Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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‘It’s not quiet enough for fairies here’, confided Aideen O’Connor, her innocent blue eyes flashing across the table. ‘There are no bogs and fairies have to have bogs’. The New York journalist who was interviewing her exhaled deeply.

‘This big town doesn’t know much about Aideen’, he wrote afterwards, ‘but she is the prettiest and youngest member of the Abbey Players, and the darling of the troupe’.

It was December 1934 and the 21-year-old Dubliner had just won over Broadway with nine consecutive performances in nine different plays staged by the Abbey Theatre Company in New York.

Over the next eight months, Aideen and her fellow Irish thespians would bring their dramatic repertoire on a coast-to-coast tour of the USA. Aideen O’Connor was fast emerging as one of the hottest stage actresses of her day.

Backstage, things were also hotting up as Aideen was in the midst of a passionate affair with the tour manager, Arthur ‘Boss’ Shields, one of the greatest Irish actors of the 1930s and a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising. While the couple would eventually enjoy six years of married life together, Aideen’s life ended with her tragic demise in Los Angeles aged 36 in 1950.

Aideen O’Connor began her life as ‘Una Mary O’Connor’. She was born at 53 Hollybank Road, Ranelagh, Dublin, on 6th September 1913. Her father, Vincent de Paul O'Connor, worked in Dublin’s Docklands and would go on to become Superintendent of the Mercantile Marine Office. Her mother Flora Maria O’Connor (nee Crowley) came from Cork City. Aideen was their eldest child.

Her thirst for the theatrical life was ignited when she began producing Shakespeare plays at her convent school in Ranelagh. In 1932, she joined the Abbey Players. However, the company were already celebrating the success of another Abbey actress by name of Una O’Connor who was then winning widespread acclaim across America for her role as the publican's wife in the film, ‘The Invisible Man’. This other ‘Una’ would go on to become one of the great Hollywood actresses of the mid-20th century, a favourite of Noel Coward and Billy Wilder, perhaps best known for her role in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’.[i]

And so ‘Una Mary’ became ‘Aideen O’Connor’ and it was under that name that she performed in 1933 as Mollser in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough & the Stars’ and as Mary Boyle in O’Casey’s ‘Juno & the Paycock’.

The Abbey’s love affair with Sean O’Casey had been ongoing since 1923. While at school, Aideen would have heard of the extraordinary riot that took place at the Abbey at the premiere of ‘The Plough & the Stars’ in 1927. Arthur Shields, who stage managed the show, later recalled how the cast managed to act around the missiles that flew at them for the first two acts ‘but in the third act the barrage got too heavy for us and we finally ran the curtain down’.

For an aspiring actress like Aideen, the Abbey provided a huge opportunity. It was one of the most cutting edge theatres in the world, combining a new style of drama with a minimalist method of acting that emphasized mood, expression and form as much as the actual dialogue. The reaction to ‘The Plough & the Stars’ was precisely the sort of controversy that Arthur Shields courted. ‘If there isn't some sort of dissent now and again’, he said, ‘then a thing can't be worth much'.

Arthur Shields, actor, producer and stage manager, was arguably the most influential man at the Abbey by 1933. His father was a prominent Dublin socialist intellectual called Adolphus Shields who was credited with introducing the Gas Workers Union to Ireland. Arthur's mother Fanny Ungerland was a well-to-do German who had abandoned her home in Hamburg in protest at the unequal treatment of women in the family.

The Shields had eight children and all were destined for creative careers. Arthur, their seventh child, was born on North Great George’s Street, Dublin, in 1896.

In 1913, the year his future wife Aideen was born, he began taking evening acting classes at the Abbey while working at a nearby book publishers.

His life took a dramatic turn in August 1914 when, just days before the outbreak of the First World War, he was embroiled in the so-called Bachelor’s Walk Massacre. A Scottish regiment who were attempting to retrieve illegal guns from Irish nationalists lost control and opened fire on a crowd gathered close to the Abbey, killing four civilians. Arthur was among those swept up by the nationalist outrage which flooded Ireland in the wake of the shootings. He joined the Irish Volunteers and was given a rifle which he secreted under the floorboards of the Abbey.

When the Easter Rebellion erupted in Dublin two years later, Arthur cycled straight to the Abbey to get his rifle. He would later maintain that he was ‘the only Abbey player who was out in the 1916 rising’.

He reported to Liberty Hall where he was greeted by James Connolly who said, 'if you're as good a man as your father, you'll be all right.' He spent the remainder of the week in and around the G.P.O. before he and his fellow rebels surrendered to the British on Moore Street.

Shields was sent to the internment camp at Frongoch in Wales. At a subsequent enquiry, the presiding magistrate recognized him as an actor he had seen in the Abbey, ordered him released and told him to go home, stick to theatre and ‘forget about this revolutionary nonsense’.

By October 1916, Arthur was again strutting the boards of the Abbey. He was soon joined by his older brother Will, a friend of Sean O’Casey, who worked at the Department of Industry and Commerce. Acting under the name of 'Barry Fitzgerald', Will would go on to become one of the most celebrated comic actors of his generation, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1944.

The Abbey’s golden age during the 1920s and 1930s was in no small part due to the Shields brothers. However, to make ends meet, Arthur realised that they would need to bring their shows to America. In 1931, he led the first of four whistle-stop tours around the USA, with his brother Barry also on board.

The third of these rather gruelling tours began in 1934 and among those who travelled with him was his lover, Aideen O’Connor.

It is not known precisely when their love affair began. Their romance was necessarily discreet because Arthur was already married. His wife Bazie ‘Mac’ Magee came from Lisburn, Co. Down. They met in London where she was working as a chauffeur in the British Army and they married in 1920. Their only child, Adam, was born in 1929.

In November 1934, a New York journalist advised Aideen that most actresses had been ‘married and divorced a couple of times and had a fling at Hollywood by the age of 21’. Aideen gamely replied that she would like to get married someday but that she would like a six-month engagement and that her husband would certainly not be an actor. There was no mention of Arthur Shields.

It is unclear how innocent a girl she was at this time. She described her first experience of a New York nightclub as ‘so pretty that I could not sleep until there was dew on the dawn’. She likened her trip to the Empire State Building to Peter Pan ‘when he opens his nursery window and looks at the light in the distance.’ And, evidently playing up her Irishness, she told the New Yorkers how she had once gone collecting bog cotton in Connemara and spotted a leprechaun in a brown apron, bound for rainbow’s end with a pot of gold.

The Abbey’s nine month coast-to-coast tour in 1934 and 1935 was a runaway success. Back in Dublin, Shields felt confident enough to stage O’Casey’s “The Silver Tassie”, a play which WB Yeats had famously rejected seven years earlier. Most of those who saw it were inclined to agree with Yeats but, as the curtain fell, few could doubt the brilliance of the “sunny and charming” young Aideen O’Connor who, in the words of The Times reviewer, did “all that was possible with [the role of] Jessie Taite”.[ii] Others remarked on her poise, ‘her wide blue eyes’ and the way in which ‘her words come in breathless rushes’.[iii]

Aideen and Arthur were now regularly on-stage together.[iv] The sparks were particularly active when Aideen took the role of Thomasina Concannon with Arthur playing her “uncle” Canon Skerritt, PP, in Paul Vincent Carroll’s groundbreaking play, ‘Shadow and Substance’, which premiered at the Abbey in January 1937.[v] That summer, the Abbey took ‘Shadow and Substance’ across the Atlantic to Broadway where it ran for 274 performances, winning the New York Drama Critics Award for best foreign play of the year.

However, the world of theatre was now being radically challenged by the advance of the motion picture. Aideen turned down several film offers to stay with the Abbey. ‘Sure, with all those people around, I couldn’t imagine anything’. In late 1935, she confirmed her decision to ‘stick to the stage for good or evil now.'

Meanwhile, Arthur was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by Irish-American director John Ford. He and Barry were invited to California star in the big screen adaptation of ‘The Plough and the Stars’.

Aideen had once said that she had no desire to live in America. ‘The cities are so big and quick you might get run over any day’, she remarked. ‘It is like living in the movies which never seem real to me but just like a fairy world where people can live for a while’.

However, when Arthur moved to a home in Hollywood near his brother Barry, Aideen conceded defeat and went to join him. The Californian climate appealed to Arthur, particularly after a bad dose of tuberculosis.

In January 1940, the couple returned to New York to star together on Broadway for P.V. Carroll's next play ‘Kindred’. It flopped and ran for just over two weeks. The duo fared considerably better when they appeared in a version of ‘Juno & the Paycock’ two weeks later which was roundly applauded by the New York critics.

The last of Aideen’s nineteen performance on Broadway was as Nanno Deasy in ‘Tanyard Street’, which ran for 18 nights in February 1941. It seems almost certain that she retired from the Abbey in empathy with Arthur’s growing distaste for a theatre which he felt was being unduly influenced by the Catholic Church. He was particularly galled by the Abbey’s rejection of P.V. Carroll’s ‘The White Steed’, on the grounds that it was anti-clerical.[vi] ‘If you could say your prayers in Gaelic, you would have got on awfully well at the Abbey’, he later remarked. ‘I don’t have any prayers and I don’t have any Gaelic’. [vii]

Arthur and Barry were gainfully employed by Hollywood throughout the war years, mostly as supporting roles and quite often as priests.[viii] They counted John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Cagney in their inner circle. Whenever Arthur attended showbiz parties, Aideen O’Connor was at his side.

In 1943, Arthur’s wife Mac died back in Dublin, enabling Arthur and Aideen to marry at last. In 1946, their only child, Christine, was born. That same year, they were joined by Arthur’s son Adam who had been stranded in Ireland during the war years and now had his sights set on a career the United States Airforce.[ix]

Shields film career continued to boom, meaning that he was rarely at home for any great length.[x] In January 1950, he went to Bengal, India, to film ‘The River’ with director Jean Renoir (son of the artist).

While he was away, Aideen contracted what was ultimately a fatal illness. Arthur returned from India to be with his wife shortly before she passed away at their home 1535 Santa Bonita Avenue, Los Angeles, on 4th July 1950. She was just 36 years old when buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery.

Arthur survived his wife by twenty years and continued to enjoy a successful career, most notably as the wily protestant clergyman in ‘The Quiet Man’.[xi] He married, thirdly, the American journalist Laurie Bailey who later told how she 'had sensed that Arthur’s second marriage [to Aideen] had been full of love, and no question but that Christine meant the world to both of them.’

Aideen O’Connor was once perhaps the greatest actress in Ireland. Over the course of time, her legacy has vanished into the archives so that today she is frequently confused with the other ‘Una O’Connor’, the one who played alongside Herman Munster in ‘Brides of Frankenstein’.

On 16th March 2010, Ciara O’Dowd of the National University of Ireland in Galway issued a request for anyone with knowledge of Aideen O’Connor’s life story to contact her at aoconnorresearch@gmail.com


[i] This other ‘Una O’Connor’ was Belfast-born Agnes Teresa McGlade (1880-1959), a favourite of Noel Coward who advanced from the Abbey to Hollywood in the early 1930s and is best known for her comic performances as the Baron's housekeeper in 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935) and as the nearly deaf housemaid in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie's 'Witness for the Prosecution' (1957). Arthur Shields himself acted with her in 1948’s 'Fighting Father Dunne'. Una O’Connor never married and died in New York in 1959. To see her in action in 'Witness for the Prosecution', click on the image below.

[ii] The Times again praised her ‘delightful performance’ in ‘Art and Craft’ at the Embassy in Dec 1936.

[iii] The Rock Hill Herald, 20 Dec 1934,

[iv] In February 1936, they teamed up for Brinsley MacNamara’s ‘The Grand House in the City’.

[v] In April 1937, the couple again appeared together in Lennox Robinson’s ‘Killycreggs in Twilight’. Shortly after this, Aideen set off for USA for her second Abbey tour.

[vi] It opened on Broadway with Barry Fitzgerald, and ran for a modest 139 performances).

[vii] The Irish Times interview, Monday, September 28, 1964, p. 8.

[viii] While he is probably best know for films like ‘How Green Was My Valley’, ‘The Long Voyage Home’ and ‘The Quiet Man’, Barry Fitzgerald’s star-making turn came in 1944 with his Oscar-winning performance as Father Fitzgibbon along side Bing Crosbie in ‘Going My Way’ in 1944 (above). He also boasts two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for TV and one for film. Barry settled in Hollywood where he famously avoided all the high society parties but maintained an “open house” for anyone from Ireland who happened to be in the neighbourhood. He remained one of the industry’s highest paid actors for many years. Following his death in 1961, Arthur described Barry as ‘a very shy little man [who] was uncomfortable in crowds and really dreaded meeting new people, but he was not a recluse and did enjoy certain company, especially when the 'old chat' was good.'

[ix] At one such party, a film columnist remarked how alike Aideen O'Connor and Freddie Bartholomew looked and suggested they 'play in a picture as brother and sister!' When Aideen later met Bartholomew, she described him as 'an awfully sissy looking little looking boy who was just "so sweet" to everyone until I wanted to hit him.'

[x] Arthur also managed to produce and direct several plays, most notably the first production of ‘Moon for the Misbegotten’, regarded as one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, which the Detroit police shut down because of its’ ‘obscene dialogue’. Aideen, who remained in California with Christine, wrote to him, ‘all I want is to be with you - even if its in Timbuctoo.'.

[xi] In 1952, he returned to Ireland to play the wily Protestant clergyman to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s love interest in John Ford’s romantic ditty ‘The Quiet Man’, filmed in Cong, Co. Mayo. (His brother Barry was the unforgettable matchmaker in the same film).

In 1955, Arthur co-starred with Maureen O’Hara in ‘Lady Godiva of Coventry’.

By the late 1950s, Arthur Shields’ film career was on the wane and he had moved into advertising, particularly for the Swiss Italian Wine company. 'I have spent my life in the theatre’, he complained, ‘but when I go out in California I am pointed out or spoken to as “The Man in the Wine ad" on television.'

After his brother Barry's death in 1962, Arthur and Laurie Shields moved to Santa Barbara, California. When the 'New' Abbey Theatre opened in Dublin in 1966, his daughter Christine attended in his stead. Arthur Shields died in Santa Barbara aged 74 in 1970. His body was brought back to Ireland and he was buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery, Dublin. Christine subsequently donated the Shields family papers to The James Hardiman Library at the National University of Galway. See: http://smeagol.library.nuigalway.ie/cgi-bin/FramedList.cgi?T13

Arthur's son Adam Shields (christened Anthony John Shields) died in 1996, leaving four children, Michael (Mike), Timothy (Tim), Sarah and Jennifer.

With thanks to Megan Smolenyak, Michael Purcell, Lisa Shields and Regina Lavelle.