NUI Galway to Officially Open Siobhán McKenna Archive to the Public

Photograph of Siobhán McKenna as Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World, 1962. Photo: Siobhán McKenna Collection, James Hardiman Library Archives, NUI Galway
Nov 07 2019 Posted: 08:45 GMT

NUI Galway will officially launch the archive of Siobhán McKenna, commencing a day of celebration of the eminent career of the actress and director, including a symposium and exhibition on Friday, 15 November. President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins will attend as Guest of Honour along with members of McKenna’s family, her great friend Margaret McCurtain along with respected theatre figures, Garry Hynes and Lian Bell.

Following the deposit of her papers in NUI Galway in 2012, the James Hardiman Library will officially open the Siobhán McKenna archive to scholars and the public. Siobhán McKenna (1922-1986) was an internationally renowned actress and director. Born in Belfast, she moved early in life to Galway when her father became a lecturer and subsequently professor at University College Galway. She graduated with first-class honours from the University in 1943. Her acting career had already commenced while she was a student, including lead roles at the Taibhdhearc before joining the Abbey Theatre following her graduation.

Her subsequent international career included acclaimed performances in London, Paris and New York. She became the first Irish actor to win a Tony award in 1956. Following her return to Ireland in 1960 she took on director as well as acting roles in Ireland and internationally, directing 15 plays in the 1970s. Despite failing health from the late 1970s onwards she continued to act until the year of her death, 1986, her final role being that of Mommo in Tom Murphy’s play Bailegangaire, performed at Druid Theatre and subsequently in London and Dublin. She was a member of the Council of State between 1975 and 1986 and was also a human rights activist, campaigning against apartheid in particular.

The James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway holds the Siobhán McKenna Archive. The collection consists of 55 boxes of material in paper and audio-visuals, covering all aspects of her life and career, as well as material relating to her family and friends. Highlights include material relating to over 77 different productions she was involved in, including scripts, correspondence, photographs and press cuttings. The productions span a number of companies, and the geographical spread includes Ireland, England, Europe, the United States and Australia. Her television and film roles are also featured. There is material relating to her writing and political activism, including Northern Ireland issues and the anti-apartheid movement, along with research notes and copies of a range of talks at festivals, book launches and other events. The collection was donated to NUI Galway through the generosity of her son Donnacha O’Dea, as well as the good offices of Margaret MacCurtain, and Siobhán McKenna’s manager from the 1970s onwards, Johnny Hippisley. The catalogue of the archive is at  

The University holds a number of closely-related collections including those of Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, the Druid and Lyric Players Theatres, playwright Tom Kilroy, actor Arthur Shields and, in digital format, the Abbey and Gate Theatres. These collections reflect NUI Galway’s position as a leading centre for research and teaching in theatre and drama. The launch of the archive in the O’ Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance will be followed by a symposium titled ‘Celebrating Siobhán McKenna’. The symposium includes a panel discussion on ‘Women Theatre-makers Now!’ which will discuss the position of women theatre-makers four years after the Waking the Feminists campaign was started to advocate for equality for women theatre-makers. Panelists will include Lian Bell (Waking the Feminists), Ionia Ní Chroinín (Moonfish Theatre Company) and Dr Tanya Dean (Technical University of Dublin and co-author of the Gender Counts report). Lelia Doolan and historian Dr Margaret McCurtain will be in conversation remembering the life of Siobhán McKenna followed by an interview with Garry Hynes on her recollections of working with Siobhán, while Professor Lionel Pilkington will deliver a lecture on McKenna’s acting and activism. The symposium will draw to a close with a short performance of a devised work-in-progress piece in the Irish language inspired by McKenna’s archival materials and performed by students of the BA in Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway.

President of NUI Galway, Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, said: “Siobhán McKenna is one of Ireland’s great cultural icons. It is a huge honour for NUI Galway to hold such an extraordinary collection of her excellence and high standards. Siobhan’s archives is a significant resource now open to all of our students and staff to enjoy, and of course the wider public globally. It is especially fitting and respectful that her archives are held in our University given her close ties as a graduate of this University and that of her father who was as a teaching professor here, which led to Siobhán’s long-term association with Galway’s rich cultural heritage and her extraordinary acting career.”

Dr Ian Walsh, Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway commented: “Siobhán McKenna is an inspirational figure for students at NUI Galway not only through her extraordinary achievements as an actress of international renown but also in her political activism, commitment to the Irish language and her leadership of artistic projects. McKenna was a theatre-maker before that term had been established and it is fitting that in the symposium that celebrates the launch of this archive that we have a panel discussion on where women theatre-makers are now, four years after the Waking the Feminists campaign. The archive will no doubt lead to new exciting research on McKenna’s many achievements and it has already led to the creation of a new work in the Irish language by students of the BA in Drama, Theatre and Performance on the life and legacy of Siobhán McKenna. I am greatly looking forward to seeing this work-in-progress at the symposium.”

John Cox, University Librarian at NUI Galway, said: “The Siobhán McKenna archive is an invaluable addition to our collection of theatre archives. It will provide many insights into her eminent career and we are delighted to open it for research and teaching, helping to ensure the continuation of her lasting legacy for Irish and international theatre.”

For more information about the Siobhán McKenna Symposium contact, ian.walsh@nuigalway and for more details about the event, visit:


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