Shiels, George (1881–1949), playwright, was born 24 June 1881 in Milltown, Ballybrakes, near Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, one of seven sons of Robert Shiels, railway worker, and Eliza Shiels (née Sweeney), who also had one daughter; they soon moved to Castle St., Ballymoney, where George attended the local Roman catholic national school. His elder brothers emigrated to America when young. There was no chance of getting any more schooling, even if he had wanted it, and Shiels left Ireland when he was 19. He worked as a casual labourer in many places in the western states of America: as a farmworker and miner in Idaho and Montana, and as a lumber camp worker in British Columbia, Canada. In 1904 he was employed by the Canadian Pacific railway company to supervise a gang of workers who were building a stretch of railway in Saskatchewan. In a serious accident, Shiels was badly injured; despite surgery on his back, he was never able to walk again, and he received a disability pension from the railway company.
After a long convalescence in Canada, he returned c.1908 to his mother's house in Ballymoney. He set up in business in Main St. as a shipping agent and as an agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway, taking bookings from intending emigrants. He was encouraged by his parish priest, Fr John Hasson, by a local solicitor, Jack Pinkerton, and by James Pettigrew, a teacher, to write short stories. To try to preserve anonymity in a small community, he at first used the pseudonym ‘George Morshiel’, and was successful with Western stories and other short fiction. His friends urged him to try writing dramas, and in 1918 ‘Away from the moss’ was produced by the Ulster Literary Theatre in Belfast.
After further success there with two short plays in which Shiels was learning his craft, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland's national theatre, accepted a one-act play, ‘Bedmates’, performed in January 1921. With great regularity for the next twenty years, Shiels wrote twenty-two plays for the Abbey; his work formed the basis of the repertoire in the 1920s and 1930s and attracted large audiences. Plays such as ‘The new gossoon’ (1930) provided Dublin theatre-goers with entertainment, but also helped form the style of acting and production which for many years characterised the Abbey and its actors. Three of his plays were later performed in theatres in London – ‘Professor Tim’, ‘Paul Twyning’, and ‘The new gossoon’ – and these were also published in a 1945 volume, which was twice reprinted. ‘Professor Tim’, produced by the touring Abbey Theatre, received enthusiastic reviews in Philadelphia, and ‘The new gossoon’ appeared successfully on Broadway in New York in 1932, 1934, and 1937. His obituary noted that some of his plays appeared in translation in Scandinavia, most were translated into Irish, and ‘The passing day’ was revived in an Irish version in 1952 in the Abbey.
Shiels's earlier work was perhaps easiest for audiences to enjoy; comedies such as ‘Moodie in Manitoba’ (1918) portray characters so realistic that north Antrim people believed with some alarm that it would be possible to identify who Shiels had in mind when he created them, and he was at first somewhat less than popular in Ballymoney. Shiels superbly reproduced local language and thoroughly understood the local way of life; plays he wrote late in his career were first performed by the Group Theatre in Belfast, and in these productions (and in the radio versions broadcast by the BBC) his work became widely known, almost beloved, in the north of Ireland. During the first half of the twentieth century amateur drama groups throughout Ireland were much more important in local life than they have been since the advent of television; probably all such societies have at some time staged a Shiels play, and this tradition continues. His plays contain amusing dialogue, carefully crafted plots, and usually more or less happy endings.
However, Shiels's later works, notably ‘The passing day’ (1936), first broadcast as a radio play, and ‘The rugged path’ (1940), which broke all records at the Abbey in a run of three months, tackle darker subject matter and feature characters still less sympathetic even than the rogues and hypocrites of the earlier work. In ‘The rugged path’ and its sequel ‘The summit’ (1941) Shiels explored the moral crisis facing Ireland after the political changes of the 1920s; one critic saw in it an allegory for the contemporary struggle against Hitler. Shiels's view of life in the small towns and farms of Ireland was never in the slightest rosy-tinted, but in the symbolism of ‘The passing day’, he achieves ‘bitter intensity’ (Irish Times review, quoted by Casey).
Shiels's modesty led him to refuse an honorary doctorate from QUB, in 1931; he was reticent about his experiences and beliefs, and did little to foster his own reputation. In one early interview he expressed the belief that Ulster theatre needed dramatic material that reflected the psychology and setting of the region; his own work, at its best, achieved this and more. The very qualities which made George Shiels's work popular in the north of Ireland permitted some metropolitan literary critics to dismiss his plays as ‘kitchen comedies’; however, with the passage of time, his importance as a chronicler of a vanishing way of life can be set alongside the recognition due to him as a prolific and gifted dramatist.
Shiels suffered from a lengthy illness, and though he underwent an operation in Ballymoney in 1949, died soon afterwards at his house, New Lodge, in Carnlough, Co. Antrim, on 19 September 1949. He was buried in the graveyard of Our Lady and St Patrick in Ballymoney. In the month that he died, the Group Theatre and Garvagh Young Farmers' Club were both rehearsing Shiels plays, and there have since been many productions of his plays in the north and elsewhere. Ballymoney Drama Festival presented a portrait of Shiels to the Abbey Theatre, and a new production of ‘The passing day’ was staged there to celebrate his centenary in 1981.