Una Taaffe has become a legendary name in Galway city and beyond. Her image has inspired many art works, her name has inspired countless conversations, and her life has inspired many tall tales.
But who was Una Taaffe? Who was this lady, who at the mere mention of her name prompts a wistful smile, a spark of memory in the eye, and fond recollections of times past?
by Elaine Mears, Director, Una
I became fascinated by Una many years ago, and am delighted to have this opportunity to remember a different time in Galway, with all of Galway invited to join in and be a part of it.
In my new theatre work in progress entitled Una, developed with support from Arts Council Ireland, I hope to gather all your memories of Una into a full picture of a lady who left a deep imprint on the collective consciousness of the city.
Una’s story offers us a way of making sense of our world at a certain point in time, and of creating a shared understanding of who, what and why we are, living here on the edge of the Atlantic, Connemara and the Islands. How we remember her tells us as much about ourselves as it does about Una. Are our lives are the sum of our experiences, or are we merely the sum of other people’s perceptions of us?
Una was born c.1922 into one of the last of the wealthy merchant class families in Galway, where she lived with her parents and four siblings above their drapery store on William Street.
Una was regarded by many as one of the most beautiful women of the day, with great style and class. Photos of her youth portray an animated and glamorous woman who was enveloped in a vibrant social life.
Una and her family were well-respected members of the Galway community, who played an active role in the everyday life of the city. Stories abound of fantastical elements to her life, such as – she was descendant from royalty, she was a model, international celebrities sought out her shop, her back garden once boasted a tennis court and, according to an account from Una herself, was the site of a medieval burial ground. She was a remarkable entrepreneur, working with knitters from the Aran Islands to meet an international market for a unique Irish product.
As Una aged, and as a new age of consumerism succeeded older ways of business, her social circle diminished, and to many it appeared that she became a ghost of her former glory.
Shops like Taaffe’s were left behind as the city changed, and in many ways so, too, was Una. She found solace in her many dogs who lived comfortably on the shop shelves and were treated royally.
In later years she found herself adrift in a city unlike the one she grew up in, and towards the end of her life she became somewhat of an eccentric symbol of a time past. Una has captured the Galway imagination like no other. She in many ways represents the end of an era that has informed the social and cultural fabric of our city, the last vestige of a ruined house dealing with the conflict of modern consumerism.
Her life has become saturated in myth-making, a fragmented puzzle of sorts, the pieces of which are preserved in the memories of locals.
People are very engaged with the story of Una and eager to share their memories of her. They easily identify with elements of her life, and have offered their hypotheses on why her life appears as a tale of two halves, with personal reflections on how someone’s life can be rewritten, re-imagined and reduced to mere archetypes.
Her mental decline in latter years has often been disproportionately focused on, reducing her to a caricature. But such myopic accounts do not reveal the full person and the stories I am gathering are revealing that there was, of course, so much more to Una. She is remembered with great fondness and for her unwavering generosity, kindness, and sense of fun.
Whatever the great truth in life, we cannot deny that for every life there are lessons to be learnt, reflections to be made, and tributes to be paid. Without doubt we can all agree that Una Taaffe was one of those rare and wonderfully enigmatic characters that has shaped our city, a lady who will continue to intrigue and inspire for many years to come.
■ I will be collecting stories of Una until the end of February 2018. If you would like to add your story you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the development of Una’s story on Facebook. Other members of the team include; Dramaturg: Máiréad Ní Chróinín, Videographer: Jennifer Cunningham, Sound design and composer: John Henry.