Michaél Mac Liammóir & Hilton Edwards

Partners & pioneers of Irish theatre

by
Adrian Murphy (Europeana Foundation)

Micheal Mac Liammóir was an actor and director who, along with his partner Hilton Edwards, was a pioneer of Irish theatre and a leading cultural figure in 20th century Ireland.

Born Alfred Willmore in London in 1899 into a family with no connections to Ireland, he became a child actor. He acted in plays during his teenage years, and chose to study painting at the Slade School of Art in London. He gave up these studies however, to avoid conscription and travel abroad.

In the 1920s, he travelled across Europe. He was captivated by Irish culture, learning Irish, until he was fluent speaking and writing.

In 1924, he joined a theatrical tour of Ireland with his brother-in-law Anew McMaster's company. Adopting the name Michaél Mac Liammóir, he presented himself as a descendant of Irish Roman Catholics from Cork.

In 1927, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, he was to meet Hilton Edwards, a British actor and theatre producer who would become his personal and professional partner.

Watch this archive film of both men in 1968 remembering the time they met

Both men wanted to found their own theatre. They had complementary talents: Mac Liammóir was an actor, designer and writer; Edwards was a director, actor, producer and lighting designer.

In 1928, they founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

In the first season, they presented seven plays, including Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Eugene O’Neill's The Hairy Ape and Oscar Wilde's Salomé. The Gate Theatre became known for introducing Dublin audiences to new European and American plays, as well as classic and modern Irish theatre.

Alongside developing the Gate Theatre, through the 1930s, Mac Liammóir and Edwards established themselves as major figures in the Irish cultural scene.

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By the 1950s, their careers had moved into film and cinema, alongside theatre.

In 1953, Mac Liommóir played Iago in Orson Welles' film version of Othello with Hilton Edwards playing Brabantio. In 1964, Mac Liammóir wrote and performed a one man show The Importance of Being Oscar - based on the life and work of Oscar Wilde - for the new Irish television station Telefís Éireann which had been founded at the end of 1961.

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Hilton Edwards was to take a significant role in Telefís Éireann - in 1961, he became the television station's first Head of Drama.

These are mere highlights in their long careers - Hilton Edwards directed more than 300 plays for the Gate Theatre, while Michaél Mac Liammóir published many books, painted and acted in many plays and films.

Mac Liammóir and Edwards were a couple at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Ireland. Irish society for the majority of the 20th century was conservative and Catholic. It was not until 1993 that homosexuality was decriminalised. Mac Liammóir and Edwards did not 'come out' in the way we may understand today, nor did they refer to themselves as a couple. Irish society simply did not have an understanding or the words for such things.

Recognising his status as a leading cultural impressario, in 1969 on his 70th birthday, Ireland's leading television show, the Late Late Show, broadcast an episode in tribute to Michaél Mac Liammóir. In this, Michaél speaks about Hilton Edwards as his partner and refers their 'life at home'.

See a clip from the Late Late Show tribute here

Michaél Mac Liammóir died in 1978, aged 78. Hilton Edwards died in 1982, aged 79. Both men are buried alongside each other in Saint Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, Dublin.

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