Roberts, George (1873–1953), actor, publisher, and poet, was born 8 January 1873 in Clarkill, Kilmegan, Castlewellan, Co. Down, son of Oliver Goldsmith Roberts, a warehouse manager, and Margaret Roberts (née Gray). On leaving school he worked briefly in the linen trade, and later in the Belfast Museum. Attracted by the literary revival, he moved to Dublin (c.1900) and became active in the dramatic movement, while working as a commercial traveller in ladies’ undergarments. A leading member of the Irish National Dramatic Company of William Fay (qv) and Frank Fay (qv), he acted in the first production of ‘Deirdre’ by George Russell (qv) (‘Æ’) (2 April 1902); he was also involved in Russell's mystical Hermetic Society. A founding member of the Irish National Theatre Society (February 1903) under the presidency of William Butler Yeats (qv), as the society's first secretary Roberts corresponded with the English heiress Annie E. F. Horniman (qv) regarding her patronage of the society and the securing of a more suitable and permanent venue for its performances. Acting in many of the society's productions, he played Dan Burke in the first performance of ‘In the shadow of the glen' by John Millington Synge (qv) in the Molesworth hall (October 1903), and was Tim Casey in ‘Spreading the news’ by Augusta Gregory (qv) on the opening night of the Abbey Theatre (27 December 1904). He helped organise the printing of the theatre's house journal, Samhain. Roberts's poetry, some of which was published in A Celtic Christmas (December 1902 and December 1903), the annual literary supplement of Russell's Irish Homestead, reflects his dedication to the Celtic revival; the poem ‘Earth and the infinitude’ concerns Dana and the Dagda, two deities of Irish mythology. Two of his poems were included in the collection New songs (1904), edited by Russell. Roberts was one of several actors who resigned from the Abbey in January 1906 owing to conflicts with its committee members over policy.
In 1904 Roberts helped Seumas O’Sullivan (qv) to re-establish the publishing house Whaley and Co. The following year (1905) he joined Stephen Gwynn (qv) and Joseph Maunsel Hone (qv) in founding Maunsel and Co., a publishing and dramatic agents firm. The foremost publishing company in Ireland till the mid 1920s, Maunsel published works by the country's leading contemporary literary and political figures, including Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory, as well as Padraic Colum (qv), James Connolly (qv), and Patrick Pearse (qv). The main publishers for some years of Abbey Theatre plays, they published over seventy dramatic works during their existence. As the firm's managing director, Roberts was involved in many rancorous disputes and legal arguments over terms of publication. After the death of Synge in 1909 Roberts purchased the copyright to his works for Maunsel, and planned publication of an authoritative collected edition. An acrimonious row erupted between Roberts and Yeats, who objected to the inclusion of Synge's Manchester Guardian articles on conditions in the congested districts of the west of Ireland, and withheld his projected introduction to the collection in protest. Maunsel's four-volume edition of The works of John M. Synge, including the disputed material, appeared in December 1910 to critical acclaim, the first collective edition of an Irish author to be printed and published in Ireland since the eighteenth century. Roberts's most famous publishing row involved his ultimate rejection of Dubliners by James Joyce (qv). In 1909 Joyce sent the manuscript of Dubliners to Maunsel and began protracted negotiations with Roberts. Over the next three years, Roberts demanded successive alterations of passages of the book, particularly of supposed slurs on the British royal family in the story ‘Ivy day in the committee room’. Finally, during Joyce's visit to Ireland in 1912, Roberts refused publication when Joyce would not comply with his escalating demands, which now included suppression of an entire story as indecent (‘An encounter’), and elimination of all references to actual public houses and other businesses. During his return to Trieste an outraged Joyce penned the poem ‘Gas from a burner’ – a deeply personal satire on Roberts spoken through the publisher's persona – which he had printed and distributed around Dublin.
Maunsel opened a London branch at Oakley House, Bloomsbury St., in 1912, but suffered severe financial difficulties owing to the effects on the publishing industry of the first world war, and the destruction of their Dublin premises and book stock on Middle Abbey St. during the 1916 Easter rising. The company published under the imprints of George Roberts (1917–20), and Maunsel and Roberts (1920–23). On the firm's closure Roberts joined the Talbot Press for two years before moving permanently to England in 1926. A printing adviser for some years to the publishing house of Victor Gollancz, he then worked with Western Typesetting, a printing firm, till his retirement about 1950. Roberts married firstly (c.1910) Abbey actress Máire Garvey (d. 1946); they had two sons, Oliver Roberts, professor of botany in UCC, and Ruaidhrí Roberts (qv), a leading trade-union official. He married secondly (1948) Patricia Allen, who survived him. He died at his residence in Hampstead, London, on 9 November 1953. His papers are in the NLI. Excerpts from his uncompleted volume of memoirs, treating his early years in the Dublin dramatic and literary milieu, were published in the Irish Times in July–August 1955.