Macken, Walter (1915–67), writer, actor, and theatre director, was born in Galway city on 3 May 1915, youngest son of Walter Macken, a carpenter and actor who was killed in the trenches at St Eloi, Flanders, in March 1916, and Agnes Macken (née Brady). Walter was educated at St Mary's College and St Joseph's College (‘the Bish’) in Galway. His performance in a school play attracted the attention of Frank Dermody, manager of the Taibhdhearc, the country's only Irish-language theatre, opened in 1928. Macken joined the company in 1932, aged 17 and still at school. His first official performance (c.1935) was in ‘Iosagán’ by Patrick Pearse (qv); but as well as acting he was set-painter, stage-manager, and front-of-house, and also undertook translations from Shakespeare, Sean O'Casey (qv) and others into Irish. He was not a native speaker but worked hard at perfecting his grasp of the language. A fellow actor was the news editor, Peggy Kenny, daughter of the owner of the Connaught Tribune and six years his senior. They fell in love but her father disapproved, so they had to elope and were married (9 February 1937) in Fairview church, Dublin. After this they moved to London, where Walter worked as an insurance salesman. Homesick and disliking city life, he later described the difficulties of these years in his second novel, I am alone (1949), and was delighted to return to the Taibhdhearc in 1939 to take over from Dermody (who had left for the Abbey) as manager/play director at a salary of £3 a week.
Under his direction the theatre enjoyed a good run: he brought in as actors Máirtín Ó Direáin (qv), later a renowned poet, and Siobhán McKenna (qv), who said that Macken could get more out of actors than anyone she knew. In nine years he produced six pantomimes and seventy-six plays, most of which he also acted in, and four of which he wrote himself. His most successful play in Irish was ‘Oighreacht na mara’ about the lives of the fishermen in Galway's Claddagh area, which was performed June 1944 and went on to the Abbey (May 1945). However, the work was gruelling and badly paid. In his autobiographical novel Sullivan (1957), he memorably described what was involved in running a small theatre: ‘He worked an average of twelve to fourteen hours a day . . . He designed and painted the scenery, he made flats and stretched the canvas on them, he kept the accounts, drew up the advertising, learned off long parts, trained raw actors to become presentable . . . He did all this for a feverish love’ (Sullivan, 65–6). The Taibhdhearc suffered more than most theatres because of its choice of language: frequently it was only a quarter full and on one occasion there was just one person in the 240-seat auditorium. Concluding that ‘Irish is grand, but if you want to eat, it would have to be the English’ (ibid., 32), Macken wrote his first play in English, ‘Mungo's mansion’, in 1945. A comedy, set (like much of Macken's work) in the Galway tenements, it was accepted by the Abbey and performed on 11 February 1946. The following year he resigned from the Taibhdhearc and was immediately engaged as an actor by the Abbey's managing director, Ernest Blythe (qv).
Remaining three years with the Abbey, he received good notices, particularly as Bartley Dowd in M. J. Molloy's ‘The king of Friday's men’, which had a Broadway run (February 1951). It flopped, but Macken's acting was commended. As playwright he had erratic success: his second play, ‘Vacant possession’, was turned down but his third, ‘Home is the hero’, which opened 28 July 1952 in the Abbey's temporary premises in the Queen's theatre, enjoyed the then longest run in the Abbey's history with ninety-eight performances over seventeen weeks. It deals with the return of a convict, Paddo O'Reilly, to his home in Galway, and aroused controversy, with letters to the press complaining that it depicted Ireland in a negative light and endangered tourism. It was another Broadway flop (September 1954), but by this time Macken was winning greater fame as a novelist. The success of his third book, Rain on the wind (1950), which won awards in Britain and America, allowed him to give up his acting career in 1951 and return to Galway to write full-time. He bought a house in Oughterard and spent the next fifteen years writing novels, most notably his ambitious historical trilogy of Seek the fair land (1959), The silent people (1962), and The scorching wind (1964), which deal with the Cromwellian settlement, the famine, and the war of independence respectively. His last play, ‘The voices of Doolin’, performed at the Gaiety Theatre for the 1960 Dublin theatre festival, was a starring vehicle for the actor, Cyril Cusack (qv), less so for its author: the Irish Times (16 September 1960) termed it ‘a rambling tract . . . with faintly audible echoes’ and the Irish Press critic renamed it ‘The voices of Cusack’.
In 1965 Macken was made government nominee to the reconstructed Abbey board. He remained living in Oughterard, Co. Galway, commuting for meetings by train, but after being appointed (November 1965) artistic adviser to the board, he had to return to Dublin. He resigned within three months, giving as his reasons that he needed more time to write and disliked uprooting to the city. However, he wrote just one more book (published posthumously); after moving in September 1966 to the small Gaeltacht village of Menlo, three miles from Galway city, he died suddenly at home on 22 April 1967. His wife and two sons survived him.
Macken was a prolific writer: his published work at his death ran to ten novels, seven plays, three books of short stories, and two children's books. All his work is characterised by a simple, direct style, and an unsentimental, attentive look at the lives of the poor in the west of Ireland, reminiscent of Sean O'Casey and Liam O'Flaherty (qv); he was called early in his playwriting career ‘the O'Casey of the west’. His plays have been praised for their vivid, racy idiom but criticised for their inadequate action, and are seldom performed. He was among the most popular Irish novelists of the mid twentieth century, and Brandon Books reissued his work, but his popular appeal is unmatched by significant critical attention in Ireland. His papers were acquired in the late 1970s by the University of Wuppertal, Germany, where he was the subject of a full-length dissertation, as he was in the Université de Reims, France. Of Irish critics, Robert Hogan (1930–99) has briefly evaluated his work as ‘hanging between entertainment and art . . . It has force, energy and confident craftsmanship. At its best it only narrowly misses lasting excellence’ (Dictionary).