Michael Dwyer tells the rags to riches story of Peg Woffington, on the 300th anniversary of her birth.

Peg Woffington was arguably the greatest female actress Ireland has produced. Her name and fame still endure in the annals of Dublin and London theatre three hundred years after her birth.

She was born at Ormond Quay in Dublin on 18th October, 1720, the daughter of a bricklayer. Her father died suddenly when she was three. Together with her younger sister, Mary, the family’s situation became dire. Her mother took in washing in order to get by.

By chance Peg, when a child, was noticed by a Madame Violante while walking through the local market on Ormond Quay. This lady gave theatrical performances in Dublin and was always in search of new talent. Madame was so enthralled by Peg’s beauty and grace, she accompanied her home and sought Mrs. Woffington’s permission to take her on as an apprentice.

Peg was not just beautiful but educated, highly unusual then for a poor Catholic child during the penal laws. Her charm and loveliness attracted much attention resulting in her first stage role at the age of 10.
When Madame Violante left Ireland for Scotland two years later it seemed Peg’s career might be over. But she never forgot the young starlet. Three years later her troupe returned to Dublin. By then Peg had grown into a graceful girl of 15.

A theatre was erected on Rainsford Street in the Liberties, to house her talented company. Madame Violante only accepted the best.

Peg Woffington soon outdistanced all her juvenile rivals. By 18, she had progressed to principal actress in The Theatre Royal, better known as Smock Alley.

Peg wanted more. London was the Hollywood of its time filled with opportunities, demanding audiences and cut-throat competition between theatres.

Sometime in 1740, and still 19, she felt ready for the ultimate challenge of London. Peg eventually got an audition with John Rich, manager of Convent Garden, the top theatre in the city.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own