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Tell Your Own Story

May McNulty: Singer and International Bridge Player by Paul B. McNulty

Article by Paul B. Mcnulty ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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The booming voice and composure of my Auntie May had always fascinated me as a young boy. Margaret Mary ‘May’ McNulty was born on 5 November 1900 at 15 Warrington Place, Dublin 2, Ireland. There she lived for the rest of her life apart from the 1920s when she sojourned in Italy and Austria. She was the daughter of Thomas McNulty BA BL, originally of Derry City, and Mary Boylan, originally of Dublin. They married in a Roman Catholic Chapel on 30 December 1891. Little is known of May’s early years except that her father died when she was only three and she attended Muckross Park College, a private girls’ secondary school, in Dublin.

According to family lore, May McNulty was a singer of sufficient talent to warrant further training in Milan commencing in 1921. She reputedly sang on Radio Éireann but no such record has been found. Neither has her singing talent featured in any Irish newspaper following an on-line search for Miss McNulty or variants thereof. A Google search was equally fruitless in relation to her singing although her career as an international bridge player was highlighted.

While in Milan, she attracted the attention of some male admirers including the operatic singer, Davide Dorlini, a French Tahitian, who revealed his affection for her in a 1922 picture card: alla Signorina May McNulty con auguri (with best wishes.) His possible connection to the late Dag Drollett and the family of Marlon Brando is explored.

May McNulty moved to Austria in 1924 after her singing tuition had concluded and an opportunity to advance her singing career had apparently not emerged. Examination of  picture postcards received from her many correspondents revealed that Frida Schad may have been a Holocaust victim; that J.McD in Donegal missed her singing; that M in St Mary’s, Dublin may have been suicidal; that a teaching role for May was indicated in a card signed Your little pupil; that May was a child-minder for eight-year-old Jeannie Enfer destined to become a distinguished Austrian writer who also translated the work of Irish authors into German.

An April 1927 picture card reveals May’s move from the provincial Wiener Neustadt to the metropolis of Vienna while remaining dependent on family finance. While there she may have sought to promote her singing career by contact with noted musicologists, Harold Sheldon and Hugo Botstiber. Later that year, she received an intriguing card from Liesl Wanka inviting her to visit again at Vienna. Liesl is mentioned in a critique of Dr Paul Hasterlik by Helene König; in a letter by Hasterlik (later a Holocaust victim) to his son in 1935; and in the diary of Katharina Brömse who mentions Liesl’s involvement in an unspecified project.

Having returned to Ireland in 1932, with no apparent sign of a singing contract, May turned to the game of contract bridge destined to become her enduring passion. Now, in her early thirties, her postcard archive peters out and is replaced by newspaper reports.

She quickly establishes herself in the world of contract bridge attracting attention as Honorary Secretary of Dublin’s largest Bridge Club, the Regent, in 1937. She came to national prominence in 1938 when partnering Mrs Fitzgerald to win the Ladies’ Championship. Later that year, in partnership with Mrs Spiro, she qualified for the National Pairs Championship. Her upward momentum continued when qualifying for the Free State of Ireland Team Panel in partnership with Mrs J O’Neill.

Further progress was reported after WW II when she captained a championship team of the Contract Bridge Association of Ireland that travelled to Belfast to play their counterparts representing the Northern Ireland Bridge Union. In 1946, she set up a new record in competitive bridge by winning for the third time in succession the National Team Championship and Kelburn Cup using only four other players to complete her teams. This was sufficient to prelude an appearance on Radio Éireann, where she partnered Noel Peart in a discussion entitled Meet The Bridge Experts which unfortunately has not been archived.

Now an established international bridge player, May McNulty was included in a team of five to represent Ireland at the 1949 European Bridge Championships in Paris. In 1952, she must have revisited memories of her continental past when playing bridge against Austria whose team included Mrs H Breithner, likely to be the second wife of the famous Viennese Mayor and social democrat, Hugo Breitner.

Torquay was May’s final appearance as an international bridge player. Her declining health persuaded her not to participate in the 1960 Women’s World Championship in Turin. Instead, she was the recipient of four cards, three of them from Ruth Giddings, her life-long bridge partner and friend, Thinking of you & missing you. Love Ruth. The fourth card from Elvina Spiro, Regards to all the “Switzers” party. Vina, reminded me of the time May had brought me, as a very young boy, to Switzers in Dublin for a morning repast with her bridge friends.

May McNulty passed away, as a single woman, in 1966 but her memory lives on. Séamus Dowling rated her as Ireland’s greatest female bridge player, second only to the legendary Ruth Giddings, in Thank you, Partner: The History of Bridge in Ireland, 2009. I shall never forget her.

(c) Paul B. McNulty

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Paul B McNulty’s research into family history inspired him to write historical fiction. His historical novels, Spellbound by Sibella (2013), The Abduction of Anne O’Donel (2014) and A Story of the Bodkin Murders (2015) have been published by Club Lighthouse CLP, Canada. He has also written plays based on these novels, one of which 1798: A Rebel Romance was staged by UCD Dramsoc on 18-22 April 2016. He is now working on a biography of his aunt, Margaret Mary ‘May’ McNulty who trained as a singer in Milan and played international bridge for Ireland.
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