Robert Owenson (1744-1812)


Life
[orig. MacOwen;] b. Tirawley, Co. Galway; son of Walter MacOwen and Sydney Bell (“Harp of the Valley”), orphaned gd.-dg. of Sir Malby Crofton of Longford Hse., Sligo, named after Sir Henry Sydney and related through his mother to Oliver Goldsmith; educated locally by Catholic and Protestant clergy; taken up by Joseph Blake, landlord of Ardfry, Co. Mayo, and returning West Indian developer; conveyed to London, stopping in Dublin to acquire the fashions of the day; saw Henry Mossop play Coriolanus at Theatre Royal, 1771;
 
trained with Dr. Arne in London; had an affair with Madame Weischel, purportedly becoming father to her dg. Elizabeth Billington (as later intimated by his dg. Sydney on the basis of resemblance) and leading to his dismissal by Blake; made his London debut as Tamberlaine, under Garrick’s management, and panned by indignant critics, 1774; moved to the English provinces; eloped and m. Jane Hill (d.1791), of Shrewsbury, with whom dgs. Sydney (later Lady Morgan) and Olivia (later Lady Clarke), and a third born between them but dying young;
 
gained by Jane’s inheritance on the death of her father, a Wesleyan; returned to Ireland with Richard Daly, 1776; played at Smock Alley and Crow St. in roles such as Lucius O’Trigger (in Goldsmith’s Rivals) and Major O’Flaherty (in Cumberland’s West Indian); settled in a Drumcondra villa; led a travelling theatre in Galway at the invitation of Richard Martin; established the National Theatre Music Hall at Fishamble St., 20 Dec. 1784, there Jephson, Macklin, and O’Keeffe all played, and the Volunteer’s March was sung; called ‘a jumble of the greatest balderdash that ever insulted the stage’ in Freeman’s Journal review;
 
forced to close by restriction of theatrical licence to Daly’s Crow St. Th., 1791; unable to repay costs of rebuilding his national theatre, and resumed work as Daly’s asst.-manager; worked as manager at Kilkenny Theatre; worked in Ulster and later in Co. Sligo; he was present nearby when the French invaded Ireland at Killala, 22 May 1798; played O’Driscoll in his dg. Sydney’s opera The First Attempt (1807) and afterwards gave a farewell benefit (“Mr Owenson’s Night”), 27 May 1807, singing songs as Phelim O’Guffincarrollocraneymacfrane, and playing the part of Major O’Flaherty again; the Prince of Inishmore in The Wild Irish Girl is generally taken to be a partly modelled on him. ODNB OCIL

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Commentary
Lady Morgan, Memoirs, Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence (2nd ed. W. H. Allen 1863), Vol. I, Chap. IV - “The National Theatre Music Hall”: ‘The first performance [of the National Theatre at Fishamble St.] was to be altogether national, that is, Irish, and very Irish it was. My father wrote and spoke the porlogue in his own character as an Irish Volunteer. The audience was as national as the performance; and the pit was filled with red coats of the corps to which my father belonged; and the boxes exhibited a show of beauty and fashion, such as Ireland above all countries could produce ... / The National Theatre flourished ... when, lo! in the midst of the apparent success ... government granted an exclusivbe patent for the performance of the legitimate drama to - Mr Daly! [in 1786]’ (pp.23-24; see Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980, Vol. 1, [q.p.]).

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William Maginn (in Fraser’s Magazine): ‘Your goodly figure rises in whiteheaded, rednosed beauty before our mental optics, fresh as a daisy in the Spring. Still ring in our ears the glorious chorus of your songs - amatory, convivial, political, jocular, in all the dialects of Ireland, from the antique Milesian down to the disguised English of Connaught - nor can we take it upon us to assert that we ever heard you sing the praises of water!’ (Quoted in Mary Campbell, Mary Campbell, Lady Morgan: The Life and Times of Sydney Owenson, London: Pandora 1988, p.99.)

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Sir Jonah Barrington: ‘Mr Owenson was at that time highly celebrated in the line of Irish characters, and never did an actor exist so perfeclty calculated in my opinion, to personify that particular class of peole. Considerably above six feet in height, remarkably handsome and brave looking, vigorous and well shaped, he was not vulgrar enough to disgust, nor was he genteel enough to be out of character. In the highest class of Irish characters he looked well but did not exhibit sufficient dignity, and in the lowest his humour was scarcely quaint and original enough, but in what might be called the middle class of Paddies, no man ever combined the look and manner with such felicity as Owenson.’ (Q. source; quoted in Mary Campbell, op. cit., 1988, p.24.)

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Peter Kavanagh, Irish Theatre (1946); Robert Owenson was among those who rented Crow St. from Thomas Crawford - married to Barry’s widow - in 1782, all former members of Crawford’s company. 1784 also saw the re-opening of Fishamble St. Theatre by Robert Owenson [or MacOwen], with ‘singing of Irish songs, being master of the Irish language as also a perfect musician as to voice ... which rendered his benefits very substantial.’ The first performance was to be completely national, with The Carmelite by Jephson, an interlude from Macklin’s The Brave Irishman, and an O’Keeffe farce, The Poor Soldier. Lady Morgan’s diary gives an account of the arbitration of Owenson’s quarrel with Richard Daly, then created Master of Revels, and the compensation. A Parliament Bill authorised only one theatre. Owenson’s outfit is called the National Theatre, and PK builds upon this strongly, ‘the closing of Fishamble St. in 1786 was a serious blow at the setting up of a National drama in Ireland.’

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Smith Clarke writes on Owenson in Irish Stage in the County Towns: ‘The one figure who made a sustained effort in the playhouses of the country towns to build up an honest sentiment of Irish confraternity was Robert Owenson, an actor with the unique ability to perform in the Irish language. ... [His] Prelude, first performed at Cork in 1778 and often repeated in subsequent years, remained the sole recorded contribituion to eighteenth-century dramatic literature in the Irish language’ [p.290]

G. C. Duggan, The Stage Irishman (1937), Of Owenson, Duggan only says, he spoke Gaelic and sang Irish songs with great effect in those plays where Irish airs were introduced.

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Mary Campbell, Lady Morgan: The Life and Times of Sydney Owenson (London: Pandora 1988), quotes Lady Morgan: ‘In the course of my early life, and after years, it was a source of infinite delight to hear him narrate [...] traits and incidents of his story and of the times in which he lived mingled with relations of habits, customs and manners still existing in Ireland down to the close of the last century.’ (No source; Campbell, p.18.) Also quotes her remarks that she had sat on his knee as a child listening to ‘shanaos’ [sean nós], which she called ‘my inspiration and my theme.’ (p.18.)

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References
The Freeman’s Journal (28 May 1812) - Obituary: ‘The revival of Irish music within these last thirty years was entirely owing to his exertion, and his exquisite mode of singing his native airs both in public and in private. His conduct as a father [...] went far beyond the common line of parental duty and tenderness; his public life considered, it was unexampled.’ (Quoted in Mary Campbell, Lady Morgan, London: Pandora 1988, p.121.)

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Dictionary of National Biography: introduced to Goldsmith and Garrick c.1771; London debut at Covent Garden in 1774; opened Fishamble St. Theatre, Dublin, 1785; retired from the stage, 1798. See Peter Kavanagh, Irish Theatre (1946), for account munificent refurbishing of Fishamble St. under the management of Frederick Jones, supported by the Earl of Westmeath, in 1793-97.

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Notes
Fishamble St
.: This was the venue in which Handel’s Messiah had its premier, 13 April, 1742 [1741]. The building was refurbished by Owenson following the collapse of the floor during a political meeting in 1782, opening in 1784. In 1792 and years following, Frederick Jones had a licence for theatrical performances, under the aegis of Lord Mornington, Wellington’s cultured father (See La Tourette Stockwell, Dublin Theatre, and Gilbert, Hist. of City of Dublin). Captain Thomas Ashe (q.v.) appears to have acted as an amateur there, according to the cast lists in Gilbert.

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Lady Olivia Clarke [née Owenson], was another dg. of Robert; she was placed as a governess with the Brownrigg family by her sister in c.1807; m. Dr. Clarke, a navy physician, a diminutive but talented man with a house in Gt. George’s St. where she brought her father and their servant Molly Kane; Clarke was knighte by the viceroy having attended him for a skin complaint; Olivia wrote The Irishwoman, 5 act com. (London 1819), a ‘particularily bad’ play [Kavanagh?], performed at the Theatre Royal, Dublin.

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