Ronnie Masterson – A True Servant

Not many actors have had their heads portrayed on a five pound note, or on any other note, for that matter.

In 1970, that great entrepreneur, Dick Condon, decided that “Big Maggie” needed more publicity and so, the city was flooded with fake fivers, with Ronnie Masterson, eponymously, replacing Cathleen Ni Houlahan. This was, of course, officially illegal, but Dick was willing to take the risk.

Ronnie used her famed discretion, “If it means more bums on seats, what the hell!” The Olympia Theatre box office records were again shattered. There were 40,000 bums on the seats for the four week run.

Twenty six years earlier, Ronnie had begun her lengthy career in the Abbey Theatre. By 1947 she was an established and accomplished actor and a member of the newly formed W.A.A.M.A. (The Writers, Actors & Managers Association). Most of the company managers then, were actor’s and union members – Anew McMaster, Cyril Cusack, Edwards & McLiammoir, Barry Cassin and Nora Lever, Illesley & McCabe, Donal Donnelly, Norman Rodway and Phyllis Ryan being prominent for many years.

It was post-World War II, or The Emergency, as it was quaintly dubbed in Ireland, and 1947 was a monumental year in the history of contemporary Irish Theatre. For the first time Irish performers, directors and producers had laid total claim to their native Theatre Culture, no longer being reliant on British Touring Theatre Companies, and Ronnie was in at the beginning. 1947 saw, not only W.A.A.M.A. becoming the Irish Actors Equity Association, but also the founding of the RTE Players in Radio Eireann.

This happy coincidence resulted in the agreement of a uniform salary for the Radio Rep, based on a semi-state, civil service scale. They became, wait for it, “temporary, un-established civil servants.” Ronnie Masterson would have been instrumental in the innovative decision to vote for the Abbey Players to be tied to the same scale. This ingenious piggy-backing existed until the tacit dissolution of the RTE Players on the eve of the new millennium.

Ronnie continued to be an active member of her union after leaving the Abbey Theatre Company and, with her husband, Ray McAnally, formed Old Quay Productions. As the pelican feeds its young from its own blood in times of adversity, so did Ray and Ronnie feed their flock of actors from their own resources – no government grants, no Arts Council Subsidy – no City Council Subsidy; they were running a “commercial” venture.

2.Ironically in 1970, a special Equity EGM was held in Moran’s Hotel and Ray, Ronnie, and other actors who had run their own Theatre Companies, were informed by the Acting members that they should make up their minds whether they wanted to be actors or managers. Ronnie’s reaction was typical and stoic. She was a company manager, not a theatre manager. “Who was going to ask Michéal McLiammoir to make up his mind if he wants to be an actor, a writer, a scene designer, a costume designer or a company manager – I dare you!” She rested her case and, typically, continued to employ the very actors who had challenged her so-called “credibility”.

When Old Quay Productions could no longer survive without subsistence, Ms. Masterson returned her attentions to the amalgamation of Irish Equity within the I.T.G.W.U. conglomerate.

In 1978 irony again raised its quizzical head. The RTE Players challenged their working conditions – a ten hour day, seven day liability with one Sunday free in every four. Also, their parity with the Abbey’s pay scale had, inexplicably, fallen behind. A lengthy strike ensued and Ronnie supported it wholeheartedly, refusing any radio and TV offers that came along.

Ronnie was also at the fore-front when Irish Equity was subsumed into SIPTU. A phenomenal trade union journey. In the 1980’s, when RTE salaries again over took the Abbey, due to a productivity deal, Ronnie was able to use her historic knowledge to help ensure that the Semi-State parity was, yet again, maintained.

In latter years, when the thoughts of other venerable actors were turning to retirement, Ronnie was much sought after in Film and Television, continuing to serve Equity with distinction as a Trustee. The word could not have suited her better. In this role she was always, fair and discerning, often re-thinking her decisions when she felt it prudent and never afraid to emphasise her opinion.

Her wisdom, energy and wry sense of humour will be sadly missed, not only by this Profession but, particularly, by this union at this very critical stage of its very existence. The struggle to save this union should be dedicated to her memory. We owe Ronnie Masterson a great debt.