Providential Provenance

Librarians have a very mixed attitude to markings, underlining, or scribbling on books. In most cases it is frowned upon. In one infamous case from the 1960s, the British playwright Joe Orton served six months in gaol for defacing books from Islington Public Library.  However, in other cases, far from being viewed as vandalism, ‘markings’ are renamed as ‘annotations’ and are regarded as enhancements rather than blemishes This is especially true when the book is signed by the owner and information regarding the books owner(s) is given.

Provenance is the history of a particular copy of a book, its record of ownership, where and when it was purchased and by whom. Provenance evidence is the visible markings, stamps, inscriptions or enclosures or other additions that are added by the previous owner or owners. Provenance can change a very ordinary book to an extraordinary one – the mundane becomes the magnificent. In the following case, provenance markings give a very personal and contemporary account of a particular event only tangentially connected to the book.

The donation of a copy of The Works of Oscar Wilde to UCD library last year provides a perfect example of the magic of provenance. The book itself is a standard edition published by Collins in 1960. On opening the book though, the first flyleaf immediately introduces a very personal dimension.

The first inscription introduces the former owner, Mary Hanley, and gives the date as 24th September 1960 which is closely followed by the context.

Bought at Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street in remembrance of the most memorable experience of my life’, ‘The importance of Being Oscar at the Gaiety [Theatre].

No ambiguity or mincing of words there!

This is followed by the pièce de résistance, an inscription by the solitary star of the one man show, Micheál MacLiammóir. It reads in a flamboyant but legible script:

Dear Mary, my name can add nothing to this illustrious one [Wilde], but it is written with grateful affection – Micheál MacLiammóir

To complete the full story of that evening in September 1960, Mary has pasted in two reviews from the November 1960 performance at The Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. The Guardian’s Philip Hope Wallace is very appreciative of the performance though he takes issue with the British audience’s ‘maddening tempo-spoiling hand clapping learned from TV’. Jeremy Brooks in The New Statesman proclaims MacLiammóir’s recitation of the Ballad of Reading Gaol as his ‘greatest triumph in a performance which is in all respects quite remarkable’ No faint praise here either. A further annotation gives the page numbers in the book of those pieces of Wilde’s work that MacLiammóir chose to perform.

MacLiammóir, Micheál (Alfred Lee Willmore) (1899–1978), actor, stage and costume designer, and author, was born 25 October 1899 at 150 Purves Road, Willesden, London, only son and youngest of five children of Alfred Willmore, and his wife, Mary Willmore (née Lee). The families of both his parents were from London. He took the stage name of Micheál MacLiammóir while working in Ireland during World War I. He claimed in his highly fanciful autobiography, All for Hecuba (1946), that he was born in Cork and emigrated to Britain with his family at an early age; this was a fiction.

He entered Kilburn Polytechnic at the age of fifteen to study art. In 1915 he was admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London, where an admirer, Geoffrey Rooke-Leigh, paid for his tuition; Rooke-Leigh also introduced him to the writing of W. B. Yeats. He attended Irish language classes at the Ludgate Circus branch of the Gaelic League, and it is likely that he attended many Abbey Theatre plays during their London tours. His study of the Irish language enabled him to speak and write it fluently and he changed his English name to a fabricated Irish version.

He met Hilton Edwards on Anew McMaster’s tour of Ireland in 1927. They became lifelong companions. With Edwards he founded Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1928. During their first season, they presented seven plays, including Wilde’s ’Salomé’.

At the same time MacLiammóir worked as a producer and designer for the Irish-language theatre, Taibhdhearc na Gallaimhe, He wrote and directed the first production for the Taibhdhearc stage, ‘Diarmuid agus Gráinne’ in 1928.

In 1960 he appeared at the Gaiety Theatre in his solo show on the life of Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’, which he wrote himself. Later performances in the West End and the United States followed.

MacLiammóir continued to perform ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’ up to 1975. The donated copy of Wilde’s complete works will forever remain as a testament to the power of MacLiammóir’s performance of Oscar Wilde’s works and its effect on one theatre goer back in September 1960.

  • This post was researched and written by Eugene Roche, Assistant Librarian, UCD Special Collections. With special thanks to Paul Wilkinson, UCD Library.


Michaél MacLiammóir from Irish Playography

Michaél MacLiammóir from Irish Dictionary of Biography (Open Access)

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