Thursday, 30 August 2012

Art O’Murnaghan – a recollection

Over the past few months I’ve been carrying out some further research about the great artist and Theosophist, Art O'Murnaghan. As readers will know from my earlier post on him, the trip has taken me down some odd paths that at times appear strange bedfellows – WB Yeats, The Society of the Inner Light, Ella Young, Irish Nationalism, Sara Allgood, Theosophy, Irish Drama, Dion Fortune and Philadelphian whiskey maker, Joseph McGarrity.

In these searches I was delighted to come across a 1946 book, All for Hecuba, by Anglo-Irish dramatist and actor, Micheál Mac Liammóir.  A photograph of the book's cover is shown below.

In his autobiography Mac Liammóir provides a captivating description of Art acting in Denis Johnston’s play The Old Lady Says No.

Art O’Murnaghan wielded the drumsticks with untiring devotion  and a rapt expression like a druid at some sacred rite. He was an elderly saint who worshipped Angus and Lu and the ancient  gods of  Ireland and who has a miraculous flair for all the known arts, from the loveliest Gaelic  illumination in the  manner of the fifth-century monks to the making of properties, the  writing of music, the research of ancient lore, the management of a stage, and the playing of  character parts – his acting  as Firs in our production of The Cherry Orchard many years later was of the rarest beauty and distinction.

Interestingly Johnston's play was originally entitled Shadowdance and sent to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for consideration. However, Willie Yeats had sent the script back to Johnston with “The Old Lady Says 'No!'” scrawled over it, so Johnston promptly re-titled it this and sent it to the Gate Theatre who loved the play. The “Old Lady” Yeats referred to was of course none other than the formidable Lady Gregory! Despite this initial decline, the play was subsequently performed in July 1929 at the Abbey, and, it was from this performance that the above description of Art is taken from.

The play is a harsh satire on the increasingly parlous state of post-independence Irish Free State society. It opens with an over-the-top pastiche of a Robert Emmett play, mocking the earlier 19th Century Irish melodramas of Dion Boucicault. The unfortunate actor playing Emmett’s role gets a knock on his head. Regaining consciousness he believes he is none other than the actual Robert Emmett. He then is taken on a journey through 1920s streets of Ireland.  The scenes played out show the sheer hypocrisy of modern politics and what many felt was an empty materialism embraced by the Irish people generally at the time. At one level there is perhaps something akin to the Wastelands in the play - no doubt Dion Fortune would have resonated with this commentary from a broader perspective.

It’s a great shame that some photographs of the cast and the production are not available. Hopefully that will change over time. Someone out there has to have something!

July 2015 Update

Readers may be interested to know that I have written a total of four blog posts about Art O'Murnaghan:-


  1. hey thats my great grandfather you're writing about.Thanks,Peter Figgis

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Hello Jason

    Good to hear from you. I will be in touch by email shortly.

    Best wishes


The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...