Helena Molony and revolutionary theatre

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—I wish to congratulate History Ireland for its stellar special issue on the 1913 Lockout. The high quality of articles represents an admirable and appropriate tribute to the labour events of 1913, despite the reluctance of some in 2013 to meaningfully consider the centennial.

I wish to add a small note to Fearghal McGarry’s excellent biographical sketch of Helena Molony. When Molony succeeded Delia Larkin as general secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, she—an Abbey Theatre actor—also became the manager of the Irish Workers’ Dramatic Company, which was based in Liberty Hall and performed on Sundays when the Abbey did not. Under Molony, the amateur workers’ theatre, mostly composed of ITGWU members, enjoyed its most productive period. Her first production, which was in November 1915, was a revival of George Farquhar’s 1706 The Recruiting Officer—produced as an accompaniment to James Connolly’s anti-recruitment efforts. This was also at the time when Bernard Shaw wrote his play O’Flaherty V.C. for the Abbey, which was meant, among other things, to encourage Irish working-class men to enlist in the British military. Before the play premiered, also for November 1915, the Abbey withdrew it from rehearsals and performance. However, Molony, and fellow Abbey actor and Irish Citizen Army captain Seán Connolly, provided James Connolly with details of Shaw’s play. Arguably those details helped to shape the play James Connolly wrote for the Irish Workers’ Dramatic Company, titled Under Which Flag?, which endeavoured to encourage working-class enlistment in Irish revolution. In anticipation of the play’s performance, the large hall in Liberty Hall was adapted into a theatre space. On 19 February 1916, the Workers’ Republic ran an advertisement announcing the new space ‘to accommodate the huge crowds for which the front room is insufficient’. The ad also revealed that their theatre productions would now be accompanied by the Workers’ Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Mallin, ICA chief-of-staff. The heading for the advert read: ‘Next to the Revolution/The Greatest Event of 1916’. The Irish Workers’ Dramatic Company played an integral role, if often overlooked today, in James Connolly’s revolutionary propaganda.

On 26 March 1916, Molony staged the première of Under Which Flag?, featuring Seán Connolly in the cast. Interestingly, Seán’s sister, Kate Barrett, was also in the cast; a month later she would be in the ICA contingent with Molony under Seán’s command when they approached Dublin Castle’s gate.—Yours etc.,

NELSON O’CEALLAIGH RITSCHEL
Author of Shaw, Synge, Connolly, and socialist provocation (2012)

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