I’m currently reading John Cooney’s biography of John Charles McQuaid, a figure who loomed large over every aspect of Irish life in his time. The much-feared Archbishop of Dublin intervened in everything from Association Football to issues of cinema, but one of the strangest tales in the book concerns the visit of Orson Welles to Dublin in December 1951, when placards denounced him as “Stalin’s Star” on the pavement outside the Gate Theatre.
Orson Welles was no stranger to the Gate Theatre. As previously examined on this blog, he made his professional theatrical debut there at the age of sixteen. Irish theatre legend Micheál Mac Liammóir recalled that he put on “an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience.”
By the early 1950s, Welles was an international sensation. He had directed, co-wrote, produced and performed the lead role in the critically acclaimed Citizen Kane (1941), following it up with a number of other successful pictures, including 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Despite his remarkable talents in all aspects of broadcasting, acting and performance, he was a controversial figure in the United States owing to his progressive political inclinations, enough to ensure his condemnation in the damning 1950 report Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The work has been described as the “Bible of the Blacklist” which swept 1950s Hollywood. The dossier identified Welles as a dinner sponsor for the ‘Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee’ and a contributor towards the Daily Worker newspaper, as well as a benefit patron for the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. Support for the Spanish Republic, which had been overthrown by Franco’s Fascist Junta with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, was enough to secure the inclusion of many celebrities in the list of suspected ‘Reds’.
Opposition to Welles in Dublin was organised by the Catholic Cinema and Theatre Patron’s Association, who had been distributing a pamphlet entitled ‘Red Star over Hollywood’ in Dublin. Michael O Tuathaill, the Hon. Secretary of the Association, was quoted as saying the body were interested in keeping the cinema “pure.” Throughout the 1930s, the cinema had been routinely denounced in Lenten Pastorals and religious publications as a corrupting influence, yet by the 1950s it was evidently clear the cinema was here to say. Welles was collected at the airport by Hilton Edwards of the Gate Theatre, who drove him to the theatre, and was furious at the sight of demonstrators; he told journalists that “my only consolation is that I believe this to be a manifestation of irresponsibility backed up by fanaticism and I refuse to believe it represents the opinion of the Irish race. If I might quote W. B Yeats, this crowd has disgraced itself again.” Welles recalled that the protestors were led by “some insane priest”, though he would have seen very little of them as he was rushed into the theatre.
Welles was not performing on the night, but was an audience member to Tolka Row, a play by Maura Laverty. The actors had to contend with repeated heckling from the small band of demonstrators. A crowd of the generally curious began to assemble, with newspapers reporting something in the region of a thousand people were ultimately outside the theatre. Some carried placards, with slogans including telling Welles to visit Moscow and not Dublin, and condemning him as “Stalin’s Star”. From the stage, the famous visitor denounced the crowd outside for interrupting such a fine work, to tremendous applause from the audience. Welles made his exit via a side-door of the Gate, but it was certainly not a night he would remember as fondly as his performance upon the stage of the same venue as a younger man.
Following the events, a war of words played out in the press. O Tuathaill attempted to justify the demonstration in the letters pages of The Irish Times, maintaining that Welles was a supporter of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the American contingent of the International Brigades who fought in Spain) among other bodies. Others condemned the “wholly unthinking rabble of witch-hunters”, believing the demonstration had brought shame on the city.
In the aftermath of the protests, Edwards approached Archbishop McQuaid directly to complain, though McQuaid did nothing, informing him that the Association was an adult group, “responsible for its own activities.” John Cooney argues in his biography of McQuaid that it was something of a “puzzling aspect of McQuaid’s civic record…that he did not denounce the excesses of the Maria Duce-sponsored Catholic Cinema and Theatre Patrons’ Association”. It, and organisations like it, brought little but negative press.
The great Orson Welles was destined to return to Dublin later in the 1950s, though thankfully without scenes of protest.