Richards, Shelah (1903–85), actress and director, was born 23 May 1903 in Dublin, the daughter of John William Richards, solicitor, and Adelaide Richards (née Roper), a once militant suffragette. Educated at Alexandra College, Dublin, and a convent in Paris, she was introduced to the theatre world by family friends, Lord Glenavy (qv) and Lady Glenavy (qv), and began acting with the Dublin Drama League. In 1924 she joined the Abbey theatre and, because of the illness of Eileen Crowe (qv), won the role of Mary Boyle in Sean O'Casey's (qv) ‘Juno and the paycock’. On the strength of that performance, O'Casey cast her, against opposition, as Nora Clitheroe in the first production of ‘The plough and the stars’ in 1926; he later described her performance as ‘magnificent’ (O'Casey, Letters, i, 167). She was involved in skirmishes on stage during the disturbances that greeted the play and was accorded a police escort until the end of the run. Establishing herself in the main juvenile roles, she took the lead role in the revival of ‘The player queen’ on the insistence of W. B. Yeats (qv). He had allowed no actress to perform the part since the original production with Máire O'Neill (qv). Both O'Casey and Yeats were attracted to Richards, and O'Casey is known to have made advances (both playwrights’ wives would remain suspicious of their husbands’ relationship with her).
Maintaining links with the Dublin Drama League, she directed her first plays with the company in 1926. Acting and increasingly directing with the league throughout the late 1920s, she urged O'Casey to allow the company to produce ‘The silver tassie’ when the Abbey rejected the play in 1928. He demurred then but his regard for her was confirmed when he chose her to direct the first Irish production of ‘Red roses for me’ in 1943. She toured the USA with the Abbey players in 1932 and twice with the Irish Players in the mid 1930s. In 1938 she left the Abbey to perform on Broadway with Gladys Cooper and A. E. Mathews in ‘Spring meeting’ by M. J. Farrell (Molly Keane (qv)). She returned to Dublin in 1940 and established her own company at the Olympia theatre in partnership with Nigel Heseltine (Michael Walsh). She directed the controversial production of the wartime drama ‘The strings are false’ by Paul Vincent Carroll (qv). Such was its success that the theatre abandoned its previous observance of Holy Week. Throughout she continued to act, and made occasional acclaimed appearances at the Gate theatre: she took the lead in the two controversial plays of the early 1940s, Robert Collis's (qv) ‘Marrowbone Lane’ and ‘Roly Poly’ by Lennox Robinson (qv). Her most noted production, however, in Edinburgh in 1950, was ‘Playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge (qv), with the first portrayal of Pegeen Mike by Siobhán McKenna (qv). Richards and McKenna staged the play to great success in Dublin and London ten years later. They later re-formed their partnership for a production of ‘Riders to the sea’. On Yeats's request she took charge of the Abbey School of Acting. She introduced designers such as Louis Le Brocquy and brought Marcel Marceau to the Dublin stage for the first time.
Her film roles were infrequent, but included Guests of the nation (1934), Riders to the sea (1937) and Return to Glennascaul (1951). Recommended by Hilton Edwards (qv), she was employed by the fledgling Telefís Éireann, becoming one of the first women directors, and the director of the station's first transmitted play, ‘Thirst’ by Flann O'Brien (qv). She later worked on the popular television dramas ‘Tolka row’ and ‘The Riordans’. Her links with the theatre were maintained with a production of ‘The plough and the stars’ at the Abbey in 1970. She continued to direct for theatre until her retirement with John B. Keane's (qv) ‘Sharon's grave’ for the Irish Theatre Company in 1979. Throughout the 1970s she was involved in the Edwards–MacLiammóir Playhouse Society, founded in 1969 to raise funds for the refurbishment of the Gate theatre. The Abbey theatre honoured her eightieth birthday in May 1983.
She married on 28 December 1928 the playwright Denis Johnston (qv) and was instrumental in persuading Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLíammóir (qv) to produce his play ‘The old lady says ‘no!’ ’. They had a daughter, Jennifer (b. 1930), a novelist, and a son, William Michael Robin (b. 1935), a producer in RTÉ. Their marriage soon buckled, owing to infidelity on both sides, and effectively ended in 1939 when Johnston had a son with Betty Chancellor (qv), although they did not divorce for several years. She died 19 January 1985 at the Kylemore Clinic, Ballybrack, Co. Dublin, and was cremated at Glasnevin cemetery.