The preferred epitaph of Peter O’Toole, the playboy of the western world
Among the stories emerging about O’Toole in Galway is the one of how a soiled jacket made for the perfect epitaph
Peter O’Toole with his colt, Dr Slattery, at the Connemara Pony Show in Clifden, in 1985. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Several decades ago, a man walked into Foyle’s Bar in Clifden, Co Galway. Few heads turned. After an interval, the man declared in apparent frustration: “I’m Lawrence of Arabia.”
“I don’t care who you are, sit down and I’ll get you a drink,”came the barman’s response.
It’s one of many tales that have been told of Peter O’Toole this week, as President Michael D Higgins led tributes to his passing.
O’Toole cited Connemara and Leeds as his birthplace, and had two birth certificates to prove it. Connemara was to become his second home. He also had relatives in Galway city. Local architect Leo Mansfield designed the house he had built at Eyrephort, at the foot of Sky Road, and his son, also Leo, remembers how O’Toole wanted the building on top of a hill to make the most of the Atlantic aspect. When the planners directed that the house be built behind the hill, O’Toole “had the hill blasted away”, recalls Mansfield.
O’Toole frequented local hostelries such as EJ King’s (now owned by Terry Sweeney), where he made close friends, but he was also an active member of the community. He supported the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society, and his horses were regular competitors at the Connemara Pony Show.
Writing in The Irish Times in August 1983, the then western correspondent Michael Finlan noted that it was “a bit unfair” that nobody gave the actor an award for his appearance at the show that particular summer. “John J Browne got the top award for the best five onions, Mary Geoghegan for the best three heads of cabbage and Anne Conneely for the best six new-laid hen eggs (brown),” Finlan wrote. “But there was nothing at all for the three psychedelic flowers sprouting from the tweed hat band of Mr O’Toole.
“The Botanic Trillium blazing from his head turned all other heads in his direction and set off a cacophony of clicking camera shutters. All that was missing was a standing ovation, as in the last act of Macbeth.”
Back in the mid 1970s, a young public relations professional, James Morrissey, who was then a 24-year-old press officer for Dublin Theatre Festival, was dispatched by director Brendan Smith to collect O’Toole from the airport as he was performing in the festival. O’Toole handed him his suitcase, and looked “rather disparagingly” at Morrissey’s “beat-up car”.
Morrissey drove him to the Shelbourne Hotel, and the actor seemed “irascible”. When Morrissey broached the subject of interviews with several journalists, including the late Dr David Nowlan, theatre critic of The Irish Times, O’Toole growled and “made it quite clear that there would be no effing interviews”.
“I told him this was my first job and asked him would he reconsider, but he shut the door of his room in my face,” Morrissey says. “I walked as far as Quinnsworth on Baggot Street, and decided to go in and buy him a bottle of whiskey.
Eventually O’Toole invited Morrissey in, and “spoke very emotionally about Connemara”. He also “obliged with various interviews”, to Morrissey’s relief.
In 2008, the actor gave one of his last public interviews at the Galway Film Fleadh, where his daughter Kate is the chairwoman. “He was 76 years old, very funny, still had the glad eye about him, and I remember he made straight for Jessica Lange at the Irish Film Board’s dinner at the fleadh,”director Miriam Allen recalls.
“An absolute original” who was “full of life and verve” is how film-maker Lelia Doolan remembers him, and she notes that he donated a silk Hermès neckerchief in July this year to raise funds for the Picture Palace arthouse cinema, currently under construction in Galway city. It was bought at auction by musician and performer Aindrias de Staic, who would, Doolan says, be cut from the same cloth as the original owner.
Irish Times photographer Brenda Fitzsimons recalls how she bumped into O’Toole in Clifden many years ago, and how the talk turned, after an hour or so, to what he would like carved on his tombstone. He launched into a lengthy explanation involving his favourite jacket, a buckskin suede number that had marked on it every drop of tear, blood, sweat and whatever else from his long career. He made the mistake of sending it to the local dry cleaners, where it promptly disappeared, and he assumed with some regret that he would never see it again.
Years later, a package arrived at his house, and when he unsheathed it from its cellophane, there was his laundered jacket, with a label attached by the cleaner saying, “Distresses me to return soiled”.
O’Toole looked at the label and thought, as an epitaph, that will do nicely.
The Galway Film Fleadh public interview with Peter O’Toole is on galwayfilmfleadh.com