Looking back at the life of Micheál Mac Liammóir — a truly Irish act

Looking back at the life of Micheál Mac Liammóir — a truly Irish act

Actor Micheál Mac Liammóir was born on October 25 1899.

That is quite possibly one of the few accurate facts about Mac Liammóir's life that the man himself owned up to.

The actor Simon Callow, who lived in Belfast in the early 1970s greatly admired Mac Liammóir.

He wrote:

In Belfast I met the quintessential Irishman, actor, writer and painter Micheál Mac Liammóir, extravagant, outrageous, mystical . . . . .he seemed to me distil the essence of Irishness into his being: the fantasy, the darkness, the playfulness, the otherness, without a trace of the stage Irishman. His Irishness was something else: it was somehow ancient.

But of course, as we now know, a stage Irishman was exactly what Micheál Mac Liammóir was — quite simply, he had been born Alfred Willmore in Kensal Green, London. As Simon Callow put it, many years after first meeting the actor: “Far from being Ireland’s soul incarnate, it turned out he had not a drop of Irish blood in his veins.”

Basically, Mac Liammóir turned himself into an Irishman by pure act of will. His self-Hibernisation programme began in his late teens when he fell passionately in love with Ireland, joined the Gaelic League and became a fluent Irish speaker.

Constructing a back story for himself, he moved to Ireland and embarked on a career in the theatre.

Mac Liammóir’s talents were impressive, but it was his one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar which finally brought him international renown. His interest in was of long standing, and the show, first staged in 1960, sparked a fresh interest in Wilde’s work.

Ultimately with his partner Hilton Edwards (also a Londoner) they founded the Gate Theatre. Because of financial pressures, it continually teetered on the verge of extinction.

Watch some clips of Micheál Mac Liammóir here:

On one notable occasion the bailiffs arrived to close the place down.

Hilton escaped out the back with whatever money was in the house, while Micheál descended the stairs wearing a Chinese kimono, silver eye shadow — the while making eyes at the bailiffs.

Camp would be too small a word to describe the scene. The bailiffs fled — Ireland at this time had very limited experience of the gay community. Indeed one landlady in latter years commented on the pair, “Ah, there was never anything improper about them: I never saw a single woman going up their stairs in all the years they lived there.” Indeed not.

But his lifestyle was known to some. Mac Liammóir once described coming onstage at a matinee in a rural part of Ireland hearing one woman in the audience saying to another, “A homo what, dear?”

In Ceo Meala Lá Seaca Mac Liammóir wrote, “I went to the Slade school to study painting and about this time I read an essay by a man called Yeats. Ireland And The Arts was the title of the essay and I believe it changed my life.”

This is probably fairly close to the truth except for the small point that Mac attended Willesden College and not the Slade — but then his whole life was a performance. The transformation from north London’s Alf Wilmore into the legend called Mac Liammóir is surely one of the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century.