The work of a theatrical trailblazer is vividly evoked in Fierce Love: A Life of Mary O’Malley (Lilliput Press, €30) by Bernard Adams. O’Malley, who was born in Mallow, Co Cork, in 1918, founded the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast. She married a psychiatrist in Dublin and they later moved to live in a large suburban house on Belfast’s Malone Road. An active Irish Labour Party councillor on the local corporation, O’Malley left politics to fulfil her dream of setting up a theatre staging serious drama.
Their house had a stable and the hayloft above was repurposed into a 50-seat theatre, the starting point for what would become the Lyric
Their house had a stable and the hayloft above was repurposed into a 50-seat theatre, the starting point for what would become the Lyric. In the 17 years they lived there, 140 plays were performed ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare. O’Malley especially admired the work of WB Yeats, and all of his 26 plays were presented on the 10ft-wide stage, winning widespread acclaim despite local scepticism.
It took considerable effort to get support, but eventually O’Malley succeeded in creating a company of actors. A new, purpose-built Lyric Theatre, along the banks of the River Lagan, opened in October 1968, an unpropitious time coinciding with the start of the Troubles. The best of Irish and world theatre was staged and proteges included Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds. Throughout the book’s crisply written chapters, O’Malley comes across as feisty and awkward but also tenacious and courageous with a strong commitment to the arts. A complex woman, she was, in the eyes of the author, remarkable but not always lovable.
She once contacted a pet food manufacturer to provide food for strays. A few days later, a considerable amount of tinned dog food arrived in the city from Longford, courtesy of the then minister for finance, Albert Reynolds
Women of Limerick
Animal-rights activist and avid Young Munster rugby supporter Nora ‘Dodo’ Reddan cut a charismatic figure around the streets of Limerick for many decades. Often seen pushing a “Rolls-Royce” pram filled with rescue dogs, she once contacted a pet food manufacturer to provide food for strays. A few days later, a considerable amount of tinned dog food arrived in the city from Longford, courtesy of the then minister for finance, Albert Reynolds.
A large mural of Reddan and her dogs was painted in the city in 2021 and her philanthropic story is one of many recounted in Sharon Slater’s 100 Women of Limerick (Ormston House, €40). Divided into 17 categories, the anthology reflects the role of women in art, music, education, politics, science, religion and many other fields throughout Limerick city and county.
She was a friend of Oscar Wilde who described her as ‘that brilliant and fascinating genius’, and after her death a US Naval Ship was named after her
Illustrious names include Kate O’Brien, a regular columnist for The Irish Times in the 1960s and early 1970s, whose book Farewell Spain (1937) was banned by Franco; Bidelia Crehan, baptised in 1857 in St Michael’s Catholic Church in Denmark Street, later became the renowned actor Ada Rehan. She was a friend of Oscar Wilde who described her as “that brilliant and fascinating genius”, and after her death a US Naval Ship was named after her; Dorothea Conyers, from Fedamore, was a novelist, one of whose ancestors reputedly stole the Crown Jewels from the tower of London during the reign of Charles I. Three streets in the city, Ellen, Catherine and Anne, are named after women but many of those included have been long forgotten and their social impacts are now acknowledged.
Social and political innovators
In Her Keys to the City (Dublin City Council, €19.99) by Clodagh Finn and other contributors – along with a foreword by Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland – the work of 80 women is honoured. Many of those featured were central to social and political changes in Irish history, excelling in specific disciplines and realising accomplishments in different fields.
A considerable number, such as Rosie Hackett (1893-1976), Helen Sophia Chenevix (1886-1963), Madeleine ffrench-Mullen (1880-1944) and Delia Larkin (1878-1949), were activists in trade union or labour movements. Others come from the artistic, literary and academic world, while Margaret Gaj (1919-2011) ran a celebrated restaurant in Lower Baggot Street which the former Taoiseach Garret FiztGerald famously described as “the place everyone was either going to or coming from”.
While Limerick and Dublin have paid homage to unsung women, another recognition of the feminine role is celebrated in sisterhood, highlighting their lives and achievements. Sisters: Nine Families of Irish Sisters who Made a Difference (Royal Irish Academy, €25) edited by Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd, considers the diversity of roles that the women held, whether artists and philanthropists or suffragists and revolutionaries.
There is a considerable amount to unravel, including family rivalries and tensions between siblings. The Yeats sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, as well as Constance and Eva Gore-Booth, and Anna and Fanny Parnell may be better known than some of the others who have not enjoyed such a high profile. The book covers a 300-year period from the 1600s to the 1900s, tracing a chronological framework.
The Sheehy sisters, Hanna, Margaret, Mary and Kathleen, came from a redoubtable lineage but all had different personalities. Three of the four sisters attended university, although they were a tiny minority since in 1911 there were still only 280 women students in Ireland, compared with over 3,000 men. Hanna married Frank Skeffington in 1903, uniting their surnames to signify their commitment to equality within their marriage. He was shot dead during the Easter Rising, while Mary’s husband, Tom Kettle, was killed at the Somme. Hanna and Mary both went on to make a formidable combination in the feminist campaign against the 1937 Constitution.
Globe-trotting Miss Grimshaw
The South Sea adventures of another Irishwoman with a rebellious, independent streak, Beatrice Ethel Grimshaw, is explored in Shadowing Miss Grimshaw: From Ireland to the South Pacific (Cuan Beach Press, £25) by Diana Gleadhill. The book, part-biography and part-travel, provides an engrossing account of a pioneering woman who was a cyclist, journalist and author and became a lone traveller in the Oceanic world. Grimshaw, who was born near Belfast and later worked in Dublin, moved to live in Papua New Guinea and was the first white woman to venture into the interior along the Sepik and Fly rivers.
She went on to write six travel books and more than 40 novels, two of which were made into films. Grimshaw was known as “Queen of the South Seas”, and in her day became one of the best-selling women writers in the world. Her work appeared in major magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic. In an exhilarating journey, Gleadhill has gone in her footsteps and weaves in her own story of her quest for the author by travelling from Belfast to France, via Dublin the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, where Grimshaw died in 1953.