Daughter to a German-born governess (E. Hessler) and an Irish Literature Lecturer, (E. O’Reilly) Madigan O’Reilly grew up speaking German, Irish and English and travelling sporadically to Potsdam to visit her mother’s affluent relations. Both her parents were staunch republicans. Her father wrote poems and articles for ‘An Claidheamh Soluis’ and, aged just 13, Madigan O’Reilly became the youngest member of Cumann na mban, accompanying her mother to meetings. Madigan O’Reilly contributed to the struggle for Independence by gifting her first typewriter to Winifred Carney.
Adversely affected by the violence and unrest in Ireland during the Easter Rising and in Germany during the First World War, Madigan O’Reilly withdrew into her studies at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where she showed an aptitude for calligraphy, decorative lettering and illuminating. She took these traditional manuscript skills into unexpected territory such as bricolage and collage, often incorporating elements of her father’s poetry as visual elements. This unlikely application of traditional skills attracted the attention of the influential German publishing group Potsdam: Müller and Co. Verlag, who, in 1925, were completing a publication entitled Orientalisches Traumbuch von Mariette Lydis and wished to explore the possibility of a follow-up with an Irish bias. In 1925 Madigan O’Reilly met with Irmgard Kiepenheuer to discuss Irisches Traumbuch von Róisín O’Reilly during which time she was exposed to the inaugural performance of Kurt Schwitters’ work Ursonate, the influence of which can be detected in her later projects including Os Ard.
The practical skills gained at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art enabled Madigan O’Reilly to take a post in what has subsequently become the Preservation and Conservation department at Trinity Library. She worked there from 1925 up until 1958, contributing to several major conservation projects including the re-binding of the Book of Aicill and the Brehon Laws. A recent review of the manuscripts in the archives reveal that she may have added some exquisitely forged illustrations to some of the more obscure fifteenth century manuscripts held in the archives.
In 1926, Madigan O’Reilly developed an original Irish translation of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate entitled Os Ardand tried to persuade those in charge at 2RN to allow it to be broadcast on the airwaves. Surviving correspondence reveals that though the idea was proposed to Máiréad Ní Ghrádaa for consideration, the landmark broadcast which Madigan O’Reilly had envisaged never came to pass.
In 1928, through mutual acquaintances at 2RN, Madigan O’Reilly met Edmund Madigan, a former civil servant radicalised during the uprising and reappointed to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. In his new role he managed interval music and devised strategies for minimising interference on the frequency over which 2RN was broadcast. The two were married in 1930 and little is known of their marriage other than that they had no children; that Róisín insisted on keeping her father’s name as well as taking that of her new husband; and that Madigan died in 1950 and was buried with his treasured 3-valve radio set.
During the 1930s, Madigan O’Reilly and her husband accompanied her friend Máire Ní Chinnéide to the Blasket Islands, providing technical support to Ní Chinnéide’s intention to collect and record the stories of Peig Sayers.
Following her husband’s death, Madigan O’Reilly once again withdrew into her work, finally retiring to Dingle to keep sight of her beloved Blasket Islands and to complete work on Irisches Traumbuch von Róisín O’Reilly.