Milltown’s forgotten talent

Frank J Hugh O’Donnell wrote Ireland’s most banned play in 1919

David Burke

“An artist and a businessman: an unusual combination”

Imagine that you are looking forward to seeing a play staged by your local drama group in the parish hall. But while you are on your way there, about 40 soldiers and policemen show up and surround the hall. There will be no play put on there tonight: it has been banned.

Strange and all as it may seem, that was the scene in several Irish towns just short of a century ago, in 1919.

A banned work of literature in this country usually meant something that went too close to the bone in matters sexual, but as you have doubtless have guessed, not this time.

The play in question was The Dawn Mist, and it was written by a Milltown playwright. No, not MJ Molloy, author of The King of Friday’s Men and The Wood of the Whispering, among many others. This author was Frank J Hugh O’Donnell, once well known for many reasons, now almost forgotten in his home area.

Not only was Frank J a playwright, he was an art collector and a very successful businessman who set up a shirt factory in Dublin which lasted for many years. He was also a senator.

I first heard his name from Tom Monaghan, “the king of cashmere” when I interviewed him last year, but it was not until I met Mr Milltown, Frank Glynn, that I could begin to form a mental picture of this multi-talented man.

Frank J Hugh O’Donnell was actually born in Shop Street, Tuam in 1894, but his home place is usually given as Milltown, where his grandmother lived in Davros and where he went to primary school.

According to Frances Murphy, who did some research on him, his parents were John O’’Donnell and his wife Delia (née Carr) and their shop was probably where Vodaphone [sic] in now (formerly Gleeson’s). Frank was enrolled in Milltown NS in November 1902 aged 8, and the story is that he had not been at school before this. He spent seven years there, leaving in June 1909 aged 15.

In the 1911 Census he is a draper’s assistant in Dunmore, so it seems likely he went straight from primary school to work, common at the time.

He also worked in Ballinasloe, where he was at one time treasurer of the St Grellan’s Football Cub, and in Galway City and Killarney before moving to Dublin in 1918.

An Academic article on him in the New Hibernia Review quotes a Senate campaign leaflet as saying he received a second level education. If so, it was a short one.

Not that he needed it, because his talents, unusually, encompassed both business and the arts, and he has been described as “de facto, a minister for the arts in the Irish Free State before such a post existed in the “new Ireland”.”

Literary success came early. His first play, the intensely nationalistic The Dawn Mist was produced in 1919 and concerned the sacrifice of a Galway family, the Egans, who lose two brothers and an uncle in the 1916 Rising.

It became popular production in 1919, and so incendiary did the British authorities deem it that it was “proclaimed” (banned) in many towns and earned the title of “Ireland’s most proclaimed play”. It would seem a good candidate for revival by the Milltown Dramatic Society in 2019, though I suspect it will have a rather old-fashioned tone for a modern audience.

Frank J (he is thus named to avoid confusion with a politician of the previous generation named Frank Hugh O’Donnell) wrote several other plays and moved in the highest artistic circles. Yeats and Lady Gregory commented on his work, as did Lennox Robinson. TC Murray, whose play Autumn Fire was a staple of the amateur circuit for decades, was a mentor.

He was an ardent promoter of Irish, and the wearing of the fáinne was at least partly influenced by his writings. He proposed an All-Ireland amateur drama competition, which later came to pass, and in 1940’s he campaigned to promote Irish industrial design and establish a Ministry for Arts and Crafts.

One of the few people who now remember him in his prime is Tom Monaghan, who bought shirts from him when he set up in business in the Grafton Arcade in 1960.

Tom told me Frank J was a tall, elegant man, very decent and fatherly. He gave Tom generous credit terms from his showrooms beside the Gaiety Theatre on South King Street.

Unfortunately when he died in November 1976 Tom was abroad on a buying trip, and was unable to attend the funeral.

Frank J left his second wife, Deirdre, and children Frank and Mary. I have been unable to find any trace of them, but if any reader has contact details, I would be delighted to hear from them with further information on this unjustly forgotten man.

Article published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday March 8th 2017

This page was added on 13/03/2017.

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