President leads tributes to late playwright and poet Tom MacIntyre, 87

Authors, actors and critics remember the Cavan writer best known for The Great Hunger

Playwright Tom MacIntyre standing outside Leinster House in 2009 ahead of the opening of his play on  political life in Dáil Eireann at the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Eric Luke

Playwright Tom MacIntyre standing outside Leinster House in 2009 ahead of the opening of his play on political life in Dáil Eireann at the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Eric Luke


Irish playwright and poet Tom MacIntyre has died aged 87 following a long illness.

Born in Co Cavan in 1931, MacIntyre was best known for his theatre work, in particular The Great Hunger, an acclaimed collaboration with director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey. He also published numerous volumes of poetry and short stories, the novel The Charollais, and Through The Bridewell Gate, an examination of the 1970 Arms Trial.

He is survived by his wife Celine and his five children, Deirdre, Darragh, Donal, Desmond and Tadhg, from his first marriage to Peggy McCarthy.

The funeral Mass will be celebrated on Saturday, November 2nd, at 1pm in St Anne’s Church, Bailieborough, Co Cavan, followed by cremation in Lakeland Crematorium, Cavan.

President Michael D Higgins 
The death of Tom MacIntyre, playwright, poet and author is such a very great loss to the world of letters and performance. 

A member of Aosdána for decades, his work was characterised by originality, courage and in creative terms, the pushing of the boundaries for actors, stage and audience. In this he will be missed by his great collaborator in so much of his work – Tom Hickey.

Tom McIntyre’s The Great Hunger, his acclaimed collaboration with Patrick Mason and Tom Hickey in the 1980s, was one wonderful achievement in a body of fine work. His Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire showed his instinct to distil the essence of tragic loss, his bilingual ability being a real advantage. 

His poetry and short stories reflected so their existentialist provocations, and his loyalty to the intimacies of his Cavan, and particularly its people, alive and dead.
The soliloquy The Gallant John Joe performed by Tom Hickey was the last of his performances that Sabina and I had the privilege to attend. Tom McIntyre’s work received accolades, not only at home but abroad, where the experimental and original themes and settings attracted directors young and old. To have him as a friend was a special gift.

To his wife Celine, and his children Deirdre, Darragh, Donal, Desmond and Tadhg, Sabina and I express our deepest condolences, and of course, to his great collaborator Tom Hickey, who will miss him in such a special way. 
The work endures and will continue to inspire.

Tom Hickey
There was no other human like him working in the theatre. He approached me once in a pub on Leeson Street one mid-summer evening and he gave me a script for The Great Hunger. The years passed and I heard nothing. Later, I joined the Abbey and Joe Dowling came up to me one day and asked me to play Maguire. They were going to finally do the play.

There was a line in The Great Hunger:  “Patrick Maguire went home and made cocoa.” I asked Tom what way he wanted it done. “Pitch it,” he said, “somewhere between the quotidian and the enigmatic and you won’t go far wrong.” The Great Hunger was a great success and after that - for many years - there was a MacIntyre play in the Peacock each year. We were know as “the lunatics in the basement”.

He wasn’t the easiest man to deal with. He had a unique take on living. An eye like a hawk. But if you made an outrageous suggestion in rehearsals, he’d use it if he could. Those plays changed the way a whole generation of actors and directors saw the world. He never avoided anything - he was very insightful about human behaviour - never avoided the darkness, the controversial. He was also a expert at understanding physicality in the role of a character. But his whole disposition was expressed from deep in his bones, from the soul of Cavan.

He has left a legacy in the Irish theatre pulse that comes from the bone. Unique and beautiful, that’s him.
Tom Hickey is an actor, who collaborated closely with Tom MacIntyre for much of his career 

Marina Carr
Mentor and old friend. You taught me so much. God speed. The joy in him and how he described the world. Tom in his heyday pouring forth. A joy to behold. An electric presence. A glorious Shaman.
Marina Carr is an award-winning playwright

Olwen Fouéré 
Thank you Tom for your great friendship, mischief and artistry, our diving bell in the joyful dark.
Olwen Fouéré is an actor

Graham McLaren and Neil Murray 
Everyone at the Abbey Theatre wishes to express our sincere and heartfelt condolences to Tom’s wife Celine, his children Deirdre, Darragh, Donal, Desmond and Tadgh, and to his extended family and friends. 

An ethereal writer opening doors to other worlds, his collaborations with Patrick Mason and Tom Hickey were world renowned and changed the theatrical landscape. The three were fondly referred to as the “lunatics in the basement [of the Peacock]” by the Abbey staff. Tom’s work created new theatrical forms and language and brought physical theatre to the Irish psyche, particularly with The Great Hunger.

His work featured Irish themes and characters and eloquently explored time and space, with an instinctive raw energy. A man close to the lakes and drumlins of his native home, Tom called on its language, myth, folklore and landscape in his writings.

Tom has been an integral part of the Abbey’s history. Presenting 16 world premieres at the Peacock – perhaps his spiritual home – he was a committed colleague and friend. Encouraging of new talent, Tom was always willing to give of himself. He will be greatly missed.
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, directors of the Abbey Theatre

Alan Gilsenan
There can be few more brilliant, difficult and elusive presences in Irish theatre and literature than the late Tom MacIntyre. In 1983, alongside Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, MacIntyre’s The Great Hunger was the transformative moment in modern Irish theatre. In my student imagination, those productions – both directed by Patrick Mason – were transcendent occasions.

In The Great Hunger – and in many of the collaborations with the actor Tom Hickey that were to come – MacIntyre seemed to throw off the shackles of narrative and story for Irish theatre.

The two Toms (MacIntyre and Hickey) made annual pilgrimages to Wuppertal to see productions of the choreographer Pina Bausch and returned ready to give Irish theatre a good kicking. To give the theatrical image equal billing with the sainted word on the Irish stage. Not that MacIntrye turned his back on the word, though. For he was, more than anything perhaps, a poet.

He could be tricky too. Provocative and sometimes wilfully evasive. I remember visiting him at home in Cavan to discuss the forthcoming premiere production of What Happened Bridgie Cleary which I was directing. Sometimes, mid-discussion, he would simply drift off and stare silently out the misted window at the bleak field beyond. Maybe he was bored by my questions? My desire to make sense of the piece. Maybe he just didn’t have the answers. Or, perhaps, he was simply disrupting the simple narrative. For Tom MacIntyre, above all, relished the creative power of disruption. 

When news of MacIntrye’s death reached his great friend and collaborator Tom Hickey, the actor recalled his favourite memory. It was during the Edinburgh Festival. The Great Hunger was the toast of the town. MacIntrye pulled a grubby scrap of paper from his pocket. A poem was scrawled upon it. “Who wrote that?” he asked, ever the riddler, pushing it over to Hickey. Tom Hickey read it – moved and impressed – and then suggested Shakespeare perhaps. MacIntyre smiled, that enigmatic smile, content for once. 
Alan Gilsenan is a writer, film-maker and theatre director. He directed Tom MacIntyre’s What Happened Bridgie Cleary for the Abbey Theatre in 2005.

Gerald Dawe
There was always a sense of the wild outdoors about Tom. As if he’d just stepped in from the coast. We knew him as Mac and first met him in the countryside of south Galway in the sparse early seventies. He became a visitor when we lived within old Galway and a little later in our shy bungalow on the road to Headford and Cong and points west. I hear his voice now so easily. And the emphases he placed on where this word or that came from and its family resemblances and histories.

Mac was in love with language. He used it like no one else I have ever heard or met. And he produced some of the rarest, most challenging, drama, fiction, poetry of his or any other generation, making of these all, a fable for our times. No one, simply no one, wrote like Mac. His poems defied logic. His prose was fantabulous. His plays mind-boggling: trick-o’-the-loop one minute; the next hard-nosed and political. Dance the Dance I read when it first came out and loved the rhythms, the unexpected landscapes and the physical care of the language; his volumes of poetry threw everything up in the air. He was elemental and made us all sit up and listen.
Gerald Dawe is a poet

Jessica Traynor
I started work in the literary department of the Abbey Theatre in 2008, when I was 24 years old. To wear out a cliche, it was a baptism of fire – my first months had me getting stuck in a lift with Edna O’Brien, searching the theatre for an errant Brian Friel (he had stealthily made his way to the back of the auditorium to take an unobserved look at tech rehearsals for his version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters) and getting to know the mercurial, brilliant, shamanic Tom MacIntyre. 

When he heard I was an aspiring poet, Tom had plenty of advice, always delivered with a gleam in his eye that emphasised both the madness and utter truth of what he was saying. “To be a writer,” he would say to me, and to the rapt participants on our New Playwrights Programme, “you have to stop paying your rent. Post your keys back through the letterbox. Leave your partner. Walk through the fiery door.” 

He was an imposing figure, all wild silver hair and ice-blue eyes. Unlike many writers of his generation, he looked to America and Europe for his inspiration. He had me buy Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary – an essential tome for anyone with an interest in language. He was also a passionate Gaelgeoir, and he sent me and my colleague Aideen numerous handwritten postcards, snippets of poems, and updates on the symbologies of cats in dream – Pangúr Bán and Pangúr Bui and Pangúr Gorm skittering across pages in his flowing, unruly script.

The last time I saw him I took a bus to Cavan to visit him and his long term partner Celine in their house the hillside, overlooking the drumlins. They had married recently in a beautiful lakeside ceremony. He was in flying form, a massive tawny tomcat twisting around the legs of his chair, and Celine made us lunch in their kitchen. We talked about plays and poetry and Irish mythology – about lakes and archaeology and about the mysterious three-faced Cromleck Head, found not far from where we sat, an artefact that symbolised everything that Tom believed about the animus and the anima and the third eye. 

Some of the stories he told were repeated, or meandered a circuitous route, as if a drumlin in the memory had to be circumnavigated, but his words had lost none of their richness. I was struck that he had reached a place of a kind of continuous present tense, where each sequential moment held its own revelation, its own discovery. And I was struck by how happy himself and Celine were, as they drove me back to the bus stop in town, flying past the lake gleaming pewter in the low sun – even though the name of the lake he knew so well escaped Tom at the time. After the visit, I wrote a poem.

How the Lake Lost its Name
Days after your wedding
the memory’s gone 
lost in the mosaic of sensation 
perhaps it feels like love or sex 
body/mind in free-fall/tethered 
to the other so whoever you speak to now 
is your lover/ your enemy
The only words are those between us
but where 
do they go 
once spoken 

the question tugs your sleeve
Let’s sit back watch it all unfold
the walk from the lake  to the hotel 
the story you keep telling  of how 
the lake lost its name  something 
in that gap  of language  inauspicious 
on your wedding day
The lake loses its name
all over again
Where are 
we now 

you ask 
We’re stood waiting for you and your wife
to climb the hotel steps sit back with me 
tell me what you see I won’t mind 
if I’ve heard it before

Jaki McCarrick
Patrick Kavanagh’s remarkable long poem, The Great Hunger, with its taut rhythms (“Sitting on a wooden gate, / sitting on a wooden gate, / sitting on a wooden gate …”) and ferocious tension, its direct invitation to follow Patrick Maguire, the poem’s protagonist, through his anguished “buried life” (to quote Heaney), is a dramatist’s dream. Written in 1942, The Great Hunger explores the spiritual and sexual hunger of a man more or less moored on his mother’s farm in Co. Monaghan. The poem is written cinematically, the reader’s direction guided, as if with a camera, to various scenes and close-ups. 

It took 41 years for another writer, the late Tom MacIntyre, to see the dramatic potential of this groundbreaking work, which has something of Eliot’s The Wasteland about it. In turn, MacIntyre himself created a groundbreaking work, one that is a brilliant blend of physical and literary theatre, bringing, as Kavanagh had done before him, modernist and avant garde influences to bear on a work set in rural Ireland.

I first saw MacIntyre’s drama in Dundalk, in the late ’90s. I was living in London at the time and had returned home to direct a cross-Border production of Romeo and Juliet, which I’d adapted for a youth theatre group. In that piece I also wanted to bring in elements of dance. While home, I attended the May Time Drama Festival and watched there an amateur production of MacIntyre’s The Great Hunger. 

I was astounded by the physicality of the piece and soon after read the text. Here, I realised, was a writer doing exactly what I was attempting to do in my adaptation: he wove movement with text. Other than use of Laban Notation (a coded form of dance description) it is extremely difficult in a dramatic piece to describe movement whilst keeping the poetic integrity of the piece; MacIntyre achieves this beautifully in his play. Written in 1983, this artistically experimental work can, I think, also be seen now as part of the long journey of societal change in Ireland.

As Fintan O’Toole states (in Critical Moments) “The fear of the flesh which infected Ireland for so long affected our theatre just as much as it affected social life. Tom MacIntyre’s … The Great Hunger heralds a theatre that can express what words can only suggest.”

A few years ago, in conversation with the artistic director of one the UK’s most respected physical theatre companies, he cited The Great Hunger, directed by Patrick Mason for The Abbey, as the greatest piece of theatre he’d ever seen. 
Tom MacIntyre was a prolific, gloriously experimental writer whose work was internationally acclaimed. It is surely time now for revivals of his plays, in particular The Great Hunger.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays and fiction. Her play Belfast Girls has its European Premiere in Stockholm on November 5th.

Shane Connaughton
“If Tom is dead I can’t be far behind.” First thing I thought when I heard Tom had died. He seemed indestructible. A defier of the mystery. He was a generous man at home and had a great insight into Cavan people and a great love of their language. He was also a contrarian. He told me he was a better poet than Seamus Heaney and a far better writer than John McGahern. The latter he called a “pencil” writer. Apparently this was because John had 20 pencils on his desk. He also believed that Art at all times had a capital A, R, T. This put him at a remove from a large section of people. But his story Stallions is as good a short story as ever written.
Shane Connaughton is a writer

Anthony Roche
Tom McIntyre was the wild man of Irish theatre. His plays overthrew the established belief that the single creator of a play and its meaning was the playwright. Instead of a fixed script delivered from on high to be realised by the rest of the creative crew, MacIntyre joined forces with director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey in the 1980s in the Peacock to create such revolutionary acts of theatre as 1983’s The Great Hunger, based on the Kavanagh poem. What they created in this and the theatrical works that followed has become known as the Theatre of the Image, moving Irish theatre away from its obsession with the verbal into the realms of dance, mime and design. 

But when MacIntyre’s Great Hunger was published, it became clear that there was a verbal text, speech that was close to the oral tradition in a distinctive Cavan-Monaghan dialect. These experiments laid down a template and fed directly into the work of more recent theatre makers like Michael Keegan Dolan and Mikel Murfi. It is no surprise that such luminous performers as Olwyn Fouéré and Pat Kinevane came to the fore in MacIntyre productions. Just last month, I saw Conall Morrison’s The Travels of Jonathan Swift at the Blue Raincoat Theatre in Sligo. The choreography of Swift’s gentle horses in it brought me back to MacIntyre’s 1984 play about Swift, The Bearded Lady. The imposing figure of Tom MacIntyre is sadly with us no more; but his influence is everywhere. 
Anthony Roche is Professor Emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin and a judge in the 2019 The Irish Times Irish Theatre Award

John Bruton
Tom was a noted athlete in his youth, playing for Cavan as a goal keeper. I first encountered him when he taught me English and history in Clongowes. He opened my mind to a new view of the world. He was unconventional, irreverent and also a very kind person, whose personality inspired many of his students to explore the world of poetry. I attended some years ago when he was honoured by Cavan County Council. He was very proud of Cavan and returned to live there.
John Bruton is a former Fine Gael leader and taoiseach

Aideen Howard
Tom MacIntyre would tell you himself that he was was reared on words even if his plays were full of theatre pictures. When I got word of his death it was an image that came to mind from summer 2015 when Tom and his wife Celine led their wedding party procession through the long grass to the shore of Lough Ramor.

The actor Tom Hickey and I had driven from Dublin to Virginia that August morning. We were in MacIntyre’s beloved Co Cavan for sure but it may as well have been a scene from Russia in the 19th century. I let the image linger. I thought he’d be happy with that. After that I went to the book shelf and took out the words – the books and sheafs of letters and postcards.

Tom was a brilliant correspondent. The cards and letters (he called them signals) would arrive weekly with updates on his next new play, theatre shenanigans and global news via remote Cavan. When my children were born his benediction and good wishes came by post from Killenard or Killeshandra. A south Ulster man, he had direct, easy access to the Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon traditions and was as comfortable with Cathal Bui Mac Ghiolla Gunna, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson as with John Milton and Royal Court playwrights from the sixties onward.

While rooted in the dual tradition Tom’s interest reached far beyond it to Paris, eastern Europe and the US. It was Tom who first introduced me to the work of Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. His regular trips to see the Pina Bausch Company in Wuppertal with his closest collaborator, Tom Hickey, would produce hilarious accounts of their adventures in the avant garde, and the German train system.

MacIntyre’s company was frequently uproarious and always irreverent. More than once his provacative opinions turned heads over soup and a sandwich. We talked about theatre and new writing. I was always curious to know more about his ground-breaking work on The Great Hunger in 1983 when his imagistic sensibility met the stony grey soil of Kavanagh’s epic poem. We talked about his influence on writers such as Marina Carr and Michael Harding and indeed, theirs on him. And always we talked about the next new play.

As he grew older and harder of hearing we had to forsake the old reliable Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street as a lunch venue because his outrageous opinions became too loud for the company. As a playwright, he held the rare record of 16 world premieres at the Abbey Theatre; he was the author of several collections of poetry in Irish and English; and Through The Bridewell Gate, a riveting account of the 1970s arms trial.

Mac Intyre was a writer with equal facility for the idiom of theatre, poetry and politics. For all that he had little interest in harking back to his own hey-day. When I asked him to contribute to the new Abbey Theatre Oral History Project he hadn’t the slightest interest. You’ve heard it all before, he said. Eventually, years later, at 83, he humoured me with an interview for the archive. Typically, it was extraordinary stuff, the work of a veteran story-teller in full flight. He entertained my notion by going over old ground with scant regard for posterity. Really, though, what Tom wanted to talk about was the next play.
Aideen Howard is the Director of The Ark Cultural Centre for Children and former Literary Director of The Abbey Theatre where she commissioned new work for the Abbey and Peacock stages and created The Abbey Theatre Oral History Project.