Lilian Roberts Finlay

Lilian Roberts Finlay, the novelist and short-story writer, was brilliant, complicated, fascinating, infuriating, mendacious and beautiful. She was also my mother. She wrote all her life although she didn’t start to publish until her 70s. I recommend her book of short stories, The Bona Fide Husband, and her first novel, Always in My Mind (after that, things went downhill). Old copies are still available through Amazon.

Old Abbey Theatre

The original Abbey Theatre , which was destroyed by fire in in 1951. The Abbey School of Acting was housed in the Peacock Theatre, an annex to the main theatre

Lilian died, aged 96, in 2011. Because her books have been out of print for a long time I was surprised when a Google search turned up a very recent reference to Always in My Mind. Intrigued, I logged on to a blog called Chasing Aideen, written by Ciara O’Dowd Conway. Ciara researches and writes (beautifully) about women in the early days of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s famous national theatre. She had been delighted to discover passages in the novel that described the narrator’s experiences as a student in the Abbey School of Acting, since the women she researches had been associated with that period (the 1930s) of the Abbey Theatre and the Abbey School as influential and pioneering actors, teachers and directors.

Riders To The Sea still

Shelagh Richards, Sarah Allgood and Ria Mooney in a 1937 film of Riders To The Sea by J M Synge

As part of the 1916 centenary celebrations the Abbey Theatre, last year, announced its 2016 year long programme. When the programme revealed how scandalously underrepresented women were as writers and directors, it created a furore. Almost overnight the WTF/Waking the Feminists movement came together to work for gender equality in Irish theatre. An exhilarating meeting in November galvanised a powerful new direction for Irish theatre women and they haven’t looked back since.

Dublin Opinion cover, 1916, De Valera, Irish women, constitution

This 1937 cover of Dublin Opinion, a satirical magazine, shows the ancient and powerful women of Ireland haunting De Valera’s dreams. While women had fought for Irish freedom and while the 1916 Declaration of Independence promised equality for all citizens, the Constitution assigned women to a ‘special role in the home’

For Ciara it was all too reminiscent of the challenges that had faced her ‘girls’ in the 30s and 40s. Was it really still going on, 80 years later? She wrote a piece on the WTF website – sorry, this is no longer available, but it helped me to understand her reaction and her decision to use her website as her own personal contribution to Waking the Feminists.

Lilian 1937

Lilian, about the time she studied at the Abbey School of Acting

Back to Lilian. When I read Ciara’s blog piece, I contacted her to say that we had some letters from my mother’s Abbey School of Acting days that might be of interest to her. Not only that, I was able to put her in touch with Ria Mooney’s niece, a friend of mine who lives in Vancouver. Ciara and Robert and I met over coffee  in Dalkey last week and yes, the letters in the old chocolate box turned out to be grist to the mill for Ciara.

Chocolate Box

She has written a couple of posts already about them, and there are more in the works. She writes in an expressive and entertaining style, so why don’t we let her take up the tale from here? I’ve put a link so you can leave Roaringwater Journal at the end of this post and head on over to Chasing Aideen

Ciara and letter

Ciara has her first read of a long letter from Ria Mooney to Lilian

But come back when you’re finished and tell me what you thought of it all. If you want to know more about Lilian, you can read obituaries here, and here.  Just don’t believe everything you read – my mother specialised in fiction, after all.

Lilian letters

The precious letters, written 80 years, now scanned and ready for study by Ciara

OK, off you go. Read this one first, and click on ‘next post’ at the end to continue (or click here).

And next week, I’ll get back to writing about West Cork…

23 thoughts

  1. Finola, this was all so interesting. Your extraordinary mother (whom I’m so pleased to have met on a couple of her visits to you in Canada), the Abbey Theatre, the letters, and Ciara’s blog–all wrapped in one, well actually three reads. Loved it all! Helena


    • Glad you liked it, Helena – I did hesitate a bit as it’s a little outside the normal parameters of our blog. It was the tie in with the WTF movement and to Irish Theatre History that persuaded me to go with it in the end.


  2. An great blog. Thank you so much.
    It is really only family who can give and take in one sentence such as: was brilliant, complicated, fascinating, infuriating, mendacious and beautiful.


  3. Fascinating Finola. Women writers always have something so interesting to say, especially in mature years and I will certainly try to obtain a copy of Always In My Mind. A similar title is All Desires Known, written by Tanya van Hasselt, though the subject matter may be a bit different. She is my sister. This is also available through but in West Cork also via Anna B’s Bookshop in Schull and in the Goleen Community Information Centre, in Goleen of course ! I would definitely encourage people to buy both books !! My sister was a sometime resident of Kilbronogue, near Schull, and her book reflects this experience nicely, in glancing ways. You know I get the feeling that these two writers would have really got on well, despite the generation gap !


  4. This is a brilliant post Finola. I remember you telling us about your mother when you came to supper and we were full of laughter then. This post has made her very real even if it might be hard to separate fact from fiction! What a great person to have as a mother. Love from us both xx


  5. Two very beautiful photos of your brilliant and complicated mother. I would like to read some of her work. And what an amazing story re letters in the chocolate box. No wonder Ciara was so thrilled, and her blog entry seems to sum up all the excitement of those early days.


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