So there they are, the Abbey women, milling around the Green Room, drinking tea and sharing gossip. Let’s say the men have slipped out the backdoor of the auditorium and across to Mooney’s pub, where they share pints and shorts of whiskey. You’ve now met: Aideen, Frolie Mulhern, May Craig and Ria Mooney. Who remains in my table?
The portrait of Lady Gregory, barely five years dead, watches from above. Yet there was little sympathy from this matriarch, I imagine, who focused always on her fellow male directors and practical matters. George Yeats, when she arrived in Dublin, knew everything that was going on, behind the scenes and on the stage. I have taken to calling her ‘the Oracle’ because her letters to W.B. have answered so many of my questions, in her warm and playful manner. Yet George had impeccable manners: she never got involved in anyone else’s business. Lady Gregory’s distance from my women perhaps had less to do with her position, and more to do with her religion. How could a lady of the Protestant ascendancy identify with these Catholic girls?
For the Abbey actresses, there was no dividing line between prayers and performance. May Craig, as I’ve said, was introduced to the Abbey by her Parish Priest. The funeral notice for Frolie Mulhern shows reams and reams of clergy with her family name. Neither had considered a vocation though: Eileen Crowe spent two months as novitiate in a convent when she was twenty-four. Something changed her mind, and when she auditioned for the Abbey School, director Lennox Robinson knew within two minutes of her speech that she was destined for greatness.
You haven’t heard me mention her, have you? I wasn’t hiding her, but Eileen has always kept herself to herself. She lingers around the edge of the group, rarely giving anything away. In fact, she’s so good at keeping secrets that her long-term romance with an actor in the company was kept secret until a chilly evening in early December 1925. Then, she and her fiancée Peter Judge (F.J. McCormick) announced to the company that there’d be a wedding in the morning in Dalkey, if any of them would like to attend. Eileen was disgusted to learn that her new husband was only earning five pounds a week, while she herself was taking home ten. But despite the anomaly in earning power, they went on to have two children, who were never mentioned. Val Mulkerns has always wondered about them—for they weren’t part of Abbey life! They didn’t appear on the platform of Westland Row, when May Craig’s five were running rampant, and definitely weren’t there when the Judges were holding an open house in the Whitby Hotel apartments on Broadway, where the couple spent the Christmas of 1934. When Eileen travelled to Hollywood to appear in the film of The Plough and the Stars, who put them to bed? I’ve found no traces of this mysterious boy and girl.
So, Eileen Crowe disliked injustice and wasn’t afraid to challenge the Abbey directors about money matters. She can also keep secrets. Was she infuriated by the betrayal of Bazie Magee? Or did she believe Aideen wasn’t discreet enough?
Maureen Delany didn’t have the striking beauty that convinced Lennox Robinson after two minutes to put her on the stage. In fact, in a particularly callous moment, Fred Higgins said after visiting her in her cabin on board the Samaria, ‘She looked like Nephin sideways.’
The ‘well-rounded’, witty and genial lady came to Dublin from Kilkenny or Cork and slowly established herself as the great comic of the Abbey stage. But behind the fun was a layer of anxiety: Delany was hugely superstitious. She had strong memories of hearing the banshee announcing deaths and was always perturbed to see a new moon in a cloud. As much as she could she wore green, believing the lucky colour could keep her safe. There’s no evidence to show that her superstition was linked to Catholic faith, yet it doesn’t seem too much of a leap.
The other girls gave interviews to American journalists over tea or cocktails; Maureen Delany gave an interview to the New York Sun while doing her laundry at the Paramount Hotel. In Dublin, she lived alone with her two dogs and a cat.
That reporter called her an ‘altogether delightful spinster’ and quoted her as saying:
‘I don’t know why I haven’t married. … Heaven knows, it isn’t because I don’t want to.’
I’m of the age that I wince when I type ‘spinster’. Am I there yet? Now? How long do I have? Using the term for someone else feels like I’m awarding a life sentence, or at least making a barbed comment. But it’s confusing. There are no rules, no limits. Is there an official letter from the City Council to say you’ve to tick ‘spinster’ on the next Census form? Or can your family decide when you deserve the title?
When did these talented accomplished ladies cross the line from single professional female to spinster? Maureen was a ‘delightful spinster’ at forty-six, although her film career hadn’t yet begun and would keep her working for a few more decades. Aideen didn’t marry until she was thirty, late for her era. Frolie was also in her thirties, no doubt a ‘spinster’ according to her family at home, when she embarked on an affair with the divorcé Elbert Wickes.
So perhaps it is, as a good friend pointed out to me, that ‘Spinster’ is a state of mind. It’s somebody who wanted desperately to marry, to marry anyone, for no other reason than to avoid being alone and to lessen a financial burden. It is tinged with bitterness, regret and probably with malice. And if you’re already in that box, how do you vent your anger? Was Maureen Delany jealous of the young girls being romanced? Did she resent the ladies who were comfortable in their own (slender) skins, in their un-committed relationships? Did she decide that Aideen deserved to be punished for her unseemly behavior?
If George Yeats had been even slightly given to gossip, perhaps we’d know, but she should be the model of lady I aspire to. Then again, Ms Spinster might point out that George was married to a serial adulterer, whose immense wealth could never have been enough to pay his wife for her house-keeping, child-rearing, administration, financial management, medical secretary and general dogsbody work …