Drumlin Dramatist – Frank McNally on how Tyrone Guthrie made jam (and Hamlet) among the hills of Monaghan

An Irishman’s Diary

 Sir Tyrone Guthrie: theatre director, impresario, philanthropist – and jam maker. Photograph: Courtesy of Thames Television

Sir Tyrone Guthrie: theatre director, impresario, philanthropist – and jam maker. Photograph: Courtesy of Thames Television

 

The great theatrical director and jam manufacturer, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, died 50 years ago in May. And reminding me of the anniversary, John Gilsenan asks if I knew that, thanks to Guthrie, one of the greatest ever performances of Hamlet was rehearsed in Co Monaghan.

The actor involved was a young Alec Guinness, who spent his honeymoon at Guthrie’s home in Annaghmakerrig, while also learning his lines as the doomed Prince of Denmark, which he performed at London’s Old Vic, wearing modern clothes, in 1938.

No John, I didn’t know that until now. But I’m delighted to hear it, because it adds another layer of significance to one of my favourite anglicised placenames, also in Monaghan. Whenever I pass through the village of Doohamlet – usually en route to a football match in Clones – I like to obey the implicit command of the signpost and start declaiming “To be or not to be . . . ”

If nothing else, it sometimes serves as a scene-setter for the tragedies to follow at St Tiernach’s Park.

Guthrie was born in England, of Scottish and Irish ancestry, in 1900.

His paternal grandfather was a preacher with the “Free Church of Scotland”, while a maternal great-grandfather was Tyrone Power (the Irish one), an actor famous in the 1830s. Thanks to the latter, Guthrie was also a cousin of the American Tyrone Power, a Hollywood matinee idol.

But despite all the Tyrones in the family, the ancestral home was in Monaghan, near another interestingly named village, Newbliss. This was Guthrie’s retreat from a public life that straddled the Atlantic, from London to Minneapolis. And the Scottish part of him must have felt at a home in a county that also has a Scotstown, a Scotshouse, and a Scotch Corner. His low-church, temperance-preaching grandfather would have fitted in well too. 

Annaghmakerrig’s nearest neighbours include Drum, a village formerly remarkable for having one pub and four Protestant denominations (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian, and “the Brethren”).

It still had the four denominations. But the pub – a sparsely furnished premises which on my rare visits served only bottled beers and hand-poured spirits – is long closed.

One of Guthrie’s visitors towards the end of his life – 1970 – was this newspaper’s Elgy Gillespie. It wasn’t an easy place to reach then, even by phone. You had to ring “Newbliss 3” (which now sounds like a case of unfair imprisonment) and then shout, in Elgy’s words, as though “trying to contact the dead in a down-wind gale”.

To get to Annaghmakerrig, she had to hitch lifts and walk the last five miles. The house was “a little scuffed-looking and in one of the most depressed areas of the border counties”. But Guthrie was full of life, she found, and his home crammed with interesting artifacts.

Was this a dagger she saw before her at one point? Yes, but not just any dagger. It was a dagger “given to his grandfather Tyrone Power by a lieutenant he’d saved from drowning, who in turn had been given it by a midshipman whose life he in turn had saved in the Napoleonic wars after a French seaman transfixed the midshipman’s hand with it.”

Even in 1970, Guthrie already had plans for the house to become an artists’ retreat, which it did 10 years after his death.

But I mentioned the jam too earlier, because so did John Gilsenan’s email, and that should also have been part of the legacy.

John’s grandmother Catherine was Guthrie’s secretary in Newbliss, a role that combined “typing plays and helping in the jam factory”, which the great man of theatre had established in 1963.

Irish Farmhouse Preserves Limited was a response to the area’s “desperate” economic circumstances. And with his door-opening name on the label, it sold in Dublin at Smyths of the Green and in London at Selfridges, while also being exported as far away as Singapore.

It was still going strong seven years later, boasting in ads that, with no chemicals, it was the “natural food of the 1970s”.  

Then came the infamous bank strike with which the decade dawned. That sunk it, clouding Guthrie’s last days. The company needed a bridging loan to cover the credit it had given others, but no loan was forthcoming from anywhere.

Anger at the factory’s neglect by Dublin led locals to look north for help. In an outbreak of political ecumenism, there were calls for “Bernadette Devlin or Ian Paisley” to get involved. But it was too late for even those loud voices to be heard. 

In another 50th anniversary, the High Court approved a winding up order this week in 1971. As they say in Doohamlet, the rest is silence.

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