By Clare McAfee
I was a day girl at the Convent Grammar School in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, during the 1960s. The school was originally exclusively for girls and attracted boarders from all over the world at that time.
I was in Form 1 in 1963, when a nun made an announcement in class about a forthcoming attraction at the college. Mícheál Mac Liammóir was soon going to give a performance of his ‘One Man Show’ in the school hall. We were each to bring half a crown (worth thirty pennies of old money) to pay for the privilege of attending this event.
She pronounced the name, Mícheál Mac Liammóir, with precision and relish conveying the impression that a visit from this person was a great honour for us all. In hindsight, I admit it was a huge coup for the school but I was very ill-informed in those days. As far as I was concerned it might as well have been the ‘Man in the Moon’ she was discussing, except that I had actually heard of the ‘Man in the Moon’.
When I think back to those far off days, they seem to belong to a different planet. The ‘One Man Show’ seemed like an alien concept in the rarefied atmosphere of that cloistered world of females. The teaching personnel then, was chiefly composed of nuns and a few unmarried ladies who weren’t nuns.
As the date of the visit approached, I found myself speculating about the nature of the performance. I had seen one man shows before. When I attended the local primary school, ‘Fernie the Funny Man’ arrived annually on a battered old motor-cycle to entertain the children. His act mainly consisted of clowning around, telling jokes, doing some conjuring tricks and constructing animals out of balloons. I had an idea that Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s theatrical piece would be classier than that.
The primary school nuns had barely tolerated Fernie’s banter and the grammar school sisters prized culture and style even more highly than they did. Besides that, it had only cost sixpence to see Fernie’s show. I made sure to have my half-crown with me on the day of the production but I was concerned when nobody collected the money.
Even when we were entering the hall there was no one at the door to receive the admission fee. In retrospect the famous man probably waived his fee and decided to do his act free gratis for the edification of the pupils.
I wish someone had prepared me for Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s show. It was ‘The Importance of Being Oscar,’ devoted to the career and wit of Oscar Wilde. All I knew about that author then was that my father had a paperback copy of his play ‘Salomé’, in the bookcase at home. Of course, I had not read that or any other of Wilde’s works and my lack of knowledge meant I didn’t comprehend the material of the ‘One Man Show’.
To tell the truth, I sat cringing with embarrassment for a great deal of the duration, appalled by such spectacles as Mícheál Mac Liammóir on stage portraying Lady Bracknell, wearing a bonnet and speaking in a female high pitched voice exclaiming repeatedly “A handbag!” The older girls laughed at this but I only understood the joke much later when the school staged a production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’
When the ‘One Man Show’ was over we lined up on the veranda corridor to view Mícheál Mac Liammóir walking by. He seemed aloof and theatrical, clad in an elegant suit, staring straight ahead and still wearing his stage make-up. He was escorted by big blonde buxom senior boarders with smug, confident smiles on their faces.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that the half-crown admission fee was still in my pocket and I thought I should present it to the great man himself. Praise the Lord for the shyness which so plagued my formative years and prevented me from acting on my impulse on that occasion. Mícheál Mac Liammóir might have thought it quaint and amusing if an insignificant schoolgirl had pressed a silver coin into his hand as payment for his dramatic accomplishments. However, I now realise the nuns would not have seen the humour!
I regret that at twelve years of age I was too unenlightened to appreciate Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s performance. I have since discovered that he was an accomplished actor, dramatist, impressario, writer, poet and painter and that he was almost blind when he was touring the world with ‘The Importance of Being Oscar.’
As a stage prop, he had a carpet specially woven on which a strong pattern provided him with his cues to his stage movements, preventing him from walking off the stage. In spite of this difficulty, people universally described his performance as ‘magical.’ Oscar Wilde once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I would add that sophisticated ‘One Man Shows’ are wasted on them to too!