Every once in a while, the day job drags me out of the 1930s, kicking and screaming. At least, I’m usually kicking and screaming. But recently, I got to meet two of my present-day theatre heroines: Catherine and Eileen Walsh. And contrary to the advice, you can meet your idols and discover they’re more wonderful than you imagine from afar.
I was so star-struck, I forgot to take a photo after the interview (part of my day job). They kindly obliged later.
Catherine is the elder; she found her way from Cork to Dublin via the National Youth Theatre and thence to training in Trinity. Eileen followed behind, but quickly caught up. Both have worked with Druid Theatre Company, as well as on stages nationally and internationally. Catherine is particularly known for her Pegeen Mike (in DruidSynge 2004) and her roles in Tom Murphy’s work. Eileen met us between shows at the Abbey Theatre, where she was appearing in The Plough and the Stars. She’s also just been giving interviews about her work with playwright Enda Walsh and Corcadorca Theatre Company.
Before the interview, I thought about doing a piece on the two Eileens that have played O’Casey’s vitriolic neighbour Bessie Burgess: Eileen Crowe and Eileen Walsh. But there’s so little gossip about Eileen Crowe… I’m also fascinated by sisters, perhaps not having any myself.
‘It’s an actor thing,’ Catherine explains at one point. ‘We do have other sisters,’ she points out, ‘but it’s different. There’s an empathy.’ They don’t share acting processes, but they offer understanding and support. With the other sisters, Catherine says, ‘there’s always the chance that they’ll say: what’s for you won’t pass you just a couple of days too soon. It’s a process, a grief you have to go through. We understand that.’
It’s an actor thing, rather than a sister thing, although the bond is clearly there. I wanted to find other sisters in theatre history to compare this with, and just when I thought there were none, I remembered the Allgoods.
Sara (b. 1879) and Molly Allgood (b. 1885) were born in Dublin to a Protestant father and Catholic mother. Both were apprenticed to trades when their father died early: Sara was working with a French polisher on the quays, restoring furniture, while Molly was supposed to be learning to be a dress-maker. (She wasn’t great, apparently.) Both spent their evenings with the Inghinidhe na hEireann, appearing on the tiny stage in the Camden Street theatre. (They had so little room to move there, they must have been very still actors.) By 1905, Sara had left political activism for full-time acting, and when the Rising was breaking out she was in Australia and New Zealand playing the lead in a touring production of Peg o’ My Heart. (I don’t know anything about that play, but the title is suggestive…)
Far from escaping trouble, she suffered more there: losing her newly-born child and husband in quick succession during a flu epidemic. She continued with the eighteen-month tour and never married again.
By all accounts, the Allgoods were more rivals than sisters: Molly changed her name early on to separate herself from Sara. As ‘Maire O’Neill’ she appeared in Synge’s early work, and the fiery, passionate woman caught the heart of the frail poet. They became engaged, despite opposition from her family, his family and management at the Abbey Theatre. She left Ireland after Synge’s death, marrying twice and turning to alcohol after the tragic death of her son.
The Allgood sisters always fought often and loudly, and by their later years they were estranged completely. It’s hard to imagine Sara offering empathy to anyone: she repeatedly fell out with actors and directors. She fought over money and film roles and conditions. Aideen O’Connor made Sara godmother of her daughter Christine in 1947, perhaps hoping some of her strength of character would guide Christine. Sadly, she died the same year as Aideen: Christine was three.
Every time I read of the Allgoods’ decline I’m struck by how they defined themselves against each other. When she died, Sara was wealthy, Oscar-nominated, living alone in her Californian home. She was unmarried, childless, almost friendless. She was a hardy soul. Molly was living in the UK, penniless, alcoholic and recording radio dramas, still grieving. If they had reached out, they could have balanced each other out. But family is complicated, and sisters are even more so.
One of the Allgoods few appearances together was in Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Juno and the Paycock from 1930. Neither could turn down the offer of Hollywood dollars. Sara played the tenement matriarch Juno, stout and aproned and stoic. Maire was the whisky-swilling blonde, Maisie Madigan. Both give a master class in the ‘Abbey acting style’ of the turn of the century. In 1938, in an adaptation for TV, Molly had her chance at Juno.
Catherine and Eileen Walsh have never worked together. It’s not a policy, but how their paths have fallen. They’ve both played Synge’s Pegeen Mike, and appeared in plays by Synge, Enda Walsh and Tom Murphy. They quote lines at each other from Murphy, not in any kind of pretentious way, but as if these plays and scenes are similar to rooms they’ve both occupied, an alternative home they share. Both have passed through frequently, albeit at different times: the dialogue is like nooks and crannies both know intimately.
‘We are very different machines,’ Catherine says, when we ask about their process. She talks about often realising that the play is much bigger than she, that there’s more for her to explore and mine. Eileen, on the other hand, sets herself to make a mark in the space. They work in such perfect balance, it’s bizarre no one has cast them together.
Pegeen was a gift she was granted, Catherine felt, just before her window to play the part expired. (She feared she was getting too old.) She was magnificent in the role: tall and hardy in appearance but with an exquisite emotional vulnerability.
Eileen recalls seeing Cillian Murphy in The Playboy of the Western World, and noting that he was bathed in white light while shadows fell across Anne-Marie Duff (as Pegeen). She vowed that wouldn’t happen to her Pegeen, and when she did play the role it was in Adigun and Doyle’s re-imagining of the play set in contemporary Dublin. She made it her own; no comparisons possible.
Both actresses are conscious of the play seeping into real life, and how to manage and deal with that. Eileen’s Twitter handle is mumstrokeactor; she juggles both roles and prioritises neither. While she’s grateful for the distraction of her children, Catherine is in awe of how she manages. It seems so vital, and so refreshing, that we can interview these women about their careers alongside raising children. Their family connections have shaped who they are, and how they raise the next generation of Walsh women.
Catherine originated the role of Breda, the Offaly wife, in O’Brien’s Eden in 2001. Breda is someone ordinary we all know: simultaneously endearing, frustrating and beautiful. Catherine broke many hearts in the role, telling the tale of her dying marriage. When the film was being cast, Eileen took on the role; Catherine was delighted for her. It’s impossible to imagine the Allgood sisters trading roles like that, passing on the success. Catherine and Eileen pass knowledge, support and DVD box sets to watch when Eileen is away from her children.
Please theatre directors, cast them together so we can see it? Otherwise, they may be tempted by the Hollywood dollars. They might be, but maybe I’m mis-judging. As I said, I’ve never understood sisters. I both admire and fear them and am happy to watch from a distance.