Siobhán McKenna

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Siobhán McKenna
McKenna in 1959
Siobhán Giollamhuire Nic Cionnaith

(1922-05-24)24 May 1922
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died16 November 1986(1986-11-16) (aged 64)
Dublin, Ireland
Years active1940–1985
(m. 1946; died 1978)

Siobhán McKenna[1] (Irish: [ˈʃʊwaːn̪ˠ]; 24 May 1922 – 16 November 1986) was an Irish stage and screen actress.

Walter Slezak and Siobhán McKenna from the 1960 presentation "Woman in White" on the anthology program Dow Hour of Great Mysteries

Early life[edit]

She was born Siobhán Giollamhuire Nic Cionnaith in Belfast in the newly-created Northern Ireland into a Catholic and nationalist family.[2] She grew up in Galway and in County Monaghan, speaking fluent Irish. Her father Eoghan McKenna (born Millstreet, County Cork, 1892) was Professor of Mathematics at University College, Galway (UCG). She was still in her teens when she became a member of an amateur Gaelic theatre group and made her stage debut at Galway's national Irish language theatre, An Taibhdhearc, in 1940.[3]


She is remembered for her English language performances at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin where she would eventually star in what many consider her finest role in the George Bernard Shaw play, Saint Joan.[3]

While performing at the Abbey Theatre in the 1940s, she met actor Denis O'Dea, whom she married in 1946.[4] Until 1970 they lived in Richmond Street South, Dublin. They had one child, a son: Donnacha O'Dea, who swam for Ireland at the 1968 Summer Olympics and later won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 1998.[3]

In 1955 she created the role of Miss Madrigal in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden on Broadway.[5] In 1956, she appeared in the Cambridge Drama Festival production of Saint Joan at the Off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre. Theatre critic Elliot Norton called her performance the finest portrayal of Joan in memory.[6] Siobhán McKenna's popularity earned her the cover of Life on 10 September 1956.[citation needed] In 1957, she joined the acting company of the Stratford Festival in Canada, playing Viola in Twelfth Night.[7] She received a second Tony Best Actress nomination for her role in the 1958 play, The Rope Dancers, in which she starred with Art Carney and Joan Blondell.[2] Although primarily a stage actress, McKenna appeared in a number of made-for-television films and dramas. She also appeared in several motion pictures such as King of Kings in 1961, as Virgin Mary. In 1964, she performed in Of Human Bondage and the following year in Doctor Zhivago.[2] She also appeared in The Last Days of Pompeii, as Fortunata, wife of Gaius (Laurence Olivier).

In 1979 McKenna appeared in the title role of Roald Dahl's "The Landlady", an episode of the British TV series Tales of The Unexpected.[8]

McKenna was awarded the Gold Medal of the Éire Society of Boston, for having "significantly fulfilled the ideals of the Éire Society, in particular, spreading awareness of the cultural achievements of the Irish people."[3]


Siobhán McKenna's final stage appearance came in the 1985 play Bailegangaire for the Druid Theatre Company. Despite surgery, she died of lung cancer the following year in Dublin, Ireland, at 64 years of age.[9] Her body was buried at Rahoon Cemetery in County Galway. The inscription on the grave is in Irish.[10]

In 1988, two years after her death, she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[11] The Siobhán McKenna Theatre, named in her honour, is in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in Belfast, the city of her birth.

The Siobhán McKenna Archive, documenting her life, is held in the Hardiman Library, University of Galway[12]



Year Title Role Notes
1947 Hungry Hill Kate Donovan
1948 Daughter of Darkness Emily Beaudine
1949 The Lost People Marie
1951 The Adventurers Anne Hunter
1961 King of Kings Mary
1963 The Playboy of the Western World Pegeen Mike
1964 Of Human Bondage Nora Nesbitt
1965 Doctor Zhivago Anna
1970 Philadelphia, Here I Come Madge
1984 Memed, My Hawk Iroz


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Producers' Showcase Leslie Crosbie Episode: "The Letter"
1979 Tales of The Unexpected The Landlady (Title role) Episode: "The Landlady"
1981 Tales of The Unexpected Mrs Grady Episode: "Vicious Circle"
1984 The Last Days of Pompeii (miniseries) Fortunata

Recorded audio[edit]

LP Records[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Siobhán Nic Cionnaith in Irish
  2. ^ a b c McGuire, James; Quinn, James (2009). Dictionary of Irish Biography. Vol. III. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy-Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521633314.
  3. ^ a b c d Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. p. 251. ISBN 0-7171-2945-4.
  4. ^ Curtis, Maurice (15 December 2015). Rathgar: A History. The History Press. ISBN 9780750967723.
  5. ^ "The Chalk Garden" Archived 2019-06-26 at the Wayback Machine, Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2 October 2020
  6. ^ Doyle, Jim (24 May 2017). "Birth of Stage & Screen Actress Siobhán McKenna". seamus dubhghaill. Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  7. ^ "Siobhán McKenna acting credits". Stratford Festival Archives. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  8. ^ "Tales of the Unexpected (TV Series), The Landlady (1979)".
  9. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 360. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5.
  10. ^ Grave marker, Rahoon New Cemetery
  11. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame Adds Nine New Names". The New York Times. 22 November 1988.
  12. ^ "Archive documenting Siobhán McKenna's career on display". RTE. 15 November 2019.

External links[edit]