I recently read Anne Enright’s stunningly beautiful book, Actress, which was published in 2020. It is essentially the story of Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as written by her daughter Norah. If you have not already read it, get a copy. It is highly recommended!
Although peripheral to the story, the remarkable actor-manager Anew McMaster features in the narrative on a number of occasions. McMaster was an English actor-manager whose grand old style touring company thrilled audiences in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia over a number of decades.
McMaster is part of the folklore of Skibbereen because his was the last performance in the old Town Hall before it was burned to the ground in the early hours of Saturday 13 August 1955. The previous night, McMaster’s company had performed Oedipus, the story of the tragic hero in Greek mythology, as part of a seven-night run of shows. A few hours later, flames enveloped the hundred-year-old hall, situated with almost mathematical precision in the centre of the town, and many Skibbereen folk wept openly and unashamedly at the destruction caused.
McMaster’s was one of the better-known of the many touring theatrical companies in Ireland and Britain in early decades of the 20th century. His company would visit a town for a week and play five or six consecutive nights, with the same group of actors performing a different play each night. Mostly they played Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies.
I think McMaster’s first visit to Skibbereen was in 1929 when he played four consecutive nights in the Town Hall with the Dublin Shakespearean Festival Company.
Skibbereen was also to host McMaster on his tour of Ireland in 1951–52, when his company played six consecutive nights at the Town Hall from Tuesday 25 to Sunday 30 September 1951.
Included among the company of actors for this tour was a young actor from London, Harold Pinter. The Londoner was one of the few actors who made the successful transition from acting to writing and he became one of the world’s best-known playwrights, screenwriter, theatre directors and poets. Harold Pinter won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
McMaster’s next visit to Skibbereen was in 1955, when, owing to the fateful fire in the early hours of Saturday 13 August, he became part of the folk legend of the town.
McMaster’s tour included Clonakilty, where they played seven consecutive nights in Lowney’s Hall, from Monday 22 August. The company had lost scenery and costumes from several of their productions in the fire in Skibbereen and so had to improvise heavily for some of the Clonakilty shows.