Delany, Cathleen (1907–97), actress, was born Kathleen Mary Delany on 21 July 1907 at 98 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, Dublin, daughter of Alfred Patrick (A. P.) Delany, journalist, and his wife Kathleen Mary (née Kilgannon); she had at least two siblings, a brother and a sister. By 1911 the family were living on Iona Road, Glasnevin. Her father, after working as a cub reporter on the Irish News in Belfast, had moved to Dublin to join the staff of the Irish Times, where he remained many years; in later years he was an inspector with the Local Government Board. Kathleen was educated in Dublin, probably at the RIAM. As a young woman she performed with the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society and was a talented singer. She appeared under her original name in ‘Peer Gynt’ at the Gate in September 1932, but five months later she was in ‘Agamemnon’, also at the Gate, listed as Cathleen Delany, and thereafter always acted under that name. She accompanied Mícheál MacLiammóir (qv) and Hilton Edwards (qv) on their first Egyptian tour (1936); on their return the Gate company split and Delany transferred to Longford Productions, where she remained eleven years. Her sister, Noël Delany, was also part of the company and was tall, pale, and elegant where Cathleen was the company's ingénue. Referring to her beauty and her head of ‘clustering curls’, Lady Longford (Christine Pakenham (qv)) called her ‘a figure from an Attic funeral urn’ (Cowell, 94), while Lord Longford (Edward Pakenham (qv)) termed her ‘a cross between Helen of Troy and Paddy the Next Best Thing’ (ibid., 121). A quick learner and blessed with a retentive memory, she could switch parts rapidly and was a flexible actress who fitted into the Longfords’ punishing touring schedules.
In the early 1940s she landed leading parts, appearing as the daughter in ‘Mrs Warren's profession’ (Gate, May 1941) – the Irish Times found her suitably sincere, downright, and not exaggerated – as Juliet in Shakespeare's tragedy (December 1941), and as Lady Teazle in ‘School for scandal’ by R. B. Sheridan (qv). She excelled as Sr Gracia in Martinez Sierra's ‘The kingdom of God’ (March 1942). Apparently her performance so affected the audience that it resulted in vocations to the church. Gabriel Fallon (qv) – usually critical of Longford Productions – wrote in the Standard: ‘The play is Sr Gracia's and the part is Cathleen Delany's. Her playing of it is an almost completely flawless triumph. The consistently fine work of this actress has reached an apex’ (Cowell, 148). She herself regarded the part as a personal best. Refined and ladylike, she was good at comedy and playing nuns, but Lord Longford was apt to miscast her – on one occasion he had her play a chain-smoking harridan. ‘She couldn't even light a cigarette with conviction on the stage, much less play a drunk’ (Cowell, 163). Longford was also sensitive and prone to taking offence – in 1947 Delany refused to tour and Longford never cast her again, though she was a stalwart of the company and a lifelong friend of Lady Longford. She returned to MacLíammóir and Edwards, and took work in other companies. In May 1954 she appeared as the mother in Ernest Gébler's psychological thriller ‘She sits smiling’, directed by Alan Simpson (qv) for the radical but short-lived Pike Theatre. In July 1967 she played opposite Niall Tóibín in a one-act Brian Friel (qv) play, ‘Lovers: losers’, directed by Hilton Edwards for the Gate.
She achieved worldwide recognition late in life in John Huston's (qv) The dead (1987), an acclaimed film adaptation of the short story by James Joyce (qv). Delany played the aged Aunt Julia whose quavering rendition of ‘Arrayed for the bridal’ functions as a memento mori. The critic Denis Donoghue thought hers ‘the finest performance, and the one directed with the most convincing tact’ (New York Review of Books, 3 Mar. 1988). Her final stage appearance was at the Gate Theatre (May 1988) in Joe Dowling's production of ‘Fathers and sons’, Brian Friel's adaptation of the Turgenev novel. Two years later she appeared as Agnes the midwife in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's film December bride (1990), from the book by Sam Hanna Bell (qv).
She married (24 August 1936) John O'Dea , engineer with the Electricity Supply Board, whom Christine Longford called ‘an ideal husband – an artist, a painter, an engineer by profession, a traveller of all Europe, a humorist, a philosopher’ (Cowell, 121). Some of his cartoons appeared in Dublin Opinion. The couple had no children but Delany adopted her niece, Hazel, when the child was two years old, and was a loving and devoted guardian. Gregarious and generous, she was renowned as a hostess to her many friends. She died 19 June 1997 in Dublin, and was survived by her husband and niece.