When Barry Houlihan, an archivist at the National University of Ireland Galway was researching his latest project he had an incredible stroke of good luck.
Houlihan was researching actors in the Dublin theatre scene in the 1950s and was trying to find out more about The Globe Theatre Company, and an actress called Genevieve Lyons.
To his surprise Lyons’s daughter, Michele McCrillis, contacted the university to offer them a collection of her mother’s photographs and papers, says Houlihan.
“I jumped at it, I couldn’t believe the papers were falling into my lap of one of the figures I was trying to research more about,” he says. “It was a real coincidence.”
Lyons was a shining star of Dublin theatre in the 1950s, he says. She was an important figure in the Globe Theatre Company, who brought international plays to the city that locals wouldn’t have otherwise seen, says Houlihan.
“They came to see Genevieve as much as the plays,” he says. “Every press review comments front and centre about how much of a star Genevieve was and how she commanded the stage.”
The collection allowed Houlihan to create a real archive of Dublin theatre culture of the 1950s, he says, which went on to form the Genevieve Lyons Archive and Digital Collection, launched on 13 October.
Michele McCrillis says her mother, who never went to university herself, would be thrilled about the archive.
“If she knew that her work and materials would be the subject of coursework for masters students and researched by theatre scholars, she would just be delighted,” she says.
Who Was Genevieve Lyons?
“She was a really vivacious, truly loving, exciting, glamorous, person, ” says McCrillis, over Zoom from Chicago, in the US. “She was every inch the actress.”
Her storytelling ability and her acting skills made her a natural entertainer, who could be counted on at any social event, says McCrillis.
Her mother often talked about her time as an actress, she says. She would shift through old papers in a suitcase under her bed, and tell stories about her life.
Among the papers are diaries from her teenage years, says McCrillis.
When she left school her father insisted that she work in a bank even though she was terrible at maths, says McCrillis.
She did what her father said but also started auditioning for plays on the side, says McCrillis.
Her mother was the artistic person in the family and supported her and went to see her in all her plays but “I don’t think her father really approved at all,” she says.
She says it seemed like a glamorous time when “theatre was in the lifeblood of Dublin.”
“The photos are amazing,” she says. “It is like a treasure trove.”
Lyons gave up acting on stage shortly after her daughter was born, because it was very demanding in terms of time and was causing her to miss out on being a mother.
“She always said that being a mother was what she was most proud of,” says McCrillis.
McCrillis is an art historian, at the University of Illinois, in Chicago and she says that the theatre reviews, which are also available in the online archive are interesting to read.
“My mother had a real equal partnership with my father [Godfrey Quigley] she was just as much making suggestions and bringing her own creativity,” she says.
But that wasn’t always reflected in the critics’ reviews of the productions which often focus firstly on Lyons’s appearance, including what she was wearing, rather than her performance.
But her mother was a serious artist, says McCrillis. “She had no desire to be a celebrity, she always loved being an actress, and perfecting her craft.”
Later, Lyons became a primary teacher and then a novelist, writing family sagas based in Ireland, says McCrillis.
After her mother passed on, her husband who is also a historian suggested that NUIG might be interested in her mother’s papers, so she made the offer, she says.
Importance of Archives
Many of the Globe’s productions were international plays and out-of-line with Irish norms at the time, but The Ginger Man was particularly controversial, says Houlihan.
The play, The Ginger Man is an adaptation of the book by J.P. Donleavy, which follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American student at Trinity College Dublin, who is a bit of a rogue.
Sex features in the play and Lyons played the lead female role. She was proud of that performance, says McCrillis, who recalls her talking about the events that surrounded it.
“It dealt with material that Catholic Church did not think was appropriate, so the bishop basically censored it and shut it down,” says McCrillis.
That backfired and created a lot of extra publicity for the production company, she says.
Houlihan says that the 1950s in Ireland is often remembered as a sterile time artistically, because of the prevalence of censorship.
The Genevieve Lyons archive is important in that respect.
Innovative, youthful theatre companies, like The Globe and The Pike, were putting on really interesting plays, he says. “It was very independent,” he says.
There was no money in it, but they went ahead for the love of theatre.
“It was part of that beautiful fearlessness that artists have,” he says. “They just do it.”
The photos are free to view online and the papers can be viewed in person at NUIG.