First among prequels – Frank McNally on Irish cinema’s original MacDonagh and a subplot involving Flann O’Brien

MacDonagh’s 1922 comedy Cruiskeen Lawn inaugurated the cinematic career of the multitalented Fay Sargent

Long before the McDonagh brothers Martin and John, of recent film and theatrical fame, there were the MacDonaghs John and Thomas, who dabbled in a similar line of work.

Thomas MacDonagh is now and forever better known for his role in the Easter Rising. But the year before that, he had directed Uncle Vanya on the Dublin stage, something his older brother John – who survived the Rising despite also being part of it – reprised in his honour in 1917.

John went on to be a pioneer of Irish cinema, directing Knocknagow (also 1917) and Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1919).

While filming the latter at Patrick Pearse’s old school, St Enda’s, he earned the added distinction of recording a landmark mini-documentary: seven minutes of footage featuring Michael Collins and a stellar cast of republicans as together they launched the first Dáil loan.


His work as a director often belied the serious times. Martin McDonagh’s most recent film, as everyone will have heard by now, is a dark comedy set against a fictionalised backdrop of the Civil War. John MacDonagh, by contrast, shot a series of light comedies against a backdrop of actual Civil War.

In July 1922, even as the Four Courts smouldered, his new production company Irish Photo-Plays Ltd was, according to press advertisements, was “producing the second of a series of six Comedy-Dramas”

It urgently sought authors to contribute more comic material, promising “a good price”. And here is The Irish Times, in September of that troubled year, admiring the company’s continued productivity.

“Undeterred by prevailing conditions, Irish Photo Plays have made much progress in their work, and a third film, a racing story with much humour, is just completed. It is intended to erect a large studio in Dublin during the winter ... In this way, it is hoped to enable Irish films compete successfully on the world market.”

MacDonagh had himself been on the world market before 1916, as a successful opera singer in the US. He now returned there as a producer and director. Later, having made a mark on cinema, he became a programme director in the new Radio Éireann.

But that third comedy film of 1922, the “racing story with much humour,” makes an interesting footnote for fans of Flann O’Brien.

Telling the story of a poor squire, whose ancient horse wins a cup “after a charlatan dopes it with the elixir of life”, it took its title from an old Irish drinking song: “Cruiskeen Lawn”.

Hiberno-English for “Little Brimming Jug”, this would soon also be the title of one of the greatest ever newspaper columns, written in these pages by Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann, under his journalistic franchise of Myles na gCopaleen.

In the meantime, MacDonagh’s 1922 comedy had also inaugurated the cinematic career of the multitalented Fay Sargent (1890-1967), a woman whose work had interesting similarities with Myles’s.

Born in Waterford, she moved to England in childhood with her widowed mother.

There she joined the Gaelic League and, through that, married an English Quaker with Irish nationalist sympathies.

The couple then moved to Ireland in time for him to be involved in 1916 and, like John MacDonagh, to be interned afterwards in Frongoch.

Fay later toured the country as a singer and Gaelic League activist, acted in Abbey Theatre plays, and appeared in silent films, MacDonagh’s included. She also, by her own account, “drifted” into journalism. But in her own lifetime at least, this was what made her name.

In a long-running comic column for the Evening Herald, she detailed the adventures of a Mrs Casey and her friends Mrs Byrne and Mrs Win-the-war, along with their husbands.

A feature of the series was phonetically rendered “Dubbalin” dialogue. And although the humour was often broader than O’Connell Street, the column was popular enough to feature in radio sketches, where she also voiced the main role.

It ran from 1920 until 1940, the year Cruiskeen Lawn began its epic run. And maybe the coincidences don’t end there.

Like many Dublin working men of the era, Sargent’s Mr Casey and his pals regularly sought solace in a Guinness drink known officially as “single x” porter, soon then to be phased out in favour of the more expensive “double x” stout.

Sargent’s plots often revolved around the “Pint of Plain”, as people called the cheaper brew. Even Mrs Casey was known to down one on occasion.

Flann O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim-two-birds (1939) would further elevate this humble beverage into literature. With help from Jem Casey, “poet of the pick”, O’Brien eulogised it as the “The Workman’s Friend”. A pint of plain was “your only man”, Flann and Jem agreed. But perhaps it was a woman who gave them the idea.