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Shiels was born near Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, on 24th June 1881, emigrating to America as a young man. He was working on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1913 when an accident left him confined to a wheelchair for life. He returned to Ballymoney, where he opened a shipping agency with his brother, and began to write stories based on his experiences abroad. For a time he used the pen-name George Morshiels.

His first play, Away from the Moss, was staged by the Ulster Literary Theatre in 1918, and this was followed by Felix Reid and Bob (1919) and The Tame Drudge (1919). Shiel's work attracted the attention of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which staged his one-act comedy Bedmates in 1921. His first major success was Paul Twyning (1922), and Shiels' continuing popularity with Dublin audiences did much to restore the theatre's fortunes. His plays were equally successful in Belfast's Group Theatre.

Much of Shiels' work can be simply categorised as kitchen comedy, and plays such as Professor Tim (1925) and The Old Broom (1944) are constantly performed in the amateur theatre. However, despite being confined to a `wee room' in Ballymoney, he was a shrewd observer of the changing world around him. The New Gossoon (1930) skilfully recorded the impact of radio, cinema, dance hall and the internal combustion engine had on traditional rural life.

When he turned to tragedy, as in The Passing Day (1936), Shiels could be equally effective. Originally a radio play, it uses flashback technique to portray the miserly life of a small merchant; Tyrone Guthrie revived the work for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Rugged Path (1940), which has a record-breaking run at the Abbey, and its companion piece The Summit (1941) contrast a tyrannical mountainy clan with law-abiding lowland farmers, and question the traditional Irish revulsion towards informers.

Shiels has sometimes been criticised for not tackling Ulster's sectarian problems in his plays. However, even in his comedies he had a shrewd eye for the ungenerous qualities of his neighbours, their narrow-mindedness and in particular their avarice, and these are qualities which perhaps hinder a solution to sectarianism.

When success as a playwright enabled Shiels to give up the shipping business, he moved to Carnlough on the Co. Antrim coast, where he died on 19th September 1949.

From the Appletree Press title: Famous Irish Writers, to buy from click here. For more information on the book, click here.
Also from Appletree: Famous Irish Lives, click here to buy or here for more information & Irish Museums and Heritage Centres, click here for more information.

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