Jeanne Rathbone

Siobhán McKenna renowned actor and Notable Galway Woman

Posted in Siobhán McKenna renowned actor and Notable Galway Woman by sheelanagigcomedienne on August 13, 2018

Renowned actor and theatre director Siobhán McKenna (1923–86) takes her place among Notable Women of Galway. Siobhán was born in Belfast to a nationalist family, was a fluent gaelic speaker and moved to Galway when her father was appointed a lecturer in Mathematics in UCG.

Siobhán Giollamhuire Nic Cionnaith was born in 1923  at 28 St James’s Park, off the Falls Road, Belfast,  the second daughter of Gretta from Co. Longford, and her husband, Eoghan McKenna Millstreet, Co. Cork,  lecturer in mathematics at  the Municipal College of Technology, Belfast. She had an elder sister Nancy  and they their early schooling was at the Dominican Convent, Falls Road, Belfast. In 1928 Eoghan McKenna moved his family to Fort Eyre at Shantalla, Galway, when he was appointed lecturer (later professor) in mathematical sciences at UCG.

They lived in Hansberry House, a three storey house which bookends the listed terrace of derelict shops which have been bought to be developed, and Spire House which is the home of the Jesus and Mary nuns who ran Scoil Ide Primary School which I attended. ( I remember visiting Mother Stanislaus there with Dave after we were married in 1967. It is now very shabby as it has been turned into flats.)

Below is Siobhán reading the Proclamation in 1966 in Eyre Square Galway during the 60 year commemorations of the Rising.


siobh in galway

Siobhán became fluent in Connemara Irish and it was what the McKenna’s spoke at home. Her formal education states that it was at Dominican College, Taylor’s Hill, Galway, my alma mater. But she was only five when they moved and it was their  Montessori junior school that she attended. Her schooling was interrupted by a year’s confinement to bed with glandular fever. She then enrolled at the boarding school of the St Louis Sisters at Monaghan, where she developed her love of drama.

A video of Siobhán from 1961 talking about reading a poem at her Montessori School in Taylor’s Hill which was a short walk from where they lived and they laughing at her accent

While still a university student, at UCG, Siobhán acted leading roles in An Taidhbhearc, Galway’s Irish-language theatre. (Walter Macken who went on to be one of Ireland’s well loved novelists was an acclaimed actor there and was its Director from 1939-47) Siobhán played in the Irish version of Evans and Valentine’s Tons of money ‘Dalladh airgid’ in March 1941, in Jean-Jacques Bernard’s Le National Six ‘Ar an mBóthar Mór’, and in her own translation of J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. She played in an Irish version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and in two plays by Sean O’Casey, ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ and ‘The Plough and the Stars’.

An Taibhearc

She graduated BA from UCG with first-class honours in Irish, French, and mathematics in 1943, and enrolled at UCD for postgraduate studies in French. Ó Briain is credited with bringing McKenna’s talent to the notice of Ernest Blythe , managing director of the Abbey Theatre, who having auditioned McKenna offered her a contract. She began at the Abbey with Irish-speaking parts in Peadar Ó hAnnracháin’s ‘Stiana’  1944, followe by ‘Sodar i ndiaidh na n-uasal’, Blythe’s translation of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme . She was noticed favourably for her playing of a Belfast factory girl in ‘The end House’ by Joseph Tomelty and her role as Jimín, a pert newsboy, in the Gaelic pantomime, ‘Muireann agus an prionnsa’  1945/46, was acclaimed by the Evening Herald critic as ‘a performance of inexhaustible vitality’. 1946 was a decisive year in McKenna’s career and life.

McCormick, the great Abbey actor, tutored her when she played opposite him in ‘Village wooing’ by Shaw and when she received favourable notices for a small part in the British film Hungry Hill he advised her not to abandon her stage career for one in film. In September 1946 McKenna married the actor Denis O’Dea ; their only child, Donnacha, was born in August 1948. He went on to swim for Ireland at the 1968 Summer Olympics and later won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 1998 and I believe the poker bug has been caught by her grandson Eoghan who is an online player!


She first appeared on the London stage on March 1947 at the Embassy Theatre as Nora Fintry in ‘The white steed’ by P. V. Carroll. She played Maura Joyce in Sir Laurence Olivier’s production of Jean Anouilh’s ‘Fading mansions’ at the Duchess Theatre ; Olivier also advised her to remain in theatre work when she was offered a Hollywood contract for her memorable performance in the Paramount film ‘Daughter of Darkness’  1948.

In response to a request from the Taidhbhearc, Siobhán offered to play the lead in her own translation of Shaw’s Saint Joan. It was a sensational success, it played to packed audiences first in Galway, in December 1950.

It is interesting to note that the awful prig Bishop Browne declined an invitation writing that he “did not think that attendance at a Shaw play would be a suitable means or occasion for one in his position”.


There was one performance at the Gaiety in Dublin, 14 January 1951. Micheál MacLiammóir , who was in the audience, invited her to play Saint Joan in his production of the play, which opened at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on November 1954 to great  reviews. She also played the role in an English production in London in September 1954, at the Arts Theatre and then at the St Martin’s Theatre; she won the Evening Standard award for her acting. She played Saint Joan again in 1956–7 in Paris and then in New York, where with her unfamiliar accent endeared her to Broadway audiences. In 1956 she was the first Irish actor to win a Tony award.


During the same years with Shelah Richards  directing, created a new Pegeen Mike in ‘The playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge , first in 1951 at the Edinburgh Festival and then in July 1953 at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, with the actor–manager Cyril Cusack playing Christy Mahon, in what was deemed a superb production; it went on a European tour, and charmed Parisian audiences at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. In 1960 Shelagh revived the play for the Dublin Theatre Festival and for the Florence Festival, where she was given the ‘best actress’ award. In 1961 Brian Desmond Hurst directed  her  in the film production of  ‘The playboy of the Western World.                                    It is  interesting to have to explain the conceit of the play to a London Primary School assembly which I did in Latchmere School with my friend June O’Sullivan in the 80s when we did a series of them at the time when there was a lot of anti-Irish racism.   There is a video about the filming in Dingle

For international audiences Saint Joan is considered her outstanding role; in Irish theatre history she is best remembered for redefining the role of Pegeen Mike. She was  a fine Shakesperian actor and spent a season a Stratford-on-Avon in 1952. She played a captivating Viola in ‘Twelfth night’, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in1957, and a one-woman Hamlet in the manner of Sarah Bernhardt off Broadway in 1957, which critics panned; but her Lady Macbeth, opposite Jason Robards, at Harvard University in 1959 was of star quality, ‘putting in the greatest mad scene seen in the U.S. since Callas’s Lucia di Lamermoor’

Loyalty to the Irish stage brought her back to Ireland, and in 1960 she made Dublin her permanent home: the family lived on Highfield Road, Rathgar When O’Dea’s health declined she moved to a smaller house at no. 78. From then on she steadfastly pursued the aims of an Irish National Theatre, in keeping with the vision that inspired the Abbey’s founders.

The establishment of Irish television in 1961 brought her into wider contact with the Irish public. Exile, emigration, and homecoming for the economically deprived were themes that interested both writers and their public. Siobhán engagement with the folk plays of Michael J. Molloy included financial backing, directing, and acting Daughter from over the Water, 1964 and gave her the impetus to direct and experiment. In 1966 she played Juno with Peter O’Toole and Jack MacGowran  in‘Juno and the Paycock’ at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. At the 1967 Dublin Festival, which coincided with the reopening of the Abbey Theatre, she gave a magnificent performance as the broken-down, earthy Cass in Brian Friel’s ‘The loves of Cass Maguire’. At the 1968 Dublin Festival at the Abbey she and Cyril Cusack starred in Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’, directed by Madame Knebal from the Moscow Art Theatre.


Films include 1961’s King of Kings, starring in the role of the Virgin Mary. In 1964 she performed in Of Human Bondage and the following year in Doctor Zhivago.


For more than a decade Siobhán had been considering a one-woman show on the lines of MacLiammóir’s ‘I must be talking to my friends’. When Wolf Mankowitz and Laurence Harvey put up the money for a West End production, with Sean Kenny as designer and director,  Siobhán set about creating her show, choosing her pieces with consummate skill.


Here are Ladies played in Britain, North America, Australia, Ireland, and Vienna throughout the 1970s. Her Molly Bloom and stream of consciousness Anna Livia Plurabelle passages from James Joyce  were a tour de force that brought audiences to their feet. She gave sixty-seven public performances and as many more at university venues.

Theater: Siobhan McKenna’s’Ladies’ – The New York Times

During the 1970s McKenna directed fifteen plays, taking over O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1973 on the sudden death of Sean Kenny in Toronto she directed a season of Synge plays later that year.

Although she concentrated on directing plays by O’Casey and Synge in the 1970s, she continued to act: she played Bessie Burgess in the Abbey’s golden jubilee production of ‘The Plough and the Stars’ in 1976, which toured New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Quest Productions presented ‘Here are ladies’ and, with McKenna directing, O’Casey’s ‘The shadow of a Gunman’ in Vienna 1980–81.

Siobhán had been active in human rights. March 1982 she addressed the United Nations special committee against apartheid in New York by invitation; she revealed that she and Dame Peggy Ashcroft were among a group of actors, members of Actors’ Equity, who had signed a declaration not to perform in South Africa until there was an end to apartheid.

She formed a small company, Quest Productions, with John Hippisley as manager–director. She directed and played in Eugene O’Neill’s ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ at the Gate in 1975. In 1977 she played Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Memoir’ with Niall Buggy, in Eric Salmon’s production at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, the Ambassador in London, and briefly in Canada. I  remember speaking to Niall Buggy when he proudly showed me his Claddagh ring Claddagh ringwhich Siobhán had given him.

While Siobhán was directing a season of one-act Irish plays in London, Denis O’Dea died 5 November 1978.

The following year her own health began to fail but she continued her hectic programme, appearing as Juno in Joe Dowling’s production of ‘Juno and the paycock’ at the Abbey in 1979,  Agrippina in ‘Britannicus’ at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London, in 1981, and in ‘All Joyce’ at the Abbey Theatre in 1982. In 1984, as well as directing and stage-managing Brian Merriman’s  ‘Cuirt n mheán-oiche’, she played a luminous Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long day’s Journey into Night’ for the Abbey.

'Late Late Show' Mac Liammóir birthday special (1969)The following year she and Maureen Potter played the two old ladies in ‘Arsenic and old lace’ with verve at the Gaiety in Dublin.

siobhan-mckenna0 as Mommo

Though seriously ill, McKenna undertook the demanding role of Mommo in Tom Murphy’s ‘Bailegangaire’, which he had written with her in mind. Directed by Garry Hynes, who is another Notable Galway Women  It played at the Druid Theatre in Galway from December 1985 through January 1986, transferring to the Donmar Warehouse in London for the spring of 1986, and to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, for a two-week run. Murphy’s drama is set in a cottage in the west of Ireland where a senile grandmother, Mommo, strives to tell her two granddaughters a story which she cannot finish. The production was a rare conjunction of director, actors, staging, and play and Galway connections.  McKenna’s contribution became a legend. I saw this memorable production at the Donmar Warehouse and loved the Schubert Notturno which accompanied it -an  unforgettable production.

On 16 November 1986 Siobhán  died of cardiac arrest after a lung operation in the Blackrock clinic in Dublin. She was buried at Rahoon cemetery in Galway. My mother attended it and wrote me a letter describing it on a rain drenched day with a lone piper playing. My parents Tom and Eithne Egan are both buried in Rahoon. Since then there is a stone by the entrance gate of Joyce’s poem She Weeps over Rahoon which of course refers to Nora Barnacle, his wife and another Notable Galway Woman.…/nora-barnacle-galway-woman/


At her graveside playwright Brian Friel declared: ‘For people of my generation, she personified an idea of Ireland.’…/siobhan-mckenna-is-dead-actress-known-for-st-joan.h…

La Times Obituary 1986

Siobhán McKenna was pre-eminent among the players who brought the dramatic works of the Irish literary revival to the national and international stage in the second half of the twentieth century. She was and is one of our best known actors of stage and screen and certainly one of Galway’s most Notable Women.