Forgotten star uncovered

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), News, Volume 11

In a new book, Ireland’s first ‘soul’ singer: the forgotten story of Mary Connolly, Eric Villiers has uncovered a long-lost piece of Ireland’s social and theatrical history. It’s a century-old tale brimming with the tragedies and successes in the life of an extraordinary street singer who swept to international fame in 1917. It has lain undetected in the National Library of Ireland, buried in the 25 million words that make up the famed diaries of Joseph Holloway, architect of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and critic for the Irish Playgoer.
The diarist pieced together her story using a combination of notes and clippings, tracing her life from her birth in 1892 to Dublin parents at Irish Street, Armagh, through to her ‘discovery’ 25 years later on one of Dublin’s wealthiest streets, and on down the years of her fame. By the late 1920s, however, he lost track of her as she dropped from sight, left rudderless by changes in the entertainment industry and the sudden death of her showman manager Barney Armstrong, managing director of Irish Empire Music Halls Ltd.
Nevertheless the picture Holloway paints suggests that her deep attachment to Dublin would have seen her buried with her family at Glasnevin cemetery, although the plot there cannot be traced. Her parents married in 1890 in Dublin’s St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, and Mary’s first communion was at St Joseph’s in Leigh, Lancashire, where Joseph and Margaret Connolly—both from Kelly’s Row, off Dorset Street—had gone in search of work. By 1900 Margaret (formerly Mrs Kelly and née Gorman) was dead and the family was back working in Leigh, having travelled to Dublin for the funeral at Glasnevin.
In 1908, aged sixteen and dogged by ill-health, Mary became a ‘pit brow lassie’, working outdoors sorting and cleaning coal. Three years later, doing extra shifts to save for her wedding, she collapsed with pneumonia. Just three days before Christmas 1910 she was so close to death that her father couldn’t risk telling her about a disaster at the pithead. It was Britain’s worst mining explosion, and her ‘sweetheart’, John Bradley, was among the 344 miners and pit-boys killed.
Unfit physically and mentally to return to mining, she laboured on farms around Bolton until she was forced back to Ireland by the death of her father late in 1915. After clearing the funeral expenses and unable to find work to pay for the fare back to England, she pawned everything she owned. By 1916, to put food on the table for herself and her invalid brother James, reluctant, shame-faced and in tears she went street singing. Hidden under a shawl she walked around Ireland, keeping on the move to dodge the laws that jailed beggars.
Local newspapers from Kerry to Derry record that myths, fuelled by her magical appearances and disappearances, grew up around the singer. In truth her itinerancy was mere expediency: outstaying her welcome could have put her behind bars. In May 1917, moved by her story, opera-lovers who heard her at Ailesbury Road, Ballsbridge, secured her a contract with the London-based Moss Circuit. Within days the rest of Dublin responded spectacularly, and at the Empire the singer wept as hats, caps and soldiers’ bonnets full of cheques, sovereigns, half-sovereigns and shillings were emptied at her feet. Since William Findlater, the theatre’s owner, was waiting to present her with that day’s box office takings, the spontaneous collection was a public show of affection unique in theatrical history.
A week later shipyard and linen workers who frequented Belfast’s Empire Music Hall matched Dublin’s generosity by establishing the Mary Connolly Fund to have her classically trained by Ireland’s top singing master, Dr Vincent O’Brien, whose pupils had included James Joyce and Count John McCormack. Holloway was delighted by the news from loyalist Belfast. It was confirmation that the singer’s appeal wouldn’t necessarily be confined to nationalist audiences. He feared Armstrong’s ‘stage Irish’ tendencies and the way he blocked plans to train her for opera. And so, without asking the singer, he contacted other managers on her behalf. However, Mary refused the interviews he lined up: ‘Mr Armstrong took me in my poverty and treated me like a lady; I can only repay him for his kindness by leaving myself in his hands’. Armstrong’s opposition meant that it was a year before Connolly auditioned at O’Brien’s home. The next day, angry and frustrated, O’Brien, who later became the first music director of Radio Éireann, told a music critic that it was ‘a tragedy’ she had come to him too late: her under-trained voice had been overworked by the demands of music hall.
Armstrong had good reason to retain control of Connolly. Between 1917 and 1923 she not only saved the Empire from bankruptcy but also financed several new enterprises for him, including a cinema chain and a business in Edinburgh. The showman knew that the arrival of talking films would kill music hall and was mapping out a new career. As early as 1918 he was using his newfound fortune to buy up provincial music halls for conversion to cinemas. His business partner was Walter MacNally, a young Irish-American opera singer, who was a friend of Joseph Kennedy, the American cinema mogul and opera buff.
Virtually overnight the beautiful young singer found herself associating with men more used to walking with kings. As a founder of the Variety Artists’ Federation (a.k.a. the Water Rats), Armstrong was one of the UK’s most high-profile theatrical figures, while MacNally, who spoke impeccable Italian, was a popular guest at Kennedy family gatherings, where he sang arias from his latest opera, accompanied by Rose Kennedy at the piano, while a young JFK crawled underneath.
Ever the snob, however, Holloway was surprised that MacNally would go into business with Armstrong, whom the diarist characterised as ‘big cigar in hand  . . . not even a gentleman’. About the only credit he ever gave Armstrong was as a talent scout whose open-door policy to new Irish dramatists, writers and performers had, he told the playwright Martin J. McHugh, helped the Empire to usurp the Abbey’s place as ‘the home of Irish drama’.
Armstrong’s eye for box office attractions was never more evident than when he teamed ‘sweet little Mary Connolly’ with the extraordinarily handsome MacNally, thus setting up Sunday night concerts that became something of an institution. The same partnership became the backbone of charity ‘boot concerts’, which MacNally and O’Brien organised every winter to raise cash to rid Dublin of the spectacle of the children’s ‘blue bare feet’, as Seán O’Casey put it.
While the lives of men like MacNally, O’Brien, Holloway and Armstrong are relatively well documented, no one, it seems, knows how Mary Connolly ended her days. It is hoped that the book, accompanying postcard promotion and web site (www.themaryconnollystory.com) will turn up new information: a Connolly descendant, perhaps, or even the set of engraved jewelry presented by Armagh City in 1917 to mark the overnight rise to stardom of their hometown girl.

Anyone with information about Mary Connolly or her family is asked to contact Eric Villiers, The Postcard Company Ltd, 51 Gortin Road, Omagh BT79 7HZ, tel. (from UK) 028 8224 9222, (from RoI) 048 8224 9222, or email: eric@thepostcardcompany.com.

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