Harriet Smithson Berlioz 1800 – 1854
Harriet Smithson was born in Ennis in 1800. Her father managed a theatre in Cook’s Lane, off present-day O’Connell Street, and her mother performed minor acting roles. Harriet took up acting and made her first appearance on stage at the Cron Street Theatre in Dublin.
In 1817 she went to England and although lacking in experience she attracted attention and by 1818 she was appearing in Drury Lane. Although she was a fine actress, her voice lacked the power necessary for her to achieve outstanding success in the vast Drury Lane Theatre.
It was in France, however, that she really achieved acclaim. In Paris, as leading lady in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, she stirred packed audiences which included celebrities such as Hugo, Delacroix, Deschamps, Gautier and Dumas, and of course, the rising young composer, Berlioz, who was not only enchanted by the play, but was later to fall in love with the leading lady.
Berlioz did not try to hide his feelings. She, however, did not return his affection and the two were not to meet again for some years. It was during this time, having failed to win her over, that he composed his Symphonie Fantastique (with Harriet believed to be his muse for this work)
They met again some years later at a concert in Paris. This time a more friendly and closer relationship developed. During October of the same year, they were quietly married in Paris, where composer Franz Liszt was a witness. The following year they moved to Montmartre where a son, Louis, was born on August 1834.
However, some years later, their marriage became strained, largely due to Harriet’s failure as an actress and her jealousy of her husband’s success and his popularity with the women he met in the course of his work. Ten years later they separated, and Harriet began to suffer from a paralysis which left her unable to talk or move. On 3rd March 1854, Harriet, the actress who gained international renown, died.
The inscription on the vault at Montmartre reads as follows:
‘Henriette Constance Berlioz Smithson, nee a Ennis en Irlande, mort a Montmartre le 3 mars 1854’
Harriet inspired many of Berlioz’s works, including parts of the Symphonie Fantastique, Neuf mélodies irlandaises, La Mort d’Orphélie and Romeo et Juliette. Upon her death, composer Franz Liszt wrote the following to his friend Berlioz
‘She inspired you, you loved her, you sung of her, her task was complete.’
This street art piece by Helen Lowe was commissioned by the Memory Lane Group through the PRISM scheme whose members comprised of
- Larry Brennan, local historian
- Cllr. Mary Howard
- Cormac McCarthy: Chair Tidy Towns Ennis
- John Kerin Brooks: PRO, The Clare Association (Dublin)
- Margaret O’Brien: CEO, Ennis Chamber