Stage and screen actor and comedian Niall Tóibín died early on Wednesday in Dublin after a long illness. He was aged 89, just over a week off his 90th birthday, on November 21st.
Niall Toibin’s career encompassed comedy and straight roles, and over nearly six decades he was lauded for performances from Behan interpretations to touring solo shows. He was also a great raconteur, and often charmed the nation on the Late Late Show. He did a great line in priests, from formidable parish priest Fr Frank MacAnally in Ballykissangel, to psychopathic Fr Geraldo in Rat, to a gentler cleric in Brideshead Revisited.
Memorable screen roles included those in Ryan’s Daughter, Bracken, The Ballroom of Romance, Eat the Peach, Far and Away, Veronica Guerin, Caught in a Free State, The Clinic, Bob Quinn’s Poitin, and The Irish RM, where he described his character Slipper as “the perennially tipsy whipper-in of hounds, schemer, advisor, trickster, lovable at a distance, but odoriferous close up”.
An urbane Corkman with a twinkle of mischief, a gutsy edge and a mellifluous voice, his 1995 memoir was appositely titled, from Hamlet, Smile and Be a Villain.
From Beckett to Eugene O’Neill to embodying Brendan Behan in multiple productions, Niall Tóibín was capable of great intensity and complexity as an actor, but he was also hugely entertaining. His wicked glint of devilment, character observation and ear for accents erupted in the “cute Cork hoors and mean Cavan bastards” “touring” Ireland via anecote and slagging (in live shows and as seen on Gay Byrne’s final Late Late in 1999). International film and TV career aside, these skilful, subtle characterisations were just for us.
President Michael D Higgins led tributes to Mr Tóibín, saying his contribution to Irish theatre was unique in both Irish and English. “The depth of interpretation he brought to a wide variety of characters showed a very deep intellectual understanding and, above all, sensitivity to the nuance of Irish life.” His work range was vast, with “unforgettable performances” in Irish, London and New York theatres.
Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin said Tóibín’s “authenticity shone through”. “Quickwitted and sharp-tongued, he had audiences locally, nationally and internationally in the palm of his hand as he mixed confidence and humility with his own brand of humour.” The Irish language played an important role in Tóibín’s life and his love for it shone through, he added.
RTÉ director general Dee Forbes said he spent “14 great years with the Radio Éireann Players” and became a familiar face on RTÉ to generations of Irish people. A new RTÉ documentary on Niall Tóibín over Christmas will include family archive, excerpts from TV, films and stand-up, and interviews.
The Irish Film Institute said, “You can see Niall Toibin stealing scenes in his pomp in Tony Luraschi’s heartfelt Troubles drama The Outsider at a special 40th anniversary screening in the IFI on November 25th.
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan called him “a uniquely talented performer, light-hearted, funny, sharp-witted and intensely powerful both as an actor and comedian”. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted he “blazed a trail” and was “a great actor and wit”.
Songwriter and musician Phil Coulter recalled being “so nervous on my first Irish tour 1985, that I asked him to do the first hour! Not only was he brilliant onstage, but offstage he held may hand and calmed my nerves.” Actor Jonathan White tweeted “I owe my career to Niall Toibin. When I was 12, he showed me the view from a Broadway stage and changed my world.”
Actor Gavin O’Connor recalled “What a wonderful mentor Niall Tóibín was to me during Borstal Boy. Taking me out on stage before performance to working on delivery and comic timing. He unashamedly treated me differently because I was from Cork and hadn’t a clue.”
Broadcaster Joe Duffy tweeted “I used to see and greet Niall in Clontarf until his health deteriorated. He was always friendly, an extraordinarily gifted actor , comedian and writer.”
The Abbey Theatre called him “a beloved colleague and friend – we will miss him”, posting a photo of Toibin with Tom Hickey on a 1988 Abbey tour to Russia where Toibin played The Bull McCabe in The Field, and Hickey was Maguire in The Great Hunger. The Gate Theatre recalled his role as Andy in its production of Lovers by Brian Friel.
Mrs Brown’s Boys actor Rory Cowan commented he met the “terrific actor” once. “When I told him my father was in the Trade Union movement he became very chatty. Turned out he was a big trade union/workers rights supporter.”
Actor Rachel Carson Pilkington recalled a beautiful performance in The Ballroom of Romance from William Trevor’s novel, and working with him in The Clinic: “There was always a sparkle of divilment in his eyes”.
Meanwhile back on Mr Toibin’s native Leeside where he was made a Freeman of Cork in 2015, the Lord Mayor, Cllr John Sheehan said it was with great sadness that he learned of Mr Toibin’s death and a book of condolence would be opened at Cork City Hall.
“There is a palpable sense of sadness in Cork that one of our much loved sons, a proud Freeman of the City, has passed on. Níall Tóibín was an unforgettable presence both on and off the stage,” said Cllr Sheehan.
“His love of Cork, Ireland and Irish language and culture was renowned; that rich, resonant voice beloved by generations on both sides of the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean – a boy from the Northside of Cork City, he grew to become an Irish cultural reference point."