From the Abbey Theatre to the GPO in Easter week 1916 to Quiet Man fame, Arthur Shields, the brother of Barry Fitzgerald, lived an extraordinary life.
One of the philosophical questions of life is always: If you could spend time with one person in history who would it be?
One person in my top five would be Irish actor Arthur Shields, the younger brother of Barry Fitzgerald, the first Irish-born actor to win an Oscar for Going My Way.
We’ve talked about Shields before on IrishCentral but, to me, acting only plays a small part in his wonderful biography. For Shields was not only an actor, but a soldier in defense of Ireland, and an important literary conduit between the likes of W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill.
First Actor in the Family
Arthur Shields was born on February 15, 1896 in the Portobello section of Dublin, by the Grand Canal. His father Adolphus, a Church of Ireland Protestant, was a labor leader in the printing trade. Arthur was the younger brother of William (“Will”) Shields who was born in 1888. Will Shields would affectionately be known to the world as Barry Fitzgerald. In the hierarchy of Hollywood, Fitzgerald was a star, while Shields was a great character actor. That distinction is marked on the building of their birth, #1 Walworth Road, because the plaque on the front says:
Abbey Theatre and
Oscar Winning Actor
Was Born in This House
Arthur Shields, who made over 100 motion picture and television appearances, was not credited. Character actors, the backbone of theatre and film, still get no respect. (Incidentally, today the Shields home is located right next to the Jewish Museum, making Walworth Road one of the most ecumenical streets in Catholic Dublin!)
Shields and the Easter Rising
Shields, at 20-years-of-age, was already an established actor at the Abbey Theatre by 1916. Shields, especially for an actor, was an exceptionally modest man. He didn’t like to toot his horn and we learn very little about him from himself. Even his application for a military pension in 1938 is laconic.
He admits he joined the Irish Volunteers “Roughly about nine months before Easter Week.” After being mobilized on Easter Monday “I left to go back to the Abbey Theatre to play a Matinee in case there was a Matinee, and went straight from there to the Post Office.”
He gives his various positions during Easter Week, basically staying very close to O’Connell Street at the Wireless School, Abbey Street, and the D.B.C. [Dublin Bread Company tearoom] in O’Connell Street. He was in the G.P.O. for one night and escaped with the rest of the rebels to Moore Street on Friday. He surrendered with the rest of the rebels on Saturday and spent the night on the grounds of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital (now the Garden of Remembrance) on Parnell Square.
From there he was shipped to “…Frongoch. I was in Knutsford [Prison] two months and Frongoch one month.” Frongoch was the famous “University of Revolution” in Wales that housed many famous Irish rebels, including Michael Collins. The British seeing that Shields was not in the same desperado category with the likes of Collins, released him in August 1916, one of the first G.P.O. rebels to be released.
We learn much more about Shields-the-warrior from his brother-in-law Charles Saurin’s witness statement. Saurin wrote one of the best descriptions about how it was to be in and around the G.P.O. during Easter Week. One of his first remarks is that “…Arthur Shields who had just returned home that morning from an Abbey Players’ tour in England” telling us something we didn’t know and about Shields commitment to the cause.
Saurin goes on to write about Shields: “I arrived at the Father Matthew Park before 10.30 a.m. In Thilipsburg Avenue I happened to meet Arthur Shields. He had been mobilized, too, and had duly reported, and knew with Captain Henderson’s permission he was going on into the Abbey Theatre to leave the manuscript of a play which was supposed to have its premiere there that day. I think the name was ‘The Spancelled Goat.’ This title, coupled with my appearance, could have left room for comment by a cynic of the day.
"Subsequently Shields reported direct to Commandant-General Connolly in the G.P.O. instead of linking up with us again at Fairview. He told me afterwards that Connolly said to him on that occasion: ‘I hope you will prove as good a man as your father.’ His father, a pioneer in the cause of Irish Labour, was a descendant of William Orr on his mother’s side and had an elder brother who had been a member of the Fenian Brotherhood.” It’s truly amazing that this nugget of history did not come from Arthur Shields himself.
As the G.P.O. was burning on Friday, the men escaped through the Henry Street entrance and fought their way into Moore Street under heavy fire. “I proceeded on up to the top,” wrote Saurin, “and into an over-crowded room, the two windows of which looked out into Moore Street and here, kneeling with rifle in hand, I found Arthur Shields.”
Eventually, Saurin and Shields seemed to end up in #16 Moore Street, along with five signatories of the Proclamation—Tom Clarke, Padraig Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Seán MacDiarmada and James Connolly. “Arthur Shields,” continued Saurin, “and I were now and then peering out of the window wondering could we get in a shot at the forces at the top of the street but it was a risky business because bullets were scoring along the sides of the houses and ringing off the side of the window opening.”
Saurin also mentioned the “President” of the Provisional Government, Padraig Pearse: “He was calm and self-possessed and looked long and searchingly at each of us in turn as if he was gauging the amount of resistance we had left in us. The Volunteer Officer said to him: ‘This is the place, Sir,’ and suggested that he might look out but to be careful. Pearse stood upright in the opening and looked long and coolly up the lane. He was certainly taking a chance of getting a bullet through the head. He drew back then after his survey and without a word descended the steps along with the officer. That was the last I ever saw of him.”
The rebels’ surrender, one of the most traumatic events of Easter Week, is detailed by Saurin, especially on how it affected Shields. Some of the British soldiers were harsh to the rebels, but some showed a soft heart to their fellow warriors. “A little later tea was served out to the Royal Irish Regiment,” recalled Saurin, “but it is hardly necessary to add that none was given to us. One of these soldiers, however, and perhaps, more for all I know, very decently crossed the gravel drive and handed a dixie half full of hot tea to a couple of us. Arthur Shields, Seth Russell and myself and a couple of others on the edge of the grass were grateful to him for this.”
Saurin also witnessed the famous humiliation of Tom Clarke, the brains behind the Uprising. “Two D.M.P. Superintendents,” wrote Saurin, “now appeared and circled the plot and Tom Clarke was pulled out from our midst and brought in to hospital. Plain clothes men were present at this and among them, rough and abusive to Tom Clarke, was the British officer who had led the Shropshires round us during the night. Someone said his name was Wilson. As everyone knows Tom Clarke was put through the third degree in the hospital by the ‘G’ men, but I saw him emerge as imperturbable as ever. This must have been about an hour afterwards.”
Michael Collins also witnessed the abuse of Clarke by Captain Percival Lea Wilson. In 1919 Wilson would be gunned down on Collins’ orders in Gorey, County Wexford.
Sunday the rebels would be marched through Dublin to Richmond Barracks in Innichore. The people of Dublin were not happy—especially the “Separation Women,” those getting checks because their husbands were serving in the British army—as Saurin remembers their march. “There was one such at the corner of Francis Street…was a mass of howling, shrieking women from the back streets who called us filthy names and hurled curses at us…Going up Thomas Street we could see, however, sympathy on the faces of people looking out of the dwellings over the shops.”
And Shields quickly came to the attention of the British Tommies. “The Staffords stood at ease on each side of us,” remembered Saurin, “but when Arthur Shields with a cigarette in his mouth, attempted to smoke, a sallow faced Corporal came up. and rudely told him to stop, and asked him sarcastically did he know where he was.”
Into the gymnasium in Richmond Barracks the rebels were marched and then sorted. They took one look at Shields and thought they may have another rebel poet like Pearse, MacDonagh or Plunkett on their hands.
“Arthur Shields who wore glasses,” said Saurin, “and who, consequently, in the eyes of the ‘G’ men, may have looked an intellectual and, therefore, important, was asked his name by the individual who had picked out Willie Pearse, and also where he worked. The Abbey Theatre should have been suspect as one of the birthplaces of twentieth century Irish nationalism, but this did not seem to dawn on the man and Shields was left beside me, after a final question as to whether be knew Philip Guiry, another Abbey Player.”
Shields had “lucked” out and would not be sent to Kilmainham Gaol for further interrogation. He was marched back down the quays to the North Wall for the cattle boat that would take these rebels to England. Saurin, almost poetically, remembers their evacuation from Ireland.
Read more: Easter Rising 1916
“Very soon we heard the engines starting, the ship began to shudder all over and we moved away from the quayside. The curly-haired little officer who had conducted Padraig Pearse up to the loft we were in at the back of Moore Street, called out ‘Slan agat, a Eirinn.’ After that all the prisoners. said the Rosary and when it was over were not long about tailing into a sleep of utter exhaustion from which the majority of us did not awaken until we reached Hollyhead.” I doubt that Arthur Shields, Church of Ireland, joined the others in the Rosary.
The Shields Family Collection at NUI Galway
According to the NUI Galway website, “The Shields family papers were donated to The James Hardiman Library, NUIG by Arthur Shields daughter Christine Shields.” The full contents can be viewed here.
The collection includes many photographs of Shields and Fitzgerald and other Abbey players as they toured America in the 1930s. It also includes papers which include Shields own comments on Eugene O’Neill A Moon for the Misbegotten, his publicity interview with Warner Bros., and a personal handwritten note from Sean O’Casey.
The Warner Bros. Questionnaire
One of the jewels of the Shields Collection is the Biographical Questionnaire filled out for Warner Bros. on January 28, 1945. It was for publicity purposes and would be put to good use in 1945-46 as Shields made six films at Warner’s. 1945 saw him perform in Too Young to Know with Joan Leslie, Roughly Speaking directed by the great Michael Curtiz and starring Rosalind Russell, and The Corn Is Green featuring Bette Davis. 1946 would see Shields with Error Flynn in Never Say Goodbye, and two movies with the great Warner acting team of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: The Verdict and Three Strangers.
Shields’ answers are sometimes mundane, sometimes surprising, and show a sly sense-of-humor. Asked if he had any family members in show business he simply answered, “Yes. My brother is Barry Fitzgerald, movie actor,” who had just won an Oscar. He credits Lennox Robinson, the Irish playwright, with giving him his first stage opportunity. He explains his first movie appearance in The Plough and the Stars (1936) by stating: “The Abbey Players appeared in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Plough and the Stars’ in Los Angeles. John Ford decided to make a movie of it and five members of the Co. were signed. I was one.”
When asked who is the “most interesting” person he ever met, he definitely says, “William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet.” What was his present ambition? “To see the end of the war.” His favorite actors? “Ingrid Bergman, Barry Fitzgerald, Gregory Peck, Greer Garson, Gladys Cooper.” It is interesting to note that Ingrid Bergman beat his brother out and that he recognized the talent of the young Peck. Shields had just appeared with Peck in The Key of the Kingdom, Peck’s break-out film.
He states he has never published anything, cannot play a musical instrument and can’t sing or dance. What are his pet aversions? “Singing commercials on the Radio, ‘loud’ ties, cotton socks, filling out studio biographies!”
Warner goes all-Freud on him with the question, What are your suppressed desires? Shields replies, “Oh!” He mentions several times his hobby of stamp collecting and emphatically states that to “keep fit” he does “Nothing.” He does not diet and his favorite foods are “Ham and Eggs, Steak, Squab, Rice Pudding.” He states he can cook, but doesn’t.
He likes to golf on occasion and his favorite sports to watch are “Rugby, Hurling, Tennis.” He likes to go to prize fights on occasion. Favorite books and authors? “The Bible, Shakespeare, ‘War and Peace’ by Leon Tolstoy; ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce.” He cannot drive a car and although he loves the Bible he does not attend any church. As the son of an active socialist he is interested in government problems and politics. He does not employ a secretary or have any servants. Does he save any money? “I try.” And he doesn’t have a business manager.
And finally, for good luck he has a “St. Christopher’s medal.”
It sure sounds like Hollywood did not go to Arthur Shields head!
Ireland’s Renaissance Man Directs Eugene O’Neill
One of the most interesting things in the collection is a three-page memo Shields wrote about his experience directing Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in 1947.
The first time around Misbegotten had several problems, including censorship from the Detroit police department. It would never get to New York during this production. The play itself did not premiere on Broadway until a brief run in 1957. Under the guidance of O’Neill wizard José Quintero, it would become a hit in the early 1970s starring Jason Robards Jr., Colleen Dewhurst, Ed Flanders and Tom Clancy (of the singing Clancy Brothers).
Read more: Top ten Irish movies of all time (VIDEOS)
The memo is particularly interesting because of the bluntness of the two men. They are totally honest with each other and it is very interesting how the actor/director and playwright interact together. O’Neill’s health at this point in time was in decline and Shields references it several times. I’ll let Shields take it from here:
“First meeting with O’Neill on January 21st, 1947, the day I arrived in NY to direct his play. We were left together in a small room in the Guild building after the introduction. For a time nothing was said…I’m not a good conversationalist and I definitely felt that I was being carefully appraised by a very intelligent, kindly person. His eyes were very impressive…the perfect penetrating and understanding look that one could hope to find in a father confessor.
"We talked of other things than ‘Moon’ first…his membership in the Irish Academy of Letters…the fact that I didn’t particularly like the ‘Iceman.” He made no effort to change my opinion. This talk led to the ‘Moon’ which I did and do like. The cast had already been chosen when I was engaged to direct; in fact, it wasn’t until the day following my meeting with O’N that I met [actors] James Dunn and Miss Walsh.
“I had hoped that the play might be presented as swiftly as possible, with a minimum of movement. I gather that O’N agreed with this and he promised to attend as many rehearsals as possible. I have no definite recollection of the actual things he said that first day but after we had been together for about two hours I got the impression that I would have the help of someone who was friendly. Although he never said a great deal when he talked to me or to the players, partly because speech was so difficult for him then, his words were direct, to the point and extremely simple. ‘Refreshing’ might be good word here.
“Sorry I can’t give you specific recollections of conversations with him. For one thing, talk wasn’t easy for him. The words came very slowly and perhaps I was too intent on not seeming to be aware of his difficulty. So things said by him are just vague memories…
“As he promised, he attended most of the readings and rehearsals…would sit very quiet and attentive and only on a few occasions did he stop the work to explain something. Many questions were asked him by the players and he was always lucid and kindly in his replies. It was a great help to me to have him beside me. I have a very little recollection of Mrs. O’Neill’s presence at the rehearsals. She was at some.
“As to his being upset by certain aspects of the production, I don’t think he was very happy about the choice of cast. There were certain meetings (which I did not attend) during rehearsal time at which I gathered the administration of the Guild asked him to make cuts in the script. I have the distinct recollection of Lawrence Langner wanting some drastic ones. I had been told that O’N wouldn’t tolerate any cutting so that it was a great surprise to me when during the last days of rehearsal he asked me if I though the play should be cut.
"Truthfully I was floored by the question. My 25 years at the Abbey Theatre—which was definitely a playwrights’ theatre—had taught me not to tamper with the work of an established author. It just wasn’t done. I truthfully told him that I hadn’t thought of it and hoped that no drastic alterations would be made. I think it was a day or so later that I received word from O’Neill via a note dictated to Miss Winegartner ordering slight changes…
“Don’t know how familiar you are with the circumstances of the closing of the play in Detroit. I expected the Guild to fight that kind of censorship and was surprised when word came that the police lieutenant would be allowed to dictate what could be said. Got the impression that when O’N was contacted by phone by the Guild that he was so fed up that he told them to do what they liked. The whole episode was so distasteful that the following morning I left Detroit for the coast.
“As you can gather I saw a great deal of O’Neill during the rehearsals and sometimes he would join me in a café while I had lunch. After the last rehearsal in NY we parted on very friendly terms. He talked to me of several plays he already had written—one of them, ‘A Touch of the Poet’ he partly described to me and I was to get the opportunity to read it when ‘Moon’ came to NY. That was the last time I saw him but on the opening night in Columbus he sent me the following wire: ‘Good luck tonight and again my deepest appreciation and friendship…E. O’Neill’ ”
A Personal Note from Sean O’Casey
The friendship of the Shields Brothers and Sean O’Casey goes back to the 1920s. In fact, at one time, O’Casey and Barry Fitzgerald were roommates. As their friendship grew O’Casey even wrote parts for Fitzgerald in his plays, such as Fluther Good in The Plough and the Stars. With the original production of Plough in Dublin in 1926, the Shields brothers sided with O’Casey against the Catholic actors of the Abbey and its director, W.B. Yeats.
The controversy arose because of several characteristics that portrayed the Catholic inhabitants during Easter Week as less than the patriotic and pious bunch that the Church and Free State government wanted the world to see them as. The usual opening night riot broke out, but the Shields brothers and O’Casey stood their ground.
O’Casey’s note to Shields, dated May 19, 1936, begins “My Dear Boss.” O’Casey was utilizing Shields nickname from the Abbey. He was called “boss” because he was actor, director, and even business manager when the players made their almost annual trek to the United States to keep the poorly funded national theatre afloat financially.
The letter shows O’Casey’s strong admiration for American director John Ford, who was about to shoot The Plough and the Stars in Hollywood. And although he is not credited as a screenwriter for the movie, O’Casey seems to be sending Ford additional dialogue for the movie version.
O’Casey begins: “I don’t think you’ve much to worry about the film. G. Jean Nathan tells me Ford & Sisk are two masterpieces at film production, & that ‘The Informer’ was a great bit of work. So don’t fret. I, of course, know of the selection of [actors] E. [Eileen] Crowe and F.J. [McCormick] & Will [Barry Fitzgerald] and yourself for work on the film. [Shields would play Patrick Pearse.] I don’t know myself what E. Crowe or F.J. are to do. Probably F.J. will play Clitheroe [he actually played Brennan]—I’m not sure. Anyhow, we can leave this to Ford. I am at present working on some changes to dialogue, I have suggested a few additions…Besides, Ford knows a great deal about the B. [Black] & Tans & the blessings they brought to Ireland. He was over in Ireland then, & he is a Galwayman. So don’t worry. If you pass through London, give me a ring. Will you give my congratulations to Major Saurin in his recent promotion [in the Irish army]? I’m glad that intelligence and cultured fellows like this are being recognized as important to gains to Ireland…”
The Legacy of Arthur Shields
Just think of the people Arthur Shields knew, both politically, intellectually, and on the stage. You can start at the G.P.O. in 1916. Look around. There’s Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, Plunkett, and MacDiarmada. Over in that corner is Michael Collins, whom he would join in Frongoch for a month.
From there he went to the Abbey Theatre where the director was W.B. Yeats. Lady Gregory was standing right next to Yeats. Sean O’Casey was bringing in his new plays and causing the Abbey first elation, then angst.
On to America and John Ford. Working with the likes of Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Sydney Greenstreet, Greer Garson and the list goes-on-and-on.
And let’s not forget his literary side with old pal Sean O’Casey and ushering Eugene O’Neill great A Moon for the Misbegotten onto the stage for the first time.
As a kid I remember him on the Mickey House Club and his series on the Hardy Boys. And, of course, he was the voice of Swiss Colony Wines in their TV commercials.
He’s my hero, the great Arthur Shields.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.