Acting fraternity turns out in force to mourn 'gentleman of our profession'

Fri, Feb 17, 2012, 00:00

Mourners at the funeral of a much-loved actor heard praise for an unforgettable character with biting wit, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

DAVID KELLY was a man “who was a beautiful contradiction – an exotic creature who yet was everybody’s granda; a happily married man on the number 11 bus who would make Oscar Wilde feel underdressed. An intensely private man who at the age of 70 did his first nude scene. A man who loved to work but turned down more parts than Greta Garbo, and, finally, a frail, gentle soul who could kill at 20 metres with his biting wit.”

Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre, drew laughter and applause for a eulogy studded with stories about his beloved old friend – “my most unforgettable character” – and star of many a Gate production.

An example of that biting wit was evoked during a Gate tour of the US with Krapp’s Last Tape, when Colgan heard that one of the hotels wasn’t up to their usual standard and rang his friend to ask what his room was like.

“I’ll tell you, dear heart. It’s the type of place where plastic chandeliers go to die,” came the reply. No one was spared that wit, said Colgan. “Once, on tour with him, I was speaking at a lunch, saying that very thing: that nobody was spared, I said, not even producers or inanimate objects, when David said loudly: ‘Are they not the same thing, dear?’”

With Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, Kelly was “the personification, the perfect representation of the Gate”, said Colgan. “ . . . He has often said that his favourite parts were Rashers Tierney in Strumpet Cityand Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape.

“Well, we all accept that in the theatre there can be no such thing as definitive performances, but with those parts he went within a hair’s breadth, and if they weren’t definitive, he certainly made them his own.”

Hundreds of mourners, including virtually the entire Irish acting fraternity, turned out on a bone-chilling morning to say farewell to the 82-year-old actor at the Church of the Miraculous Medal, Clonskeagh, Dublin, where he had been “a very frequent visitor to Mass”, in the words of celebrant Fr Kevin Bartley.

The chief mourners were his wife, Laurie Morton – to whom he was married for 51 years – and his son and daughter, David and Miriam. On the couple’s 49th wedding anniversary, said Fr Bartley, David had arrived with a beautiful ring for her and the words, “Thanks for sticking with me.”

“What will it be next year, a tiara?” she joked.

But by their 50th, David had become unaware of things such as times and dates, and “these last years were not always easy”. The family kept him at home for as long as possible, after which they gave him “with great love and care” to the St John of God brothers in Stillorgan, where he died last Sunday, surrounded by his family.

At the church entrance, beside his The Irish Timeslifetime achievement award and a photograph of the man himself, dapper and smiling in bow tie and blue and white blazer, were envelopes for donations to the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland.

The Prayers for the Faithful included the Actor’s Prayer and the Prayer for Serenity and the symbols of his life brought to the altar were the theatre award, a painting and a pen to signify his gifts for art and calligraphy, and a book of Beckett plays.

“We’re here to give him a bon vivant send-off,” said baritone Denis McArdle beforehand, then with organist Frank Hughes performed traditional hymns such as Holy God We Praise Thy Nameand Soul of My Saviouras well as Panis Angelicus, Ave Mariaand Salve Regina.

As the coffin was borne down the aisle, amid a gentle ovation, Hughes played a few muted but familiar bars – the themes from Glenroeand Fawlty Towers– before seguing into Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

“Always happy, always generous, he was our very own Sunshine Boy,” said Michael Colgan. “The gentleman of our profession, and if we’d ever needed an ambassador for actors, he would have been the perfect casting. What a gift he had to make us happy . . .

“Goodbye me oul’ flower.”

David Kelly jnr thanked many good friends and the staff of the St John of God hospital, finishing with the line: “As da would say: Mind how you go.”

President Michael D Higgins, who had attended the removal, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny were represented by their aides de camp, Comdt Michael Walsh and Comdt Michael Treacy.

Among the attendance were Pat Moylan of the Arts Council and Fiach Mac Conghail of the Abbey Theatre; Noel Curran, director general of RTÉ; playwrights Frank McGuinness and Bernard Farrell; Fergus and Rosaleen Linehan; John McColgan; Phelim Drew; Des Cave; Tom Hickey; Fionnula Flanagan; Paul Cusack; Stephen Brennan; Ingrid Craigie; Emmet Bergin; Niall Tóibín; Pat Laffan; Des Keogh; Seán McGinley; Bryan Murray; Eamon Morrissey and Bosco Hogan.