A rare breed of actor

A highly sophisticated, educated and thoughtful man, Mick Lally may have looked as if he was carved from the side of a Mayo mountain…

A highly sophisticated, educated and thoughtful man, Mick Lally may have looked as if he was carved from the side of a Mayo mountain, but he brought a vulnerability and sensitivity to every role he played on stage and screen

POWERFUL ACTORS can usually be defined through the contradictions they embody. In Mick Lally’s case, the contradiction was a rough fragility. With his physical bulk and craggy features, he was never going to be a matinee idol. He looked like he was carved from the side of a Mayo mountain and he had the same looming, implacable presence. If you didn’t know he’d been an accomplished boxer in his time as a student in UCG, you might have guessed from the way he held the ring on stage. What made him special, though, was that he combined that ruggedness with a vulnerability that could be almost unbearably poignant.

Mick Lally was highly unusual among contemporary Irish actors, in that he actually grew up in the world of the classic Irish play. He was a highly sophisticated, educated and thoughtful man and there was nothing naïve or primitive about his approach to performance.

But there were few actors of his age who, when rehearsing, say, The Playboy of the Western World, didn't need to be told what the life of a peasant in west Mayo was like, and understood precisely the way the Irish and English languages worked together in that culture. As the scion of a 30-acre hill farm in the Tourmakeady Gaeltacht, Lally knew all of that in the depth of his bones.

Likewise, there were few actors of his generation who grew up loving a mid-century Irish playwright like MJ Molloy, without any ifs, buts or ironies. When he gave one of his loveliest stage performances, as Sanbatch Daly in the Druid production of Molloy's long-forgotten The Wood of the Whisperingin 1983, it came across as an act of love and homage rather than of simple professionalism.

He responded to the big emotions, the vivid language and the bright colours of a kind of theatre that was anything but cool.

That comfort with that older kind of theatre was important, not least because it also made him comfortable with the form that grew out of it – TV soap opera. For all his artistic credibility, he had no disdain for the soaps that made him so deeply popular throughout Ireland. Coming from where he did, he would never patronise Miley Byrne.

He brought a knowing humour and gentle self-awareness to Brackenand Glenroe, but it was never of the kind that separates an actor from a role or from the audience. The famous April Fool joke on Morning Ireland,when Lally announced that he was quitting Glenroe because RTÉ was insisting on nude scenes, worked only because people had come to take it for granted that he took the job very seriously and really cared about the people who watched the show.

His success as Miley is easy to underrate. When himself and Joe Lynch came into Bracken, it was largely as comic relief – Lally's sexless, lumbering gom as a foil to Gabriel Byrne's brooding, simmering hunk.

Moving from sideman to lead player is never easy, but to make people care about a character who has started out essentially as a joke takes real skill and commitment. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people came to believe that Miley was real, and to have great affection for him, was a tribute both to his craft and to his utter lack of affectation.

In a sense, Lally’s great strength was his lack of choice about who he was. There are actors who seem to have no fixed centre, whose genius lies in the instability that gives them an infinite flexibility. Mick Lally could never have been one of them. He was a Caliban, not an Ariel. He was rooted in his own personality – chained to it by his big countryman’s face and his heavy Mayo accent. In an era when Irish actors could end up playing Henry VIII or Winston Churchill on screen, Lally was never likely to be cast as anything other than a rural Irishman. But this narrow range forced him to find the depth within it.

He did this in two ways. One was an extraordinary ability to be ageless.

The first role in which he announced himself as a major actor was that of Old Mahon in Garry Hynes's momentous production of The Playboyin 1979. He was in his mid-30s and he was not heavily made up. Yet it never for a moment crossed your mind that he was in reality only a little older than his "son", Maelíosa Stafford. Throughout his career, he retained that ability to make up in age span the range that he otherwise lacked.

The other respects in which his own limitations ultimately contributed to his power was that he had to be subtle.

If he was to be more than a big bruiser or an archetypal peasant, he had to find the chinks within his own armour, to undermine the tough and forceful presence that he was born with. This is where his quick intelligence and emotional shrewdness came into play. What people came to love in Miley was the way Lally could keep him constant but at the same time insinuate all sorts of slyly unexpected qualities, from playful humour to sexual vulnerability.

Perhaps his greatest performance was as John Connor in Tom Murphy's Faminefor Druid in 1984. Connor is the village headman, a tribal leader to whom the people look for guidance as they try to survive the Great Famine. Lally – big, commanding, self-assured – was utterly believable as the kind of natural aristocrat who has authority simply because he assumes he ought to.

But as Connor, of course, fails to stop the famine and becomes ever more isolated in his belief that sticking to the right ways of doing things will see the village through, Lally achieved a tragic grandeur. The poignancy of seeing such a strong man become so helpless was as memorable as it was haunting. A lot of actors could have done the power and a lot could have done the helplessness, but few could have done both.

As a member of that rare breed, Mick Lally is irreplaceable.

Memories of Mick

Mary McEvoy, Glenroe co-star

When I met Mick he was already a big star and I was as star struck as anybody really. I was blown away by him.

When I got the part in Glenroeit was almost like we had known each other for a long time. We fitted in very casually and relaxed into each other's company. We got on with it – he seemed to like me and I liked him. Particularly in the Glenroe years, you would have a great laugh with him, and he was very clever in spotting inadequacies in the script.

He was a very clever man and erudite. He had great Irish and exquisite English, which was very correct and beautiful. He had a really good way of using very few words to describe something perfectly. In his acting it came across.

I find it very hard as I knew him so well and can’t separate the man from the acting.

He meant so much to everyone, especially the theatregoers, with all his history. I’d also like to say what a wonderful family man he was. It was the most important thing in his life. He was a loving husband and his children are a credit to him.

Garry Hynes is co-founder of Druid theatre company

Everything in my life, both professionally and personally, has been intertwined with Mick and his family.

Druid would not have existed were it not for Mick and I find it very hard to take that such an extraordinary life force is gone.

Marie Mullen [Druid co-founder] and I are going to travel to Galway tonight and do what we do in the theatre and lead the company of The Silver Tassiein a round of applause in appreciation of his life. That's the best possible place to celebrate him.

Clearly he will be remembered for his role as Miley, but of the many other roles, I remember his performance as Old Mahon in the Playboyas extraordinary. He played the lead in Power of Darknesson the Abbey Stage, too, and I also remember the power of Roma, a piece he made for RTÉ shortly after he left Druid in the early 1980s.

Mick could not keep away from the stage or performing. It is a premature death and it is very hard to believe that this has happened.

It is shocking. We can only think of Peggy, the love of his life, and his three children.

Fiach MacConghail, director of the Abbey Theatre

What is unusual for me is that my relationship with Mick was through his love of the Irish language. All my conversations for many years with him were through Irish. During my work with him last year on the new Tom Murphy play, T he Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, we didn't speak a word of English together. I could see he used the Irish language, in his connection with folklore and heritage, in his acting. That's why he was so good in Synge and Friel and Murphy plays. He had a unique musicality in his language.

He was very good as an actor. He was able to be as good in Irish and English and he acted in more than 20 productions in the Abbey. He will be remembered for his role in the premiere of Brian Friel's Translationsand also his close association with Garry Hynes. He was a quiet, humble man who also provided leadership within a company during a run.

Tomm Moore, director of The Secret of Kells

Mick Lally was our first and only choice as the voice of Brother Aidan in The Secret of Kells. It was an honour to work with him. He brought a warmth and humour to the character's voice that all the animators appreciated and enjoyed working with.

We only worked with him for a short time but we listened to his voice for almost three years after we did the recording. Even animators in Hungary, Belgium and Brazil got used to hearing him as they worked, everyone agreed he made their jobs easy by bringing so much character to the voice.

We met again last year around the publicity of the film and the Oscar nominations. The news is very sad and sudden.

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