The late Tyrone Guthrie donated his house as an artists’ retreat.

Tyrone Guthrie – ‘The most important theatre director in the world’

This week's Times Past column by historian Jonathan Smyth recalls Tyrone Guthrie the theatre director from Annamakerrig...

The life and times of Tyrone Guthrie are fascinating to read and are well worth recalling. He lived in Annaghmakerrig, not too far from where I grew-up in Cootehill.

Today, the Guthrie home is known as the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, ‘a residential workplace for local, national, and international artists of all disciplines and cultures,’ and is situated about 3.5 miles from Newbliss, Co. Monaghan where the big house overlooks an expansive lake situated amidst the forest at Annaghmakerrig. It is a place enveloped in an ambience that is almost dreamlike where legendary stories and recollections of celebrated visitors over the years are to be heard.

My earliest memories of Annaghmakerrig were when my mother brought us on visits to family friends and going for walks in the woods. Kevin Smyth, a forester, and his wife Kitty lived in one of the forestry cottages as you drove along the lane towards Guthrie’s house.

When the house became a residential centre for artists in 1981 per its late owner’s wishes, the people who came to stay called on Kevin who had known Guthrie. Kevin would take the resident artists on a tour of the area telling them all about the Hollywood stars who came to stay, people like David Niven.

Like his actor guests, Tyrone Guthrie’s heritage was one of acting too; his grandfather was the Irish actor Tyrone Power, and his cousin was the matinee idol, too named, Tyrone Power.

A formidable force in theatres around the world both as a talented director and actor, Guthrie worked with the cream of thespian talent. Those who graced his productions included Orson Wells, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Vivien Leigh and actors came to stay with him at Annaghmakerrig.

Tyrone Guthrie was the driving force behind the creation in 1953 of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario and amongst the festival’s luminaries was Christopher Plummer who made regular appearances. An updated introduction by Joe Dowling in the book, ‘A New Theatre’ by Tyrone Guthrie informs us that Guthrie was at one time ‘the most important theatre director in the world’ and had been at ‘the helm’ of the ‘Old Vic’ where he ‘had introduced Charles Laughton to a British audience’.

Joe Dowling pointed out that Guthrie had worked in opera houses around the world having ‘conquered Broadway and the West End’. To ensure the quality of the actors' voices and to get an unobstructed view of the stage, Tyrone stood at the back of the theatre while rehearsals took place. His casual demeanour almost bordered on ‘sloppiness’. His appearances at rehearsal without wearing socks was not unusual.

Guthrie received honours in both the North and South of Ireland. Belfast’s Queen’s University made him chancellor and he also became chancellor of the National University of Ireland where President Eamon de Valera bestowed on him a Doctor of Literature degree.

In 1961, Guthrie received a knighthood of which he never referred to, preferring to be simply known only as Tony.

Tyrone stood at 6 feet four inches in his socks. He was an athletic man and when at Annaghmakerrig would keep in good physical shape by swimming over and back the length of Annaghmakerrig Lake which came up to the edge of the lawn in front of his house. The lake's surface covers about three hectares and for a swimmer to do the length of the lake was no mean feat and it remained a morning practise Guthrie enjoyed right into his later years. Once quoted as saying, ‘astonish me in the morning’ ... I am quite sure Sir Tyrone may have astonished himself when taking a splash into the chilly waters of the lough on a frosty winter’s morning.

Tyrone's height drew comments and sometimes it peeved him, naturally enough. He once responded to such a person: 'If you're very tall it's not just rude boys who feel entitled to pass remarks. Perfect strangers in pubs are always coming up and saying, "Me and my friends are just having a bet. Just how tall are you?" Women to whom one has just been introduced think that it breaks the ice if they scream, "Goodness, you're tall!' How would they like it if I broke the ice first, by screaming, "Goodness, what thick ankles!" or "Goodness what a bust!"

In 1961, he showed an entrepreneurial side by starting-up a jam-making factory in Newbliss. The New York Times wrote of the business that it ‘provided much-needed employment’ and helped ‘encourage the small farmers’ in the district.

About twenty-five years ago, when the Footsbarn Theatre staged shows at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre as part of the Cootehill Arts Festival I got speaking to Teddy Burns who worked at the centre and seeing my interest in the place offered to supply an account on the history of the house and its owner. Inside the building, he pointed out what for me was one of the most striking parts of the evening, an armchair, the one in which Tyrone Guthrie died on May 15, 1971 whilst he was reading the early morning mail at 10.30am.

Survived by Lady Guthrie, his obituary, in the New York Times recalled Tyrone’s passion for the arts and their importance as follows: ‘I am not quite convinced,’ he wrote several years ago, with the wry humour in which he often couched fervour, ‘that drama is as indispensable to human existence as meat and drink; life can be supported without it, but only just.’


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