Margaret Kearney Taylor: Woman with Cork roots who helped refugees escape the Nazis 

Her mother was born in a workhouse in Kanturk, but her tea rooms in Madrid were a popular haunt of Spain's elite, and provided cover for her secret life. A new play pays tribute to her little-known deeds  
Margaret Kearney Taylor: Woman with Cork roots who helped refugees escape the Nazis 

Margaret Kearney Taylor ran a tearoom in Franco-ruled Spain during the Second World War. 

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie — a woman born in a workhouse ends up running her own business in Madrid during the Second World War, and risks her life to help refugees escape the Nazis, right under their noses. It is in fact the true story of Margaret Kearney Taylor — known as Margarita in her adopted Spain — whose remarkable double-life was not uncovered until after her death in 1982.

Now her story is being told on stage in a new play written by Féilim James and presented by theatre company Smashing Times as part of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival. River of Thorns is a dramatic monologue which tells the story of the woman born Margaret Mary Taylor in a workhouse in Christchurch, England to a single parent, Ellen Taylor, a Protestant who was herself born in a workhouse in Kanturk, Co Cork, in Ireland in 1871. 

It is believed that Margaret’s father was John Kearney, a Catholic. Margaret ended up in Paris, and in 1931, moved to Madrid where she established the Embassy tea rooms, located yards from the German embassy, where 1,000 agents were based during the Second World War. 

Here she entertained Spanish high society while secretly providing a safe house for thousands of Allied soldiers and refugees who used what were known as the ‘escape lines’ set up by the British secret service throughout Europe.

Margaret’s astonishing story was recounted in a book in 2004 and an RTÉ radio documentary in 2016. According to Mary Moynihan, artistic director of Smashing Times, the play’s origins go back to 2016, when the theatre company worked on a project exploring women’s stories in World War II.

“We thought we wouldn’t find any stories from Ireland of women involved in World War II, because we were neutral. At that stage, we were introduced by the Jewish Museum to the stories of Mary Elmes [the Cork woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the gas chambers] and Ettie Steinberg [believed to be the only Irish citizen to die in a concentration camp]. 

"We did something on their stories and through that we became aware of the ‘escape lines’ and this whole network of people who were involved in standing up to the Nazis and risking their lives for others. We came across a series of stories, up to 50 people whose names we know of at the moment, of Irish men and women who were involved in some way during World War II on these escape lines and in resistance.” 

Mary Moynihan, artistic director with Smashing Times.
Mary Moynihan, artistic director with Smashing Times.

Moynihan says Margaret’s story is one of many tales of strong and courageous women from that time that need to be heard.

“These are the stories of women we need to be telling. Here is a woman who despite the odds, did what she needed to do and found a way to survive. She displayed enormous courage in what she did at every stage of her life.” Margaret also defied the stigma and social norms of the time by giving birth to a daughter outside marriage and later taking a legal case against the father, a Spanish diplomat.

“I find it extraordinary that she became pregnant out of wedlock and then sued the man. We would love to know more about that court case — we know it happened and that apparently she did get the right to use his name for her child but the exact details aren’t known,” says Moynihan.

 “To us as artists, that is very interesting — there must have been huge resilience and a spirit to survive and thrive, and a determination to do what she did. She did so much with her life in extraordinary circumstances. What really brings it out was that she had built up this life, was making money, running her own business and then was prepared to risk it all, her life and her daughter’s life to help strangers.” 

 Moynihan says there are obvious modern resonances to the play and Margaret’s story.

“We believe the arts are a great way to help raise awareness of history and the atrocities that have occurred so they don’t happen again. This piece is touching on one individual story and hopefully people may want to go away and find out more about this woman’s life, the escape lines and what ordinary people did. It is a story about community, love and friendship. 

"Supporting and standing up for asylum seekers, refugees, speaking out against the rise of intolerance in society, we all need to stand together and stand up for each other, that is what Margaret’s story is about, and it is one that has to be told.” 

  • A River of Thorns runs from Oct 15-20 as part of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, at the lecture theatre, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
  • See smashingtimes.ie for more.

More in this section

Scene & Heard
Newsletter

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up