Theatre Archive Document of the Month - April 2013 - Arthur Shields and the Abbey Theatre on Tour

Arthur Shields, Abbey actor

Our theatre archive document of the month for April comes from the Arthur Shields (1896-1970) archive and the Abbey Theatre tour of North America, eighty years ago this year.

The papers of actor, director and revolutionary Arthur Shields provide a truly personal, textual and visual insight into the life, career of Arthur Shields, as he worked in theatre for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in America on the Abbey Tours of the 1930s and his later film career and that of his brother Barry Fitzgerald (William Shields, 1888-1961).

Shields was the son of Adolphus Shields, labour organizer, writer for The Freeman’s Journal, and friend of James Connolly and William O’Brien. His mother was of German ancestry, and the parents were by upbringing Protestant—in practice, the family were secular and socialist.  

Shields had three wives, two of whom acted for the Abbey Theatre: Basie McGee, who acted under the name 'Joan Sullavan,' and Una 'Aideen' O'Connor. His third wife Laurie Bailey Shields, an American journalist, was instrumental in collecting additional material for the archive after Arthur's death

The brothers Shields were close friends of Sean O’Casey, and took instrumental roles in the first productions of his ‘Dublin trilogy.’ Arthur Shields was through the 1920s and 30s, the Abbey’s chief ‘handsome lead’; his brother Barry Fitzgerald was the company’s most popular comic actor. Arthur Shields frequently directed plays for the Abbey, and more particularly for George Yeats's 'Dublin Drama Leagure'. In the 1930s, when the Abbey undertook a succession of half-year tours of North America, it was Arthur Shields who handled their management on the road.

These tours won the Abbey a fond welcome in towns and cities across the continent. Broadway producers and Hollywood directors also expressed their interest. John Ford, the great Irish American film director, met with the company in Hollywood, and decided to use some members in The Informer(1935) and all the main players in The Plough and the Stars (1936). Thereafter, Barry Fitzgerald remained in the USA as a film star. Arthur Shields was cast in subsequent movies by Ford. He also was invited to direct plays by Paul Vincent Carroll on Broadway in the late 1930s. By the end of the decade, he and his partner Aideen Shields had left the Abbey for the USA.

It is from these papers relating to the 1932-1933 tour of North America that we focus on this month and highlight the Abbey Tour which took place eighty years ago this year.


Proposed and temporary itinerary for the 1932-1933 Abbey tour of North America. Covers the period from 10 October 1932 to 10 May 1933. 2 identical copies.

Abbey Theatre on Tour 



Letter from W.B. Yeats, The Waldorf Astoria, New York addressed to Arthur Shields. Yeats writes that he was of the strong opinion 'that it would be better as far as possible to drop "Words upon the Window Pane" out of our American repertory' because Yeats felt that American audience didn't have sufficient knowledge of Swift's works. 30 October 1932.

 Letter from W.B. Yeats to Arthur Shields

An online exhibition of digitised material from the Shields Archive is available here  

The Shields archive catalogue can be accessed in full here