Molly Allgood) and FJ McCormick (stage name of Peter Judge). In his memoir, All for Hecuba, Micheál Mac Liammóir said that Mooney displayed “a curious intensity, like a steadily burning inner fire, and her acting was poised, shapely and full of intelligence”.

The writers of her entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Linde Lunney and Noreen Giffney, maintain that she showed this “intensity” especially when she played the part of the prostitute Rosie Redmond in the first production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey in February 1926. There was a riot in the theatre on the play’s opening night, with venomous abuse and even missiles hurled at the performers. Mooney was singled out for particularly nasty criticism and even received threats of physical violence over subsequent days but, according to Lunney and Giffney, “she achieved a considerable personal triumph in the play and was ever afterwards associated with the courageous stand taken by the players against the chauvinism evident in the audience”.

She went to the US on tour with the Abbey Players, going there for the first time in 1927. She spent some time in New York, where she appeared at the Civic Repertory Theatre, of which she became assistant director for a short time, before returning home. After a period with the Gate Theatre in Dublin, she went back to the Abbey in 1935 and took charge of the new experimental Peacock Theatre in 1937.

Her unpublished memoir refers to an affair with the poet FR Higgins, a member of the Abbey board. When they were travelling to America together, they discovered via a chance conversation that they were third cousins. His sudden death from a heart attack in 1941 shocked her.

She left the Abbey again in 1944 and directed the Gaiety School of Acting before returning to the Abbey in 1948 as its first female producer. It cannot be said that she had an easy time in the role. She didn’t see eye to eye with the Abbey’s notoriously difficult and conservative managing director Ernest Blythe and the theatre felt bereft when its great actor FJ McCormick died in 1947. Fire destroyed the theatre in 1951 and the company leased the old Queen’s Theatre from then until 1966. Mooney used this as an opportunity to employ younger actors, such as Ronnie Masterson, Joan O’Hara and Ray McAnally.

From 1948 to 1963, as many as 75 new plays were produced at the two Abbey locations, most of them directed by Mooney, and they received first-class reviews from most of the theatre critics.

Her first venture into film preceded her joining the Abbey when she acted in Wicklow Gold (1922), one of the first films made in the newly independent Free State. In 1936, she appeared in a film version of JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea and in This Other Eden in 1959. When Ireland’s first film studios were opened at Ardmore in 1957, she was put in charge of casting. She was also a lifelong supporter of the Irish amateur dramatic movement and adjudicated at drama festivals all over the country.

Following a breakdown due to nervous exhaustion, she retired from the Abbey in 1963 and died 10 years later. She was unmarried.