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…

Sensory Upload

Skibbereen Arts Festival

In the words of one of the organisers, Robert and I have been doing a marathon – an arts marathon. The Skibbereen Arts Festival has been running all week and we’ve taken in as many exhibitions, concerts, events and experiences as we could. Last year we missed most of this festival, as we had just arrived and were occupied with settling in. This year we wanted to remedy that.

In the bottling plant*

In the bottling plant*

And what a sensory feast it was: music, art, dance, drama and various items that defied categorisation. There was something for everyone, no matter what your age and taste. We took two days to cover the art walks. There were several pop-up galleries – empty houses converted into pro tem exhibition spaces ideal for the kind of modern installations that leave you scratching your head and worrying that you’re not sophisticated enough. The Working Artist Studios, a building run by artists for artists, had opened all their rooms for the duration of the Festival. Some of the rooms functioned as galleries, while others provided a glimpse into the working process of an emerging canvas.

In one room we discovered Caoine by a young local woman, Michelle Collins, which explored the ancient practice of keening, the Irish funerary custom of women lamenting over the dead. In a darkened room, among scented candles, we listened to the sorrowful songs and sounds of an age-old tradition. To give you an idea of a keening song, listen to Iarla O Lionaird singing the Lament of the Three Marys, with its repetition of the phrase  Óchón agus óchón ó – which can translate as alas and alas, or my grief, my grief.

At the other end of town an old bottling plant had been cleared out to become a perfect space for showing artists’ work. Several of these exhibitors had graduated from an innovative visual arts degree program offered on Sherkin Island by the Dublin Institute of Technology. We talked to Janet Murran and Donagh Carey who were enthusiastic about their experiences in the Sherkin Program – their work clearly showed mature artists seeking meaning in a variety of media. In one corner an intriguing little installation by Tess Leak featured Haiku written by Sherkin Islanders and inspired by island life. And in an adjacent building photographs, by Yvette Monahan, of Bugarach in France – where a new arcadia was supposed to begin once the world ended on December 21st, 2012. Moody and elegaic, the colour reminded me of the Agfa prints of my youth.

Robert is writing about Canon Goodman – see his post for more on the concert in his honour (and in his church) that has become a staple of this Festival. Another highlight for us was the staging of The Playboy of the Western World by J M Synge, a classic of Irish theatre: one which caused riots when first performed. This was an amateur production but it was hard to tell – the Kilmeen Drama Group had won the All-Ireland Drama finals with this production, had performed it at the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s National Theatre) and are taking it to New York next. It was superb – full of energy and humour with each line singing with poetic expression.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World

To illustrate the sheer variety of what was on offer we also attended:

Men Without Names: a poignant exploration in poetry and music of the Irish diaspora. 

Sunrise/3Epkano: a classic silent movie with soundtrack provided by the group 3Epkano. A surreal experience, different from what I was expecting but in the best way.

The Vespertine Quintet: in the beautiful setting of Lissard House, an afternoon of gentle, haunting, minimalist music from Iceland mixed with baroque.

Croi Glan Dance: I have written about this marvellous dance company before – these two dances looked at the challenges of finding our place in the world and once again brought lumps to our throats.

We couldn’t go to everything and I was sorry to miss the dancing at the crossroads and the sean-nós evening. Sean-nós is a traditional style of highly ornamented unaccompanied singing – here is Nell Ní Chróinín showing how it’s done. There were events for families, a river day, a drama day, outdoor movie screenings…But most of all I was disappointed that Starlight Serenade sold out before I could get a ticket. Moonlight kayaking on beautiful Lough Hyne with musical accompaniment. For a taste of what I missed, take a look at this, and add music. 

‘Paddling Through Stars’ on Lough Hyne

Next year! But I might have to call that one Sensory Overload.

*Sorry, I don’t know the name of this artist. Can anyone supply it?