43 – Digs, Dives and Dealing With It

Of all the random places I’ve stayed in my life (and there have been many across the globe) Newtownstewart takes the prize.

I’ve come to Omagh to give writing workshops to school groups with Fighting Words in the Cinemobile, and because of the G8 we’re staying ten miles outside of town in Newtownstewart in The Castle Hotel. There is no castle. And there is no hotel. In fact, it’s a one-room bar stinking of lager and the sweat of working-class men in scarlet football jerseys that sit at the bar around the clock. My room is upstairs, under the eaves. Boy racers speed up and down the main street outside my window most of the night and there is no TV, no Wi-Fi and (possibly most random feature of all) the shower is in the room. That is, the shower is beside the bed.

I’m blaming Barack Obama.

But when you’ve got a job to do, you can’t linger on these things. You deal with it.


It got me thinking — about the way Aideen and the girls lived, unpacking their toothbrushes from their travelling bags and shaking out the creases in the clothes every few days or weeks. They lived at the mercy of angry digs ladies who didn’t approve of the late nights they kept, some digs ladies who could cook and some who couldn’t, some who cleaned and some who didn’t.

Aideen was raised in a respectable-looking home in Ranelagh. After paying a visit there, Anne Yeats told her mother that inside, the place was filthy. She said the toilet seat in the ‘back privy’ was broken into three pieces and the “only” servant was lazy. The motherless Aideen was thrilled to get on the road with her Abbey family. The US hotels were glamorous, but there were also stints in digs in London, Belfast and Cork.

Aideen's home
Aideen’s home

Frolie Mulhern left behind the luxury and space of Ailesbury Road, and often shared a room with Aideen. I’ve decided that Aideen was meticulously tidy and clean, while Frolie routinely left chaos in her wake, but only because I find it’s human nature to go against your upbringing in such matters.

In 1936, Aideen travelled to London alone to appear in The Dominant Sex in the Embassy Theatre, Hampstead. She had been specially chosen for the part of an Irish servant by the writer Michael Egan, who liked her accent and demure beauty. I can see her in back street digs close to the theatre, stabbing a fork into the plate of burnt bacon that had been served up to her. She isn’t demure as she tries to wash herself while avoiding the spider infestation in the bathroom. Why are you complaining about the location of the shower, Ciara? You’ve got hot running water!

Shelah Richards went to Cork with the Abbey Company in December 1928 and had a miserable time. It snowed, the rooms were awful and the theatre attendances paltry. After one particularly bad day she wrote to Denis Johnston:

“Why should I live with Kitty Curling? 

Why why why why

Or Michael Scott

Why why why???

I’m furious — I hate living with people. There there there.”

On that trip, Michael Scott and Kate Curling got so fed up they tried to book into a hotel room. When a best boy asked their room number in front of a priest in the lobby, they made a hasty retreat. (They weren’t married, needless to say.)

Shelah didn’t hate living with Ria Mooney, though. In New York the following year, they moved frequently around the city, but always stayed together. Both were quick to find new lodgings when the financial situation improved, but such stints rarely lasted for long.

For all of these women, the view from the window, the softness of the pillow, the temperature of the water: nothing was constant. Except that they always arrived at the theatre at the same time, they always knew their lines and the plays always ended the same way.

The year or so that I spent “between homes” was undoubtedly the worst time of my life. Despite the warm hospitality of family and friends, I couldn’t cope at all. Friends joked that I was living in my car, but the reality is that it was my writing that kept me sane. As long as I had a few hours a day to work on my portfolio for the Writing MA, I had a few hours of shelter and comfort. My work was my refuge.

I think the same was true for Aideen. There was a familiar feel to the Abbey repertoire that gave her a stability, a place she could rely on when nothing else was certain. The Far Off Hills, a particularly popular Abbey play, demanded a full dinner set and a dining room table the cast could all sit around. For the bedroom scene, the set list included pillows, eiderdowns and posters of Ramon Navarro for over their beds. That set was the closest thing to her ‘own bedroom’ Aideen had for most of her twenties, except it was routinely taken apart and stored away for travelling.

It wasn’t until after 1944 that Arthur’s success in the movies industry bought Aideen her first home, on Sierra Bonita Avenue. Off the kitchen, they created ‘a green room’, full of books and scripts. Aideen was by then too sick to fully appreciate it. She could deal with the digs and dives when she was still working, but a home couldn’t make her happy when she had no theatre to go to.

I’ll be fine because I saw the faces of twenty-eight children light up today when they saw their own stories in print.

There are some things people simply can’t deal with.

Christine Shields on the porch of her Sierra Bonita home
Christine Shields on the porch of her Sierra Bonita home

2 comments on “43 – Digs, Dives and Dealing With It

  1. Very interested to find your site and the references to my aunt Kate (Kitty) Curling. I know very little about her and the pictures you paint of the cameraderie and daily lives of the actors on tour are real gems.

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