Owenson, Robert (1744–1812), singer and actor, was born in Tyrawley, Co. Mayo, the only son of Walter MacEoghan (or MacOwen), farmer, and Sydney Bell, orphan granddaughter of George Crofton and a relative of the Croftons of Longford House. The pair eloped after meeting at a hurling match. Walter proved feckless and irresponsible, but Sydney was a careful mother. She was renowned for her singing and her skill on the harp; and her musical gifts, together with her love of Irish traditions, she passed on to her son, ensuring as well that he received some education from the parish priest and the protestant rector. When Robert was 17, a gentleman called Blake, who had grown rich in the West Indies, came to take possession of family property in Ardfry. Blake was an eccentric who took a brief interest in his tenants; Robert's fine singing voice soon drew his attention and Blake offered to take him on as a protégé. His first action was to anglicise ‘MacOwen’ to ‘Owenson’; he then took him to London, where Robert was apparently complimented on his voice by the composer and singer Dr Thomas Arne and enrolled as the pupil of Dr John Worgan, the organist of Vauxhall gardens. Owenson spent the next five years in Blake's house in Great Russell St., serving as major-domo, pursuing his singing lessons, and taking general studies at the academy of the Rev. Eyle; during this time he met the dramatist Oliver Goldsmith (qv), a distant cousin of his mother.
In 1766 an affair with an opera singer led to Owenson's being given the golden handshake of £300 by Blake, which money Owenson allegedly sent back. Encouraged by Goldsmith, he now determined on a stage career, and began touring the provinces. He had his London debut in Covent Garden in November 1771 as Tamerlane and was roundly dismissed by the critics; the most charitable comment being that he might become a useful actor in second- or third-rate parts, and the worst that his appearing at all was a gross insult on common sense. Nevertheless he was reengaged for another two seasons. In summer 1774 he joined Foote's company at Haymarket, and in 1775 was with Tate Wilkinson's company at York. The following year (21 October 1776) he appeared in a comedy, ‘The West Indian’, in the Theatre Royal in Crow St., Dublin. The Freeman's Journal the next day commented on his ‘great spirit and propriety – [his] figure was perfectly adapted, his brogue was characteristic and not too vulgar’. His Dublin reception determined him to make his career in his native country, and he summoned from England his wife, Jane Hill, the daughter of a prosperous methodist merchant from Shrewsbury, with whom he had eloped and married (15 December 1772).
Owenson remained four years with the Crow St. theatre before transferring to Smock Alley theatre in 1780. He was excellent in broadly comic roles such as Lucius O'Trigger in ‘The rivals’ by R. B. Sheridan (qv). Jonah Barrington (qv) observed that ‘he acted as if he had not received much schooling and sang like a man whom nobody has instructed . . . but in what might be termed the middle class of Paddies, no man ever combined the look and the manner with such felicity as Owenson’ (Barrington, ii, 207). However, it was Owenson's moving renditions of Irish songs and poems recalled from his youth that brought him his great fame; he did not confine these performances to Dublin but toured the country with them, first performing ‘Pléaráca na Rourcourcy’ by Aodh Mac Shamráin in Cork in 1778. His success in the provinces led him to establish a small theatre in Kirwan's Lane, Galway, apparently the city's first theatre.
In 1784 he left Smock Alley after quarrelling with the manager, Richard Daly (qv), over his mistreatment of two girls, and opened a rival theatre in the old Fishamble music hall, which caused some controversy because of Owenson's association with the Volunteers. He enlisted some of the Volunteer leaders as his patrons, and the opening night (20 December 1784) was attended by Volunteers in uniform, with Owenson appearing in the same uniform to speak the prologue. The theatre was not, however, the hotbed of Irish patriotism later claimed by Owenson's famous daughter, Sydney, Lady Morgan (qv). Its fare was standard and it closed after a short period, through lack of funds. On 25 November 1786 the ‘Act for regulating the stage in Dublin’ was passed, which allowed the lord lieutenant to confer on Daly's Smock Alley theatre an exclusive patent for dramatic activity in Dublin for fourteen years. Though his Fishamble theatre had by this time largely ceased operations, Owenson brought a legal suit and was awarded £300 a year for ten years for loss of earnings. He then rejoined Daly's theatre as assistant manager. At this time he met the 11-year-old poet and prodigy, Thomas Dermody (qv), who was homeless and half-starved. Owenson took Dermody into his home in Drumcondra, interested rich patrons in him, sent him to school, and had him instruct his two daughters. Nothing could save the wayward Dermody from ruin, but Owenson was the only patron with whom he never quarrelled.
His wife dying in 1789, Owenson took to touring the country extensively. In 1795, after raising money through his own means and through subscribers, he opened a large theatre in Kilkenny which had two highly successful seasons, but the subscribers failed to pay, the lenders foreclosed, and Owenson had to leave precipitately in 1796. Two years later he severed his last connection with Smock Alley and opened a public house. He returned to the Dublin stage on 4 March 1807, singing in his daughter's opera ‘The first attempt’, and this galvanised him to make a few more appearances in old favourites, including as the singing, reciting character of his own invention, Sir Phelim O'Guffinocarrollocarneymacfrane. He died on 27 May 1812 at North Great Georges St., the residence of his son-in-law, Sir Arthur Clarke. He is credited with composing the airs ‘Rory O'More’ and ‘My love's the fairest creature’ and is the author of the lyric ‘Land of potatoes’ and ‘Theatrical fears’ (1804), a long poem after the manner of the ‘Rosciad’.