‘The thing about my mother,’ Finola Finlay tells me with a smile, ‘is that she is a completely unreliable narrator.’
I love Lilian Roberts-Finlay from that moment. Discovering the ‘truth’ has long ago ceased to be part of this treasure hunt. Facts I will take, documents are great, but I’ve adopted Anne Bogart’s maxim that ‘The truth does not exist as one thing; rather, it is a tension between opposites.’ It’s all about how you tell the story—and Lilian understood that.
Lilian Roberts (later Finlay) trained at the Abbey School, but (despite documented protests from Ria Mooney) decided she was not an actress and set her hand to writing. She married at twenty-four, moved to Bray and it was only on reaching her seventies that publishers recognized her work and published a collection of short stories and numerous novels. Success, and swanning around Grafton Street in a cloak as a ‘lady author’, came after decades of hard work raising her family. When Lilian died in 2011, aged 96, her home was full of writing: every table, drawer, shelf packed with notebooks and pages and books. Finola says her mother lived in her head, and through her writing, and endlessly wrote her life into stories where she was always both victim and heroine.
‘When you’re an artist to your boots and you can’t work…’ Finola later says about both Lilian and Aideen, shaking her head. Both were complicated women: passionate and artistic, frustrated and difficult when they couldn’t work. And here is the proof they knew each other: a neat note from Aideen to Lilian. I believe it’s documenting payments for the classes at the Abbey School when Aideen was working as Abbey secretary. Aideen is trying to track who has paid her and who has not. She commends Lilian’s appearance in Cradle Song, which dates the letter to the spring of 1936.
Despite her stories and frustrations and complications, it’s clear from Finola how she and her nine siblings (yes, nine!) adored their mother and have come to understand the sacrifices she made for them.
Finola and her husband Robert now live in Ballydehob in Cork, after Finola spent most of her life in the wilds of north Canada and later in Vancouver. I know Ballydehob is a real place, but sometimes it’s hard to accept that it’s not an imagined village of leprechauns and cotton-wool sheep. I’m sure Lilian would have many stories. Finola could be a faery creature that emerges just as I’m daydreaming about being a student in the Abbey School in the 1930s. In reality, she’s a specialist in rock art and, with Robert, maintains a great site about their move to Cork entitled Roaring Water Journal.
After years of doing this, it’s slightly disconcerting when the interviewee is photographing you, for her own blog.
What was it like to be a student in the Abbey School of Acting in the 1930s? Lilian Roberts-Finlay has offered insight into this. Not boring stuff like what they learned, but the girlish passion and ardent devotion to each other and the stage that enraptured them. And they were girls: by my reckoning, Lilian may have been still in her teens when she started there. She was in the same class as Phyllis Ryan (later of Gemini Productions and ITI), who wrote to her letters full of drama and schoolgirl crushes. They fell out and re-made their friendship endlessly, although Ryan’s later success and theatrical career may have put paid to their friendship entirely.
Lilian’s most famous novel was a veiled autobiography entitled Always on my Mind. I say ‘veiled’ rather than ‘thinly veiled’, because nobody can tell how much truth weighs against fiction in it. At school in a convent in the suburbs of Dublin, the heroine has a physical relationship with another girl and takes acting lessons with Mr W.G. Fay of the Abbey Theatre. He encourages the heroine to audition for the School of Acting on Marlborough Street.
In M.J. Dolan’s papers at the National Library of Ireland, there’s an adjudicators’ sheet from the auditions for the school, which I’ve previously written about. The sheet contains this note:
Miss Lilian Roberts
could scarcely hear. (—) Got better as she went on.
Lilian’s inauspicious start at the School is set down for posterity. But she entered, and continued to work tirelessly. Ria Mooney coached her and saw something special in her. I’m discovering that while Ria speaks so demurely and guardedly in her own memoirs, her generosity and kindness, and her artistic principles are most clearly articulated in private correspondence to friends and students.
In 1936 Ria responded to a letter from Lilian. The young girl was humble and despondent; Phyllis Ryan and others were surpassing her in their technique. Ria demanded that she come back to class. She told her: ‘You happen to be exactly like myself!’
Ria reveals that she herself needed criticism and support as a young actress, but never received it in the right way. She talks of her own years of ‘heartbreak, discouragement and hard work’ to find her way. In terms that are clearly Stanislavskian in their origin (and echo Le Gallienne), she talks of ‘artistry’ of ‘fluidity’ and using emotion on stage. Her ‘thorny way’, as she calls it, has led her to believe that to be a true artist, one must be one’s self. She talks of her ‘home crashing’ and her penury and practical troubles; she reveals how difficult her time in New York really was. None of this is recorded elsewhere, but she explains it to a struggling young girl, determined to help her grow. All of this Lilian Roberts Finlay put carefully into a Milk Tray box and kept for decades.
Back in the 1990s, Lilian (now a widower) visited her daughter at her home in Vancouver, right on the water. Lilian, proper Irish lady, demanded that she needed her hair done, wherever she was. Finola made her an appointment at a small salon down the street. Hours later, Lilian ‘floated back up’ to her daughter with a dramatic story. But this one was true: the hairdresser was a niece of Ria Mooney, Lilian’s mentor at the Abbey School.
But that’s a jump in time. Where are we now in this story?
Lilian has auditioned successfully and joined the Abbey School, where she pays Aideen as regularly as she can and attends two evenings a week with Phyllis and another friend. But could the 1/6 be better spent elsewhere: on dresses and outings? It’s an endless struggle. They are intense friendships, full of secrets and confidences, and their lives revolve around the backstage of the Abbey. I’m going to keep the tales of their adventures, rows and first professional outings for the next post.
And Finola and Robert have left, heading back to Ballydehob (really?) and leaving me with a heap of old letters to scan and a few tears. Beautiful people. As I stroll through the milky sunshine in Dalkey, I am emotional about the fact that these complicated women left behind such kind, beautiful and artistic children, so open to the beauty of the world and its random connections.
But no doubt Lilian would tell me that’s a sentimental ending and urge me to get down to writing about the tempers and passions. Soon…