Manahan, Anna (Maria) (1924–2009), actress, was born on 18 October 1924 in Waterford city, third child in a family of three sons and three daughters of Patrick Manahan (d. 1967) and Mary Manahan (née Barry). Her father was a clerk in the margarine manufacturing business of W. and C. McDonnell, and later the manager of a local ballroom, well known as a member of a theatrical family and as a comedian and singer in amateur and semi-professional opera and dramatic productions. His brother W. A. Manahan had a dance band popular in the south-east of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s; Anna's cousin Sheila Manahan (1924–88) was a stage and film actress in England.
Anna grew up in Lombard Street, Waterford, and was educated by the Mercy nuns, who encouraged her to perform in school plays. She joined Waterford Dramatic Society and, after leaving school, moved to Dublin to study in the celebrated Gaiety theatrical school run by Ria Mooney (qv). Contemporaries there included Milo O'Shea (qv), Eamonn Andrews (qv) and Marie Kean (qv), and she was to act with many of them throughout her later career. After only a few weeks in the school, Mooney suggested that Anna should gain experience with a touring fit-up company, Equity Productions. In 1946 a promised move to Hollywood and film appearances did not materialise when the talent scout's company failed. Manahan went to London to look for roles there, with limited success, but in 1949 came home to be with her eldest sister Ellen, known as Billie, who died in May that year. Anna then had a season in Limerick with the 37 Theatre Company; she was spotted as a promising young actress by the directors Hilton Edwards (qv) and Michéal MacLiammóir (qv), and spent seven years in their Dublin Gate Theatre company.
A colleague, Colm O'Kelly (brother of Kevin O'Kelly (qv)), an actor in the 37 Theatre Company and stage manager with Edwards and MacLiammóir, helped her through anxiety attacks and depression after her sister's death, and they married in Waterford cathedral on 14 June 1955. The Munster Express of 17 June 1955 headlined the 'happy ending to the romance of the Irish stage', but the happy ending was to elude the young couple. They travelled with the Gate Theatre on a tour of Egypt in 1956; Colm O'Kelly contracted polio, probably after swimming in the river Nile, and died after only a few hours in hospital, on the morning of 10 April 1956. True to theatrical tradition, Anna Manahan took her place on stage that same night, playing in a comedy, but after her husband's funeral in Alexandria, travelled home on her own. In later years she had several important relationships, but never remarried. Acting helped her to cope with her personal loss, which in turn allowed her to draw on depths of emotion and understanding to perform a range of classic roles.
She became a household name in 1957 after her first starring role, in the first Dublin Theatre Festival. She appeared in the tiny Pike Theatre, Dublin, in Tennessee Williams's notorious play 'The rose tattoo', directed by Alan Simpson (qv). The first reviews were very favourable, but the play ran into serious difficulties when someone who had presumably been a member of the audience reported to the Gardaí that Manahan's character, Serafina, dropped a condom on the stage. In fact, the action was merely mimed, there was no condom; but at a time when stage censorship regulations reflected the catholic church's attitudes to obscenity and to contraceptive devices, the authorities responded quickly by arresting the director. The resultant controversy was one of several episodes in a continuing struggle over censorship, between the avant-garde, abetted by well-known troublemakers like Brendan Behan (qv), and the conservative elements in Irish society; though Simpson was acquitted, after a year of misery, the theatre was forced to close because of his financial difficulties.
Manahan's career seldom faltered thereafter, and she was internationally known for her appearances in scores of successful shows. Her physical presence and earthy strength impressed directors and audiences in various theatres from the 1950s up to her last stage appearance in 'Sisters' (2005); she worked in the Gate in Dublin, in the National Theatre and others in London, and on Broadway and in theatre festivals around the world. She created the role of Big Rachel in 'Live like pigs' (1958) by John Arden in London, and John B. Keane (qv) wrote the play 'Big Maggie' (1969) with Manahan in mind to play the leading eponymous character. In 1969 Manahan was nominated for the Tony award, for best supporting actress, in a Broadway production of 'Lovers' by Brian Friel. Almost thirty years later, in 1998, in a very different role, she won a Tony award for her appearance as 'featured actress' in the part of Mag Folan, the repellent, slovenly, scheming mother, in 'The beauty queen of Leenane', by Martin McDonagh. The play toured Ireland, transferred to London, and ran for eighteen months on Broadway.
Irish and British audiences might not have expected Manahan to perform with quite such power and viciousness as she showed in Mag Folan; for years before her appearance in McDonagh's play, Manahan had been somewhat typecast in more comic roles, particularly on television. She became familiar to a wide viewing public as Milo O'Shea's 'Irish mammy' in Me mammy (BBC, 1968–71), written by Hugh Leonard (qv); as the cook Mrs Cadogan in the RTÉ/Channel 4 series The Irish RM (1983–5); and in RTÉ dramas and soap operas, including The Riordans and Fair city (playing Ursula, 2004–9). She also appeared in radio dramas, television films and in a few films for the big screen. Her first film, She didn't say no! (1958), was about a woman (not her character) with six illegitimate children by different men (unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Ireland). She also played Bella Cohen in a film version of Ulysses (1967) and appeared in Black day at Blackrock (2001; written and directed by Gerry Stembridge).
In later life Manahan returned to Waterford and lived with two of her brothers. As a way of giving something back to the life of the theatre which had sustained her since her own childhood, she gladly participated for years as a judge in amateur dramatic festivals round the country. A different kind of celebrity came to her in 2008 when she spoke out vehemently against cuts in health care which would affect old people; her widely reported contribution to the controversy greatly helped the campaign to have medical cards restored to some older people. Even before her being selected as celebrity patron of Active Retirement Ireland in 2008, Manahan's views had already had an impact on attitudes to older people. In 2004, speaking in the Waterford Area Partnership's 'age and power' conference, she had suggested the establishment of a Golden Years Festival in Waterford to celebrate the achievements of older people and encourage creativity and participation in society. It was successfully set up and marked ten years of existence in 2014.
In 2002 Waterford showed appreciation of one of its most famous natives by making Anna Manahan a freeman of the city, and she was posthumously included in a permanent exhibition of 'Waterford treasures' in the Bishop's Palace. Manahan also won the gold medal of the Eire Society of Boston in 1984, and in 2003 received an honorary doctorate in letters from the University of Limerick. She was the subject of a documentary, All about Anna, screened by RTÉ in 2005.
After a long illness she died in Waterford on 8 March 2009, and was buried in Ballygunner cemetery.