Parting from Miley and looking at life after `Glenroe'

 

I arranged to meet Mick Lally in the Camden Court Hotel, Dublin, and when I got to the hotel there was a bespectacled Miley Byrne, reading The Irish Times. There seemed to be more crevices on his face than in Glenroe. But the matted-down, lifeless hair was the same, the denim jeans and jacket were the same, the voice nearly the same - a bit more assertive.

But Mick Lally and Miley Byrne are very different people. There is none of the gormless naivete about Mick Lally. This is a very focused, self-confident, self-aware person, brisk and almost impatient during the interview. Hardly surprising, since he had done hundreds of such interviews and many of the answers are familiar. He was born in November 1945, reared in Tourmakeady , Co Mayo. Eldest of a family of seven children: five sisters, one brother. His father had a small farm. Tourmakeady is a Gaeltacht area and he was brought up speaking Irish and English. Mother and father are still alive, both in excellent health, both with excellent memories.

He went to the local national school in Tourmakeady and then into St Mary's College in Galway, the Galway Diocesan College, which was a boarding school. Afterwards, he went to UCG where he took history and Irish. He taught history and Irish for six years in Tuam, from 1969-75. Then he gave that up at the founding of the Druid Theatre in Galway in 1975.

He is married to Peggy Connelly from Inis Meain. They have three children: Saileog (21), who is studying dance; Darach (19), who is studying outdoor education in Mayo; and Maghnus (18), who is doing his Leaving Cert. They live off the South Circular Road in Dublin.

VB: Are you sorry Glenroe is over or do you have a sense of release?

ML: It's a mixture of both. I do have a strong sense of release definitely but also you'd regret the fact that it's gone, that it's coming to an end. Well, from a very practical point of view, it's going to have an effect on one's life immediately anyway, but maybe not in the long term hopefully.

VB: In an interview you did a few years ago with The Irish Times you were anticipating that the series would go on and on almost indefinitely. Did it come as a surprise to you that it was ended when it was?

ML: No, it didn't, because in the last number of years there was a sort of a feeling that it wasn't being maybe nurtured. There was a sense of it being tolerated while it was doing OK. While there was nothing in particular one could put your finger on, there was a sense, I think, around the place that it was coming towards the end. So that when it was announced that they were deciding to finish it off, it came as no great shock to me, anyway, and I think to most of the senior members of the cast as well.

VB: What do you mean "not being nurtured?"

ML: Well, the main thing being in the current soap climate, as you might put it, most of them are all on three nights, four nights a week. Glenroe was on just one night, Sunday nights, so that even in my own case in recent times when you come to watch it on a Sunday night you'd be saying, what the hell happened last Sunday? Our memory span seems to be contracted over the years or something, because one is in the habit of a fast turnover of story lines, the likes of Coronation Street, Fair City, whatever. If there were more characters brought into it so that you've a greater turnover of story lines and therefore the whole community, much more vital and much more lively for the ordinary viewers. Just that there was no indication of this happening or any sign of it going to happen. There was always the sense that the hatchet was raised and it was a matter of when it dropped and who dropped it.

VB: Do you have a sense of resentment with RTE over how they treated you in general?

ML: No. There is a degree, a sense maybe of betrayal almost in that one would have wished if there had been some sort of consultative process whereby if, say, let's say a year ago, or maybe even two years ago, that somebody came along to us and said "lads, you know this programme is going down the hill a bit, you've lost some viewers over the last while, what can we do about it, is there any way of fixing it, whatever is wrong with the series or the programme"? There was no effort at all at that.

If it was coming to the end of its natural life then you'd expect some effort to breathe some new life into it, to thump it on the chest a bit, to keep it going. The decision - whilst it was maybe not actually made, say a year or two years ago - the decision was in people's heads for some time.

VB: Losing two central characters obviously was going to be a major problem.

ML: It was a problem, but I don't think it was a major problem in that the series could have been able to withstand it, the loss of the likes of Joe Lynch and Mary McEvoy. But it needed to be reinvigorated.

VB: Did you like Miley?

ML: I did, actually. I enjoyed him.

VB: Did you like being the portrayer of what was essentially a gormless character?

ML: Yeah. He was innocent, gormless, naive. I suppose there was the childish aspect of most mature people. I think I see that a lot of mature people - men and women - have, can have, almost in their persona childish qualities, naive qualities, innocent qualities that we somehow cover up in the force of our lives, or deem it "not cool" to reveal it, to reveal this gormless side of ourselves. That much being said, I have to say I'd never met anyone like Miley anywhere and I don't know of anybody who has, really.

But nonetheless I think it is fair to say that he was a fairly organic individual, that he was fairly wholesome. People didn't have much difficulty vis-a-vis his credibility. By and large, the people, men and women of Ireland, took to him wholeheartedly. So it must have been when he was gormless. I don't think he was untruthful. I think he was a true character.

VB: How much of you was in him?

ML: I suppose there was an element of some side of me, possibly an element that has become smothered with development, with maturity or something like that, over the years. I don't think I could say that I behave or think like him in any way. Nonetheless, there'd be times when I'd kinda almost wish that I was a bit more like him. There was almost a beatific quality about him. You know, not beatific in the holy way, but beatific in an innocent way in the sense that he was almost a latter-day Irish member of the beat generation. That easygoingness, quietness.

VB: Would you describe yourself as wholesome and organic and fairly true?

ML: Oh, very much so. The constant endeavour to be wholesome and truthful. [Laughs]. Yeah. I do my best. I might not succeed always.

VB: Was there ever a time you were uncomfortable with the scenes in Glenroe?

ML: No. Not much. There would be times when you'd be saying to yourself, you'd wonder if this was in the bounds of the character or whatever. The most notable time, I suppose, was a number of years ago when Miley had a fling in the hayshed with Fidelma which caused a fair amount of consternation among some people. A lot of people spoke to me about it and regarded it as being "out of character".

Then I kind of thought about this well, I think that most people - be they male or female - when they indulge in infidelity the first time it's probably out of character anyway for that particular person. I don't think that one is fully cognisant of various aspects of one's character at times until you are confronted with the situation whereby another aspect of oneself, of yourself, may come out. I think in the case of Miley and his very brief few moments of infidelity with Fidelma - and it's ironic that she should bear that name, given the situation - these sort of transgressions, when they happen initially, the first time, maybe even the second time are probably out of character anyway. So I didn't have much difficulty with it, no.

VB: Did you get on well with Joe Lynch?

ML: I got on well with him. He was huge, Joe was, and the world and his mother knows it - a man given to a lot of talk. So when you got tired listening to him, you just walked away to some other corner of the set, by and large. But, most of the time I got on well with him, because Joe and I, you see, were in this from the beginning anyway so there was a kind of a bond I suppose between the two of us, having done the Miley and Dinny pair in Bracken prior to Glenroe. There was a kind of a bond there.

VB: What have you found most satisfying in your acting career?

ML: I think, by and large, I'd have to say stage roles over the years. Quite a number of them from some of the early stuff with Druid to later times, some of the John B. Keane plays in the Gaiety. Especially The Hiker, The Man from Clare. There were good roles in those that John B. had written for middle-aged men. The likes of Old Mahon in the Playboy of The Western World, John Connor in Tom Murphy's play Famine, some of these were great parts and they were a thrill to do.

In many respects it was the best part of it, they all went on tours, what we used to call in Druid "unusual rural tours" where they went to school halls, community halls, dancehalls in some cases, where stages were adapted for the production. In some cases, stages were put up. What was really satisfying about that was to see around, this now was in the mid-80s, the huge amounts of people around the country who were just dying to get in to see a live show, a live good theatre show, particularly if they felt I think that it had something to say to them or that they had a relationship with it.

I always remember - and I told the story before a few times but it struck me as being sort of symbolic of something - in a place called Killasaran in the middle of Mayo with Famine, Tom Murphy's play. Famine, as you can imagine, is not a bundle of laughs.

We'd started late because when the lights had been rigged, the ESB transformer got blown so we had to hang out while the ESB came out and fixed it. Well anyway, at the end of the night, the cast were helping the crew getting the gear out, the stage out and stuff like that. I was standing there with a hammer in my hand and this young girl - and the place was jammed, it was a big community hall, there were 700 or 800 people, even almost encroaching on the stage at various times - this young girl came up at the end of the night and she said "Well, Mr Lally" - she was about 15 - "Mr Lally, that was only fantastic", she says. "It's a pity you're not here again tomorrow and you'd get twice as many".

Coming from a kid, to be able to say that about Famine, and it's a great play and I thought that she wouldn't be that into it maybe. We were doing something right.

VB: Would you describe yourself as a political person, I don't mean party political now?

ML: Yeah. I suppose I am, yeah.

VB: How would you describe it?

ML: I try to keep an eye on what's going on, various happenings. You know, the political goings on in the country. One of the things I have been struck by has been our response to our refugees, asylum-seekers and all that coming in. And how it would appear to me, anyway, that the response to this from on high at Governmental, ministerial level has been so paltry and so ungenerous and in ways seems to be not welcoming at all or understanding that here are different peoples coming from different parts of Eastern Europe, different parts of Africa that, by and large, for centuries have been ravaged by Europeans.

You know, we hear so much nowadays about the Fortress Europe idea and we tend, in Ireland, to go along with it. That if they landed in some country in Europe first, well then they must go back to these countries. But all of Europe, and the Irish were foot soldiers in all of this too, you know, for so long we ravaged all these peoples up and down Africa and parts of Asia.

Now it seems to me that well, it's time to be a little bit generous. It's time it was pay-back time, to some extent. That here are these people, they hear of Europe, it's a good place, it's a place there's work to be had, there's a living to be made and they're coming here. It's an exact replica of us heading off to the Americas or Australia 40 or 50 years ago, as recent as that, even 20 years ago.

VB: Any other issues concern you?

ML: One of my main concerns would be that we are doing very little to make their [asylum-seekers'] lives in this country easy, that at an Official Ireland level we have not made their passage into the country easy, to give them fairly decent places for them to stay. And this whole paltry way of treating them, sort of giving them food tickets and putting them into hostels or motels, boats, and then giving them food vouchers and a few quid a week to try and buy a bottle of wine or a few cigarettes or whatever. It's very poor, it's very mealy-mouthed when all is said and done. We should be a bit more generous-minded.

Then you have the problem at an ordinary street level. So many of them, especially black people, seem to have a problem walking around the city without being assaulted or abused or insulted. The ordinary people seem to be taking the cue very well from Official Ireland vis-a-vis how they treat these people.

VB: Where now for you? What are you going to do?

ML: Well, there's a couple of stage things, thankfully, lined up for the summer. There's two or three of them and inevitably they were clashing, so there's one of them.

VB: What's that?

ML: It's a John B. It's called The Chastitute, one of his later plays. It's a comedy about a guy who's past his sell-by date and is still looking for a woman. It's a bit of fun. There's a fairly lengthy tour being planned for it up and down from Galway to Sligo, Letterkenny probably, so that'll take up three or four months of the summer, anyway up till about August/ September.

Of course, the thing is now that there's so many in recent years, so many really good new venues up and down the country, there's a whole network of them now. You've Sligo and Galway, you've a new theatre in Letterkenny, new place in Portlaoise, Longford, there's a stack of them now so there's no need to go into the community halls or the dancehalls, or the school halls anymore.

They're pretty good venues as well, well thought out by and large, well appointed, good facilities, so that the biggest problem now seems to me is: how do the various managers of these new regional theatres, where do they get shows to put into them?