Man of Many Parts
Hedy Gibbons Lynott
The Music of The Surf
I discovered an actor, freedom fighter, intelligence officer and farmer as well as language activist and playwright
The curtain parted on Pete Galligan’s set and we were in the kitchen of the Seoighe family with Patch, his wife Bridgie, their daughter Delia and son Domhnall. A couple of hours later, the cast of Clarinbridge Drama Club took their last curtain call, and the audience emptied out into the darkness carrying strong images of life in an island community on the edge of the Atlantic. It was October 4, 2006, and The Music of The Surf had just had its world premiere. The man who wrote the play, Michael Conniffe, was from Tawin Island.
That night, for a ‘blow-in’ like me, his larger-than-life character seemed to walk the boards with the cast, a presence so strong that I had to find out more about the man. In subsequent conversations with relatives and others who remember him, in searching records and talking to archivists, I discovered an actor, freedom fighter, intelligence officer and farmer as well as language activist and playwright. His only play, written in 1972 when he was 83 years old, reveals much of the place and people that made him.
Lying off the south-easterly shores of Galway Bay, approximately 9km from Oranmore, the island measures roughly 0.5 by 1.5 km. For those who might not be familiar with it, Tawin is reached by a bridge and causeway across open terrain. The seas encroach on all sides. Shell-middens around the perimeter offer only a little protection from the ferocious winds.
The last morning I was there dark clouds piled up on the horizon. Way up in Connemara the Twelve Bens poked the sky, between me and them, racing tidal water. I thought of ‘Patch’ in Act 1 of The Music From The Surf ‘Patch’ telling us “’tis little use yer currachs would be in an island village such as this where there is always an undercurrent when the tide is on the turn.’” Pausing beside a flock of grazing sheep I turned to look back at the village: a cluster of houses sheltered by a belt of summery trees, the sky navy-blue and laden with rain.
The Irish language revival
When he was born on Tawin on 29 September, 1889 Michael was third of nine children, five boys and four girls born to Mary (neé Joyce) and Thomas Conniffe. Michael’s sister, Kathleen Smythe, youngest of the family, believed that it was his ability in speaking Irish that was instrumental in Michael’s meeting, and becoming friendly with, Eamonn De Valera and his wife Sinéad. Kathleen’s letters written in 1980 to ‘Balor’ in The Connacht Tribune capture, not just the excitement of a new Irish-speaking school in Tawin, but the excitement of a new era:
Courtesy of Micheal Conniffe
‘We were a family of nine – five lads and four girls. I was the youngest. We had an uncle in the R.I.C. stationed in Dublin, my mother’s brother, one of the Joyces from Ballyloughane. Now five lads on a small farm is too much so he took my eldest brother, John, then my sister, May, and another brother Michael, to Dublin. They were fluent Irish speakers and singers – all Irish traditional. He was a great Irish man himself … Dev’s wife, Sheila Flanagan, was a teacher in Blackrock. So was Dev. She used to walk the beat with my Uncle Tadhg, learning Irish. John, Michael and May became teachers at night for this lot. Then summer holidays came and they decided to keep it going during holiday time so our Irish school was founded. Our three came home and as we had an old school we had it repaired, done up. I think that crowd must have paid for the stuff; the lads did the work for nothing.’
In another part of her letter Mrs. Smythe describes Roger Casement as a “kindly man”. She tells of how “he came into our school every day. Of course we stood to attention and our repertory of Irish songs came to the fore.” It seems that both Casement and De Valera were frequent and welcome visitors in Tawin. Dr. Seamus O’Beirne, another native of Tawin, in the Foreword to his own play Obair recounts the challenge it was for the people of Tawin to get an Irish-speaking school there:
In 1903 the old Tawin National School was closed up for several reasons, one of which was that the people wanted the use of the school for the study of Irish. Such an extraordinary request met with opposition. The trouble finally ended with the closure of the school – a serious loss to all parties concerned. This state of things lasted for three years, and would have continued since were it not for the generous action of the Gaelic League. That body, on the initiation of Mr. Roger Casement and through the medium of An Claidheamh Soluis, collected the necessary money, with the result that the present new school was erected. That such a school in an Irish-speaking district and started under such circumstances would give Irish due recognition was only to be expected. The people wished it. Those concerned with the establishment of the school promised it.
By June 1909 an article in Sinn Féin titled ‘Sgoil Samhraidh Thamhna’ notes that “seven or eight years ago scarcely a word of Irish was spoken by the villagers, and the children were growing up absolutely ignorant of the language. Now Irish is practically the only language of the village.” Those with an interest in learning Irish travelled there during the summer. People like Mr. E. McDix, a Dublin solicitor, who wrote in an open letter to An Claidheamh Solais, in July 1909:
I have heard from Dr. O’Beirne that Tawin Summer School is chiefly for beginners, and he encourages me to go to it, which I propose to do on Friday, 6th August by 9.15 a.m. train from Broadstone … The station, Oranmore, is six miles away. Cyclists can manage this; others, like me, must have a car; this car will take 2 or 3 besides me, if they come, and for no charge on them.
It seems that Tawin and its people were important to the language revival movement. It seems too, that the Irish language revival was important to the people of Tawin.
In June 1909 a newspaper announcement that “a summer school for the teaching of Irish will be opened at the well-known village of Tamhhain on 1st July” goes on to say that, as well as Irish language classes, a drama class will be given twice weekly by two “leading players of the famous Tamhain Company”. His son, Miceál, can recall Michael’s frequent references to his performances with the Tamhain Company during that time. Like most artistes who have ‘overnight’ successes, if you dig deep enough you find that they have put in the groundwork – in spades – as did Michael Conniffe.
Another strand of the Conniffe connection with the revival of interest in Irish language and literature can be gleaned from Lady Gregory’s own records of how she collected and recorded folk-tales during her time spent talking to many of the people living in the area. She relates her conversations with ‘Mrs. Conniffe’ on two occasions. There were a number of Conniffe families, but this is an unusual spelling of the name, and Miceál Conniffe is adamant that his was the only family who used that particular spelling of their name in this area of South Galway. Parish records appear to confirm this.
Life as an Abbey Player
“the unforgettable Michael Coniffe, whose accents once heard could never be forgotten…”
There is no doubt that he had become acquainted with Eamonn De Valera before his acting career took off. It is more than likely that he had met Lady Gregory, who spent a lot of her time visiting local inhabitants and gathering folk-tales, and by then, perhaps even W.B. Yeats. But I suspect that the force of his personality alone led to Michael Conniffe’s making his first appearance on the stage of The Abbey Theatre. One can only imagine his excitement that first time on-stage as a member of The Abbey Players on 16 November, 1911. That production was a translation by Lady Gregory from the Irish of Douglas Hyde’s The Marriage. In it he played the part of the ‘Blind Fiddler’. He followed this, in January 1912, with a part in Lady Gregory’s one-act play Macdaragh’s Wife.
In later years, Michael recalled some memorable events of his acting career with Desmond Rushe for The Irish Independent, and subsequently with Robert Hogan for his book on the Abbey Theatre. It seems that on one occasion Lady Gregory’s The Workhouse Ward was being staged in Spiddal, Co Galway. Conniffe arrived to play his part only to be told the play must be performed in Irish. Although he had taken part in the play through English, he had never even seen an Irish translation of the work. But, like a true professional, he rose to the challenge, simply translating as he acted his part. If that isn’t ‘thinking on your feet’!
The Abbey Players
Irish plays being performed by The Abbey Players at the Court Theatre in London between 1910-12 included a revival of Synge’s The Playboy of The Western World, along with Lady Gregory’s Workhouse Ward and Yeats’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Among these was a performance, in London, of Yeats’s play On Baillie’s Strand when Conniffe stepped into a role at short notice. After the performance, he told how Yeats came to his dressing room to compliment him.
Inspection of the 1913 Abbey Theatre playlists reveal Conniffe’s name in the credits for seven of the thirteen plays produced between January and December of that year including The Bribe, The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Dean of St. Patrick’s, Broken Faith, The Post Office, Sovereign Love. By then a ‘regular’ member of cast, he appeared in numerous other Abbey productions during 1914. The theatre reviewer in the Freeman’s Journal had very complimentary things to say about the performances of the cast in Seamus O’Kelly’s play The Bribe, specifically mentioning Conniffe. “The Bribe was again effectively performed at The Abbey Theatre last night, Mr. Sinclair, … Mr. Kerrigan and Mr Cuniffe all filled their parts to perfection.”
Once again, Conifer got ‘honourable mention’ when Gabriel Fallon, in reviewing Robert Hogan’s book, The Abbey Theatre: The Rise of the Realists 1910-1915 reminisced on his own experiences of theatre. “I saw plays which pleased me, plays which bored me (or what was more likely) plays which I did not understand. But always players whose acting delighted me, including, of course, the unforgettable Michael Coniffe, whose accents once heard could never be forgotten…”
From December 1913 onwards Conniffe sharing billings with renowned actors such as Arthur Sinclair, Fred O’Donovan, H.E. Hutchinson, J.M. Kerrigan and Arthur Shields in productions like Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic and Lennox Robinson’s The Dreamers. In those productions Conniffe found himself on-stage with the older brother of Arthur Shields, one William Joseph Shields, later to become the famous movie actor, Barry Fitzgerald (1888-1961). But by 1915 Michael Conniffe was also sharing a dressing room – and nationalist leanings – with Sean Connolly, who later took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
The struggle for Irish freedom
He was “ordered back to Galway to take up intelligence work.”
In his 1973 interview, Desmond Rushe described Michael Conniffe as “a small-statured, ruddy-faced leprechaun of a man with straggly white hair, impish eyes and an infinite zest for life.” He went on to remark that “had Walt Disney come across him forty or fifty years ago he would have abducted him to Disneyland, and kept him there.” However, Ireland in 1915 was no Disneyland, and Michael Conniffe’s life as an Abbey Player came to an abrupt end in April 1915 with his part as a policeman in Shanwalla. It was to be his last role on that particular stage. He told how just before the 1916 Rising he “returned to Galway to take up duty in the Western Division under Liam Mellows”. And took to the national stage in a very different way.
Of his involvement in the struggles for Irish independence Conniffe told Rushe:
“‘I’d fool Our Lord’ … and he proceeded to fool the British forces in the Galway region, getting plenty of useful information from friends within the camp. He never met Michael Collins, but idolised him nonetheless. ‘Wasn’t he was responsible for the whole thing,’”
When “things became fairly normal again” Conniffe returned to Dublin with the intention of joining Arthur Sinclair’s newly-formed Irish Players, and “was to go on a world tour with them which would take in London, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada.” But it was not to be. Before the tour began he was “ordered back to Galway to take up intelligence work.” From then on his performances were incognito. It is not known what parts he played on that particular stage. Nor can it be – at least not yet.
Statements to the Bureau of Military History
Evidence, in the form of an Old IRA medal and Pension book, found by his son, Miceál, in December, 2006, attests to his involvement in the struggle for Irish freedom. A source in the Archives of the Department of Defence explains that, as Conniffe was in receipt of an IRA pension, and as he is not listed in the Statements to the Bureau of Military History made by IRA members in the 1940’s, then his role must have been a highly classified one. Michael Conniffe’s role in the struggle for Irish freedom may yet emerge as the most significant of his acting career.
“a small-statured, ruddy-faced leprechaun of a man with straggly white hair, impish eyes and an infinite zest for life.”
Eventually, he returned to Tawin, and worked for some years in a grocer’s shop in Oranmore. He never returned to the national stage, but did some voluntary work with amateurs and helped An Taibhdhearc in its early days.
At the age of sixty, in 1949, he married Kathleen Monahan from Caherdroinin, near Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. In 1956 they moved to the Meath Gaelteacht of Dunboyne, where their two sons, Miceál and Thomas, still live.
His play, although published in 1973, drifted like a message in a bottle on the tides of life for many years, until it finally reached landfall in the shape of Clarinbridge Drama Club. That play records for us and for future generations a very special way of life.
“Ex Abbey Theatre professional artiste, 1911-1919, IRA Intelligence, 1916-1921”
Michael Conniffe, who once described himself in those words, died in Dunboyne, Co. Meath on 3 March 1979 after a short illness.
His Dedication of The Music of The Surf reads:
“To my parents, who, with so many others, endured the life of the Western seaboard.”
The author wishes to thank all those who contributed information and material to this article, the original, fully- referenced, version of which is available on request.
© Hedy Gibbons Lynott, July 2009