Terry Prone: A generous life needlessly and silently lost under cover of Covid

Columnist Terry Prone continues her lockdown diaries
Terry Prone: A generous life needlessly and silently lost under cover of Covid

Irish playwright and founder of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (1852 - 1932), 12th July 1911. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

DAY 56

Not saying it’s Shakespearean or even close. But picking small curls of Styrofoam off the floor after decanting a delivered item, you have to admire whatever anonymous wag dubbed them “ghost turds”.

DAY 57

Long straight hair, she always had, so when we met for lunch after the chemo, it was time to do a double-take and laugh at the tight fuzzy curls framing her thinner face. She had always been pretty. Now, she was beautiful. She looked like a new woman.

“Nobody ever told me chemo could make your hair curly,” she said, touching it uneasily, as if it might fall out again.

I asked the only safe question: “Well?” The answer was clear: “Might get 18 months.”

A particularly virulent form of breast cancer? She shook the curly head. In fact, she had one of the forms most amenable to treatment. But she had been misdiagnosed. Twice. 

By a carelessly dismissive doctor. And by the time a correct diagnosis was done, the cancer had travelled. Would I give her a letter, she asked, saying what my company would have paid her when she joined us? (I had been trying to recruit her for ages.)

"Sure. Why, though?" 

She was going to sue, she said, and would have to prove what she would have earned in her lost years. Her husband didn’t need the money the courts would certainly award her. 

She’d give it to charity. But they needed to be taught a lesson. “They” being the inattentive medic who had misinterpreted what was obvious, patronised the patient for being “a worrier” and condemned her to a needlessly early death.

She taught them their lesson and took thrilled pleasure in distributing the money awarded to where it could do most good. By January this year, intervals between spells in the hospital were shortening. 

Then came Covid and the two of us couldn’t meet, even during those intervals. But texts and emails worked. Until they didn’t.

Intensely private about her personal life, she had never given me contact points for the husband I had never met, so when I stopped getting responses from her, all I could do was keep trying. 

But not constantly, lest I torment the already tormented. I even apologised for the possibility of having accidentally offended her in some previous message, if that had caused the silence.

Today, research on RIP.ie confirmed what I already knew. She got only 14 months. A clever, generous, funny professional life was lost to medical inattention. A life needlessly lost. Silently lost under cover of Covid.

DAY 58

Considering the probability of a move to level 3, I check whether house arrest for the over 70s will be lifted. “Personal responsibility,” it says. 

Which feels like they can’t make us behave, but they figure we’re too scared to make a mad foray into virus-sharing places.

DAY 59

Talking to Kieran Cuddihy on the Thursday Interview on Newstalk, I am brought up short when he asks me what a prompter is. I explain that, as a member of the Abbey Theatre School of Acting, I served my time in the wings with a tiny lamp focused on the script of whatever was the play that night, ready for the moment when an actor “dried”. 

Drying, Josephine Tey once observed, was most likely to happen in a long-running play where it’s possible to say the lines while working out what reasonably fresh food might be in the actor’s home. 

Just as the house/food issue sorts itself, the actor finds themselves on stage in front of 600 people, facing another actor with an expectant expression and no clue what is the line due at that moment to issue from their own mouth. 

That’s when the prompter hisses the right line. The actor picks up seamlessly and the play moves on.

Except on one night during a run of Friel’s The Loves of Cass McGuire, starring Siobhan McKenna. McKenna, as McGuire, reclined on a couch in a house she was visiting, and Niall Buggy, as her nephew, appeared behind her and spoke to her. 

No answer. I hissed the correct line. Nothing. I hissed it louder. Nothing. It was at that moment Buggy and I simultaneously apprehended the dread fact that McKenna, who reeked of alcohol arriving that night, had fallen asleep on the couch. 

Buggy, a young actor facing a situation that never came up in acting class, rose to the challenge like the star he later became. He looked lovingly at “Cass” and chuckled to himself.

“If you weren’t dead to the world, I know what you’d say to me, Auntie Cass,” he said and then played the whole scene — both sides of it — in creative conditional mode until the curtain fell and the production manager arrived on stage.

A tiny woman, she grabbed McKenna, got her upright, smacked her in the face back and forth to wake her, grabbed her by the hair at the nape of her neck as if she was a cat, and force fed her black coffee for the duration of the interval, after which the curtain rose and nobody in the audience was any the wiser.

DAY 60

I log on to a Zoom meeting with a bunch of deadly impressive experts just as the fire alarm goes off. 

I yell apologies, open all windows and flail with a tea towel at the ceiling thing making the racket until it shuts up. It’s difficult to be impressive, after a start like that.

DAY 61

Trinity College is going to commission four busts of women for their beautiful Old Library, which, over its 280 years, has displayed forty busts, none of women. Pats on the back to TCD for corrective action.

One of the women in the new line up is Augusta Gregory, whose bust might bear the inscription ‘Single most under-rated, patronized and contributory figure in the Celtic revival’. 

Lady Gregory’s slight but entertaining plays provided some of the cash that allowed the Abbey stage the more significant work of Yeats and Synge. 

It’s a tad overdue for someone to point out that Augusta Gregory’s portrayals of west of Ireland peasants were a hell of a lot more realistic and respectful than the Yeats and Synge versions, for the very good reason that Lady Gregory watched and listened to those peasants up close, rather than reimagining them from a romanticised distance. 

She was infinitely patient with the posturing of Yeats and constant in her support of O’Casey, a writer so touchy and insecure, he wore out the patience of almost everybody else. Lady Gregory mattered more than has ever been acknowledged.

DAY 62

And the good news? Today, Amazon ran out of the ugliest garment ever made. The Dryrobe. 

We pray it doesn’t — like the dead mink in Denmark — start rising out of its grave. Although, given a choice between a putrid mink and a Dryrobe, I’d opt for the mink.

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