24 November 2005

Feisty pensioner recalls an Irish life less ordinary


Evan Short talks to 85-year-old Mealda Hall whose remarkable life is forever entwined with the path of Irish history

The past hundred years in Ireland have been as turbulent as any period in its history, and countless books have been written dealing with the major political players and events both North and South.
Mealda Hall admits to being a big fan of history books, but when you spend time talking to her it is clear there’s little any author could tell this feisty 85-year-old. This is not because she is an academic, though she is clearly intelligent, but because she has lived through some extraordinary times, and thanks to her family, even met a number of Ireland’s most revered figures.
Now living in a nursing home at the edge of the Waterworks, Mealda tells me how from the moment she was born, the politics of Ireland affected her life throughout the years.
“I was born in Strokestown, County Roscommon in a cell in the town jail - in fact it was the same cell the republican Jimmy Hope was held in. My father had been the RIC Commissioner for the area since 1916 and it was the height of the War of Independence. We were in the jail because the IRA had put us out of the local police station where we lived,” she recalls. Mealda said her family was an Irish aristocratic family that featured prominently in the ranks of the RIC.
“We came from a policing family. My father was the RIC Commissioner for Strokestown and was well-known throughout Ireland because he refused to carry a gun. At the same time my uncle was the District Inspector for the West of Ireland. In fact, when the War of Independence ended Michael Collins approached them both and asked them to take positions with the Garda.”
As Mealda grew up she took a great interest in the performing arts, and when she was old enough got a job as an actress with a travelling stage show. Happy to be getting paid for what she enjoyed doing, she doesn’t, however, count this as her first paid role, fondly remembering a meeting with a republican hero.
“When I was a child Countess Markievicz had come to Strokestown to hold a rally against the Free State government. At the time DeValera was in jail and Sinn Féin were trying to drum up support. The word went out they needed a child who could speak Irish and recite poetry. I was one of the only children in the area who could do this so I found myself standing beside her performing for a large crowd. The countess gave me half an orange for doing so well and I put this down as my first professional salary,” she smiled.
By the time the Second World War started Mealda was a renowned actress touring Ireland with a number of performers. She acted in Dickens’ plays and comedy routines, and remembers creating a lot of interest everywhere they went.
“With the war having started I was travelling North and South performing with this troupe. Everyone came to see us because we had gentlemen from Arabia and all across Europe in the show, trying to escape the war. We even had a circus act from England, a group of young men who disagreed with the war and were on the run from conscription.”
Word of Mealda’s performances had spread and she describes the situation where she very nearly made it as an international star.
“We had just finished a run of four nights in Killarney when the hotel we were staying in got a phone call. Someone had recommended us to a studio in Hollywood and they were inviting my friend and I to do a screen test. I would have loved to have gone but at that time I was considered a juvenile and needed permission from my parents. This was the time when German U-Boats were sinking every ship they could on the Atlantic and my parents were afraid that something would happen to me so they refused to let me go.”
Mealda continued to tour domestically with the troupe and it was when she was in Belfast she met her husband Bob Hall, from Dungannon. They moved to Belfast and opened the Councillor Bar in Everton Street in North Belfast.
“We came to Belfast to put on shows because at that time the Americans were stationed in the North and they had plenty of money, and that is where I met my husband and settled down.”
Mealda and Bob had 10 children, five girls and five boys, and as the problems Ireland faced in the past had impacted her life, so would the war from 1969.
“On July 27, 1972 my son Joseph was going into a Catholic taxi firm on the Cliftonville Road and the UVF shot him in the back.”
Tears well up in Mealda’s eyes when she recounts her heartache, the wounds clearly as raw now as today as they were when it happened. Despite being shot 16 times, however, Joseph Hall survived.
“His body wouldn’t work but his mind was as able as it had always been. He was one of the youngest ever people in the North do his eleven-plus, so young in fact that Stormont tried to reject him doing it.”
Paralysed, Joseph lived for the next 16 years with his mother who cared for him.
“We both kept our minds active by doing Open University courses together. He had such a great mind and it was a such a shame what they did to him.”
Joseph passed away in 1988, leading Mealda to become an active member of Survivors of Trauma and Relatives for Justice. She continues to lead a full life and draws on her performing experiences as an active storyteller, travelling around the country entertaining children and adults as she has always done.
“I love performing and will continue doing it as long as possible. My life on the stage over last 70 years is something I couldn’t do without.”

Journalist:: Evan Short

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