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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: Teresa Deevy

04 April 2015

Katie Roche by Teresa Deevy, 1936 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

This week’s Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is Katie Roche by Teresa Deevy.

‘Katie was born out of wedlock, and her mother is spoken about but never seen. Katie has been working in the convent, and one line of hers, “When you’d be working for nuns, you’d never be finished”, resonates deeply with later revelations about the hidden Ireland of Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes. A girl such as Katie, born “wild”, is a danger that must be controlled’.

Read the full article in the Irish Times here

You can read more about Teresa Deevy’s life in the Dictionary of Irish Biography

Deevy, Teresa

by Frances Clarke

Deevy, Teresa (1894–1963), playwright, was born 21 January 1894 at her parents' residence in Passage Rd, Waterford, youngest of thirteen children of Edward Deevy, a successful draper, originally from Ballycloyne, Co. Kilkenny, and Mary Deevy (née Feehan), also of Co. Kilkenny. Her father died while she was very young and she was reared primarily by her mother and seven sisters, who encouraged her to write short stories about daily events in the family home. Brought up a devout catholic, she boarded at the Ursuline convent in Waterford, where she appears to have been an exemplary student, showing a particular interest in music and sports, and contributing (1911–12) to the school magazine, St Ursula's Annual. She went on to study at UCD (1913); however, her plans for a career in teaching gave way when she began suffering from Ménière's disease and her hearing deteriorated. Left totally deaf, she subsequently moved to London (1914), where she learned lip-reading. During her five-year stay with her sister in Blackheath, she became an avid theatre-goer. Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw (qv) were particular favourites, and inspired her to write plays herself. These early plays, written under the pseudonym ‘D. V. Goode’, remain unproduced.

After her return to Ireland in 1919 she became active in the nationalist movement. An ardent admirer ofConstance Markievicz (qv), she joined the Waterford branch of Cumann na mBan, and (despite the opposition of her family) visited republican prisoners in Waterford jail. She also continued to write, becoming a contributor toGreen and Gold, a magazine published at the Waterford News office. By 1925 she had begun submitting plays to the Abbey Theatre. Though these early efforts proved unsuccessful, they attracted the attention of Lennox Robinson (qv), who encouraged her to keep writing. Her persistence bore fruit in 1930 when Robinson secured acceptance for her three-act play ‘The reapers’. First produced under his direction on 18 March 1930, it received a positive response from influential Dublin theatre critics such as Andrew E. Malone and A. J. ‘Con’ Leventhal(qv), and, most significantly, paved the way for Abbey productions of ‘A disciple’ (August 1931), ‘Temporal powers’ (September 1932) (for which she shared the Abbey's prize for new playwrights with Paul Vincent Carroll(qv) and his ‘Things that are Caesar's’), ‘The king of Spain's daughter’ (April 1935), and ‘The wild goose’ (November 1936). Robinson remained an avid supporter of her work, as was Frank O'Connor (qv), who recalledW. B. Yeats (qv) ‘grumbling to me against the charming plays of Teresa Deevy and muttering that “she wouldn't let us rewrite them for her”’ (O'Connor, Backward look, 177).

Her best-known play, ‘Katie Roche’, had its première at the Abbey on 16 March 1936, and, after several revivals, was performed during the Abbey's tour of London, Cambridge, and the USA (1938). It was also included in that year's Abbey festival of plays along with works by long-established playwrights such as O'Casey (qv) and Shaw. Despite the theatre's evident enthusiasm for her work, the appointment of Ernest Blythe (qv) as managing director (1941) effectively ended her association with the Abbey. His rejection of ‘Wife to James Whelan’ in 1942 was a severe disappointment to her, and in the period that followed she saw her work sidelined to one production of ‘Light falling’ in the Abbey's experimental theatre (1948), then under the directorship of Ria Mooney(qv). It was not until 1956 that ‘Wife to James Whelan’ was staged in Dublin by Madame Barnard Cogley in the Studio Theatre Club, Upper Mount St. Despite these setbacks she subsequently found an audience for her work on radio, and later television. Several of her earlier pieces, adapted for radio, and later plays written specifically for radio, were broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland (from 1936) and Radio Éireann; her play ‘Within a marble city’ was awarded first prize in the Radio Éireann drama competition (1948). BBC television broadcast both ‘The king of Spain's daughter’ and ‘In search of valour’ in 1939.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she lived with her sister Nell in a flat in Waterloo Rd, Dublin, where they regularly entertained a wide circle of friends that included Mooney, Robinson, Jack B. Yeats (qv), Patrick Hennessy (qv), and David Marcus and Terence Smith, founders of the journal Irish Writing, whom she first introduced to one another. Despite her handicap she enjoyed a full life, travelling to Belfast to supervise production of her plays, and extensively (and often alone) to continental Europe. Over the years she wrote reviews, articles, short stories for (among others) the Dublin Magazine, Theatre Arts Monthly, The Bell, and Irish Writing. She also turned her hand to writing a ballet entitled ‘Possession’, based on the story of the Táin, which was never produced, and collaborated with Patricia Lynch (qv) and Helen Staunton on their book for children,Lisheen at the Valley Farm and other stories (1945). A central preoccupation in much of Deevy's drama is the condition of high-spirited, imaginative young women in rural Ireland, who are forced to reject romantic aspirations in the face of an unglamorous, unchanging reality. Critics have consistently admired her ability to capture the nuances of speech to great effect. Elected to the Irish Academy of Letters in 1954, she enjoyed renewed interest in her work after John Jordan (qv) published a study of her plays in the University Review in 1956. Having always maintained close contact with Waterford, she returned there permanently after the death of Nell, on whom she was very reliant as a lip-reading interpreter. Thereafter she lived in the family home with her sister Frances, who was also deaf. Though cut off from her old Dublin social circle, she continued her involvement in drama through her connections with local theatre groups and friendship with local playwright James Cheasty. In later years she suffered increasingly from vertigo, which made it almost impossible for her to leave her home. Admitted to Maypark Nursing Home, Waterford, she died there 19 January 1963.

NLI, MS 35072; J. D. Riley, ‘On Teresa Deevy's plays’, Irish Writing, xxxii (1955), 30–36; John Jordan, ‘Teresa Deevy: an introduction’ University Review, i, no. 8 (spring 1956), 13–26; Frank O'Connor, The backward look(1967); Robert Hogan, After the Irish renaissance (1968); Sean Dunne, ‘Teresa Deevy’, Journal of Irish Literature, xiv, no. 2 (May 1985), 3–17; Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The feminist companion to literature in English (1990); Irish University Review, xxv, no. 1 (spring/summer 1995)

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