Peter McQuillan (11th May, 2012)
Kilkenny City has, since the Middle Ages, had a reputation as a centre of theatrical performance. The late Peter Farrelly in his ‘600 Years of Theatre in Kilkenny, 1366-1966’1, tells the story of a young professional actress who arrived in Kilkenny in October 1812, to play in the theatre here in the Parade. There she was met and interviewed by a Mr. William Becher. By all accounts she was a strikingly beautiful young woman and she made such an immediate impression on Becher that he was smitten with her straight away, and before the season was over, they were ‘very good friends’!
The audiences were enchanted with her performances, and soon came to appreciate why she had already been affectionately referred to in theatrical circles as “The Dove”. Before she left Kilkenny, having completed her first contract, Mr. Becher had actually proposed marriage, but without success. However, Elizabeth did promise Becher that she would return to Kilkenny at some other time, if at all possible.
Elizabeth O’Neill was born in Co. Louth in 1791, the daughter of an actor/manager. She was, as they say, reared on the stage and the family was miserably poor. It is recorded that “Eliza was often seen when a little girl, running around the streets of Dundalk, in the shoes and stockings which nature furnished”. At the early age of twelve she made her debut on the boards in the Golden Temple, and soon became the bright star of her father’s productions, playing all sorts of characters. The company toured widely and she soon became very well known. Eventually she took over in Dublin’s Theatre Royal from Miss Walstein, an actress who played every season in Kilkenny and who, in contrast to “The Dove”, was known as “The Eagle”.
In 1814 Elizabeth O’Neill was offered an engagement in Covent Garden Theatre in London. After the curtain on her ‘debut night’, 6th October, 1814, among the floral tributes which Elizabeth received was a bunch of red roses sent “with love” from William Wrixon Becher. Yes, the very same man who had first met her in Kilkenny two years earlier. Becher was active in political circles, making regular visits to his political friends in London, and he availed of every opportunity to call on his friend Eliza. In 1817 he was elected M.P. for the Borough of Mallow and thereafter was often seen dining with Elizabeth in the Garrick Club restaurant in London, where, to this day, a large painting of the great actress still hangs over the staircase.
Then came the bombshell. The world of theatre was shocked when Elizabeth suddenly announced her retirement from the stage on 13th July, 1819, after a five year reign as Queen of the acting profession on the British stage. Only she, and her immediate family, and William Becher knew the reason why. She returned to Ireland and to Dublin to fulfil engagements and to Kilkenny Theatre to keep a promise and to play on the stage with the man who had wooed her for seven years.
A quiet wedding was arranged for 18th December, 1819 in the little church in Kilfane in County Kilkenny, to the knowledge of only a few very personal friends. However, on the day, the local Kilkenny Hunt, attired in full regalia, turned up to greet her, and the theatre fraternity, having ransacked their costume wardrobes, also honoured the occasion with the gay flamboyance of their stage attire.
The local newspaper recorded the event with a bare announcement that ‘Miss Eliza O’Neill was married December 18th, 1819, to William Wrixon Becher, Esq., M.P. for Mallow, and one of the most celebrated and accomplished of our theatrical amateurs. The ceremony was performed at Kilfane church by the Dean of Ossory. The whole of Miss O’Neill’s fortune was settled on her family. Her loss to the public is much regretted’.
William Becher succeeded to the Baronetcy on the death of his uncle in 1831. He died in 1850 and Eliza Lady Wrixon Becher passed the remainder of her life in her husband’s mansion at Ballygiblin, Co.Cork, the mother of their three sons and two daughters. She peacefully closed her long and blameless life on 26th October,1872, aged 82, full of honour and of years.