Fergus Linehan: Prolific satirical writer, dramatist and arts journalist

Obituary: He was ‘Irish Times’ film critic, TV critic and arts editor for many years

 

Fergus Linehan, who has died aged 82, was a prolific writer of comedy and drama for almost half a century. He wrote a steady stream of satire and sketches for radio and cabaret, along with many musicals, adaptations and original plays which were performed on the stages of the Abbey, Gate, Gaiety and many other theatres.

In later life, he published two novels which drew on his own childhood memories of life in colonial Southeast Asia and Dublin.

Linehan’s scripts were noted for the quality of his lyrics, and his work was much in demand for popular variety shows such as Gaels of Laughter at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. From the 1970s onwards, he wrote revues for his wife, Rosaleen Linehan, to perform with her comedy partner, actor Des Keogh, in cabaret venues such as the Embankment in Tallaght.

Their popularity led to national tours and transfers for extended runs in larger venues across Dublin. The last of these, Des and Rosie on the Luas, played to packed houses at the Gaiety in 2005.

Canny listeners to Radio Éireann in the 1970s knew to tune in on Sunday night to Get an Earful of This, a satirical show written by Fergus Linehan and Frank Sheeran, taking potshots at property developers, politicians and advertising campaigns of the day. Rosaleen Linehan was a regular cast member. John Keogh, Aiden Grennell, Bosco Hogan and Des Cave also featured.

All this time, Linehan held senior positions in The Irish Times, which he had joined in 1960. He was variously film critic, TV critic and arts editor, responsible with literary editor Brian Fallon for the extensive cultural coverage in the newspaper, commissioning and publishing essays, articles and reviews by writers such as Theodora Fitzgibbon, Brian Moyne, Claud Cockburn, Mary Leland, Anthony Cronin and many more.

As film critic, he was one of the first to tell an Irish audience about the wave of new European cinema represented by auteurs such as Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini, and was to the fore in condemning the bowdlerisation and banning of many films by the censors of the day. Film-maker Peter Lennon said that Linehan was one of the few to defend his controversial 1968 portrait of Ireland, The Rocky Road to Dublin, describing it as “fresh and individual and owing nothing to any establishment ideas about how this country should be projected”.

Fergus Linehan was born in Malaya in 1934, the youngest of four children. The family returned to Dublin in 1940, and he was educated at Belvedere and Clongowes Wood colleges. His father, William, who served in the British colonial service and was a noted historian of Malay culture, returned to Malaya and was imprisoned by the Japanese at the infamous Changi prison camp until the end of the second World War.

At University College Dublin’s drama society, Dramsoc, Linehan met Rosaleen McMenamin, daughter of a Donegal Fine Gael TD. The two would marry in 1961. Through Dramsoc, he also came to know a law student called Frank Kelly, who was cast in Linehan’s early musical, Glory Be, which was taken up by acclaimed director Joan Littlewood for the Theatre Royal at Stratford in east London, and which gave Milo O’Shea his first big acting break.

He also dramatised a Mervyn Wall story about Fursey, a medieval monk being tormented by the Devil, as a musical for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1962. Many more plays and musicals would follow, including Speak of the Devil at the Olympia and the Lennox Robinson adaptation Innish at the Abbey. Mary Makebelieve, a retelling of The Charwoman’s Daughter by James Stephens, was also staged by the Abbey, along with his versions of two Georges Feydeau farces, Hotel Casanova and A Flea in Her Ear. He also wrote The Streets of Dublin, a reworking of Dion Boucicault’s Victorian melodrama, which was staged at the Tivoli in 1992.

Among his more serious work for the stage, his play Frauds, first produced in 1990 on the Peacock stage at the Abbey by Caroline Fitzgerald , was a searching – and some would say prescient – look at the mores of Irish business.

Career as novelist

Under the Durian TreeThe Safest Place

Fergus Linehan revisited the land of his birth in 1989. Though the colony had become independent and renamed itself Malaysia, at the Salangor Club, where expats like his father traditionally gathered, half a century later the menu had not changed: “For dinner we have brown Windsor soup, lamb chops and apple pie.”

Linehan attended gala opening nights in his own right, but preferred to be seen as accompanying his more famous actress wife. He was content for his work to speak for him. Approaching retirement, he told a round table of playwrights in the 1990s that nothing matched the pleasure of sitting in a theatre and witnessing the audience respond to words he had written.

Curiously, for a man who lived and breathed drama, his persona was quiet and understated. At the Westmoreland Street newspaper office where he worked until retirement in 1999, his was a quiet, almost withdrawn presence. In a milieu where rumbustious egos flourished and sometimes locked horns, he kept his counsel, and was often happiest when consulting with the typesetters in the newspaper’s caseroom, whose skill and knowledge he valued highly.

He may have been slightly animated on the morning when he observed to a colleague who had just arrived into work, “If you had been here 10 minutes earlier, you’d have seen X ‘clock’ Y!”. But that might just have been a gentle hint to a subordinate about poor timekeeping, rather than the hottest piece of office gossip.

In truth, his first preference was always for the company of actors and theatre people (in retirement, he combined this with his passion for cricket to become a leading and much-loved light in the Theatrical Cavaliers cricket team). While their spirit might have seemed the opposite of his own quiet public persona, it actually chimed well with the mischief-making and delight in wordplay that characterised so much of his writing.

He is survived by his wife Rosaleen, children Hugh, Evanna, Fergus and Conor, and grandchildren Daniel, Ciaran, Rosie, Maebh, Norah May, Matthew, Fergus and Isabella.