Two halves of a whole

Posted on: 5th October, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Born in Dublin, Syd Cheatle is a son of Jack Cheatle, long-term leader of the RTE Concert Orchestra and cellist Aileen Foley, a native of Skibbereen.

Syd is the author of two plays produced in the Abbey in the 1970s and a comedy, Straight Up, which proved a West End hit back in 1971.

His plays have remained in continuous production throughout Austria and Germany over the years, with outstanding productions at the Opera House and Josef Stadt theatres in Vienna, The Darmstadt Landes Theater and The Berliner Theater in Berlin and a number of other venues.

Syd is married to Miriam Dunne, a published author, who was expelled from two schools in Dublin before she could finish her second-level education. Miriam’s book ‘Blessed Art Thou A Monk Swimming’ was widely well-received by audiences and critics alike and named Book of the Month at Waterstones.

Currently a resident of CareChoice Nursing Home in Clonakilty, Syd’s home is on Sherkin Island, where he and Miriam raised their three children. Syd and Miriam, who celebrate 57 years of happy marriage this year, share the story of how they met, married and came to call Sherkin Island home with Mary O’Brien.


Miriam Dunne fell in love with Syd Cheatle the moment she set eyes on him. In 1960, the couple were working as stand-ins in ‘The Siege of Sidney Street’, a British historical drama film, which was filmed at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow. “I saw him sitting in a canvas chair and my eyes just ignited,” recalls Miriam, who was only 16 at the time.

“I followed him around for three weeks but he wouldn’t look at me,” she laughs. “He thought I was way too young.”

The couple eventually got together at a party. Syd returned to London and Miriam thought she’d never see him again. “He invited me over to visit so I bought a one-way ticket!” she says. “I was underage so my mother had a fit. She sent a priest over after me!”

Syd and Miriam got married in a registry office, finding their witness on the street outside and sharing a half of bitter in the local pub afterwards to celebrate. “Syd forged my mother’s signature on the letter of consent, as I was underage. We got married in a church too or I’d never have been able to return to Ireland,” says Miriam.

Living in a small flat in London with a one-year-old child and Syd, who was working as an architect and also trying to write in peace, one day Miriam was hit with a wave of homesickness.

The couple put an advert in the Irish Times for a property to rent in Ireland –‘House wanted by the sea, cheap.’

They received one reply from a Mrs Carew O’Driscoll, who was offering a house for rent on an island off the coast.

In 1965, the couple crammed everything they owned into four tea chests and left for Sherkin. “I had a small child in cloth nappies and only a well on the beach to get water from,” recalls Miriam.

The house was only seven pounds a month but only available to rent until July. “Before we knew it, the end of June came and we were unable to find anywhere else on the island to rent, everything was booked solid for the summer,” says Miriam.

“We were in despair until Syd met an old woman along the road one day and helped her home with her bags.”

The woman showed him an old stone house tucked away at the bottom of a valley. There was no road leading up to it and no sign of water or electricity.

“The floor was made with beach pebbles hammered into the earth…but it was either that or take the boat back to England,” says Miriam.

Syd spent six months of the year working as an architect in London to earn an income to do up the house. The couple used to camp out as they repaired the building that was to become the home in which they reared their three children. “I think one year we had a tin of sardines left just before Syd returned to London. We had very little money so had to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Miriam.

“The house was in ruins,” recalls Syd, “but it was on a great site with its own beach and inlet and, as I was an architect, I was able to do the work myself.”

Over the years, Syd and Miriam became valued members of the local island community. Syd was Chair of the West Cork Islands Community Council, fighting successfully to retain funding from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which supported community development officers on Sherkin and eight other non-Irish-speaking islands.

Miriam started a knitwear co-operative on the island in the early 80s, selling the work on behalf of the members in London.

The house on Sherkin is still standing strong, albeit still with some works to be completed. “So far, touch wood, we haven’t been washed out of our beds although once or twice the Atlantic has come knocking on our door. And after fifty odd years on Sherkin, we’re no longer strangers,” says Miriam.

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