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May 2019
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2005-08-02 Nelson digs up old grave secrets

Some may say it is morbid, but how many of us can honestly admit that we have never succumbed to the strange fascination of wandering around an old graveyard, reading the disparate range of eulogies on display?


As we absorb the last public image of a human being, summed up in so few words, perhaps at times we even attempt to create a fuller picture around that name and date carved in stone. Not long ago, after a visit to our family grave in Sligo cemetery, I was stopped by the cemetery caretaker  Brian Scanlon. Brian drew my attention to a somewhat faded headstone, not far from the main cemetery gates. Sophie Fanny Shields  Died 1937. Brian informed me that the Gate Theatre in Dublin had paid for the headstone, and perhaps for the funeral. It was therefore clear that Sophie Fanny Shields had had theatrical involvement. If she was an actress (I know I ought to be PC and say actor, but somehow actress seems more fitting and respectful in this instance), why had I not heard of her before, especially since she had a Sligo link? Perhaps she was a character actress. Many actors (and singers) spend their working lives specialising in secondary leads, character roles, or even bit parts, often repeating the same roles throughout the course of their lengthy careers. Though constantly busy, they rarely become household names. Some of these character actors may lack the stereotypical attributes associated with leading actors. Some have carved a significant career, by being tall, short, heavy, thin, camp, bald, old, or perhaps simply by appearing rather unconventional looking. They tread the boards as priests, fools, gossips, ditsy blondes, mother-in-laws, nurses, difficult customers, and a whole range of colourful characters. Often we will see an actor in a role, and know their face, but perhaps not their name  Janine Duvitski is a case in point, appearing in Abigails Party, One foot in the grave and Waiting for God. Miriam Margolis is one of the finest character actors in the business, frequently popping up in roles such as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and the teacher in Harry Potter. Julie Kavner, who played Rhodas sister in Rhoda, has become a household name as the voice of Marge Simpson. One of my favourite character actors is Liz Smith, in particular as Mrs Cropley in The Vicar of Dibley and Nana/Norma in The Royle Family. Most of the Carry-on casts are made up of character actors  Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams, and for me, the funniest of them all  Charles Hawtrey. Perhaps the most famous of all Irish character actors was Barry Fitzgerald (1888  1961). A Protestant nationalist, Barry Fitzgerald began his theatrical life at the Abbey Theatre, and went on to achieve huge notoriety in such films as How Green Was My Valley, The Long Voyage Home, and perhaps most famously The Quiet Man. In 1944, Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the priest in Going My Way. He took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. After that, they changed the rules at the Award Ceremony, so that no one actor could be nominated for both awards. Barry Fitzgerald boasted two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for TV and one for movies. As a character actor, Barry Fitzgerald had truly achieved star status. But, I digress. In attempting to find out about Sophie Fanny Shields, who was laid to rest in Sligo, I decided to have a look at and (an online search in an International Genealogical Index, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). I decided to do a little search for Barry Fitzgerald also. I discovered that Barry Fitzgerald was christened William Joseph Shields, and that he had a brother Arthur, who also appeared in The Quiet Man. Their father was Adolphus Shields. And yes, youve guessed it, their mother was Sophie Fanny Shields, who was buried in Sligo in 1937. Brian Scanlon was right again  Sophie Fanny Shields was indeed Barry Fitzgeralds mother. Now I want to find out more, about her links to Sligo and to the Gate Theatre. Of course, in the meantime, if any of you can help me in my research, I would be happy to hear from you.