Jer O’Leary obituary: The actor who brought history to life

A theatrical powerhouse respected across a wide political and philosophical divide

Jer O’Leary stands before the statue of  Jim Larkin on O’Connell Street Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Jer O’Leary stands before the statue of Jim Larkin on O’Connell Street Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Jeremiah James Dominic O’Leary
Born: August 4th, 1945
Died: December 26th, 2018

For virtually all of his adult life, Jer O’Leary, who has died aged 73, worked as a hospital porter in Dublin. But it was as an actor and artist that he made his unforgettable mark, as his huge funeral in Dublin last week, accompanied by pipers and the holding aloft of the colourful banners he designed for the trade union movement, gave ample testimony.

It was also a turbulent life, involving a sentence of three years in prison in Mountjoy Jail in 1972 for activities associated with his membership of the Official IRA at the height of the Northern troubles.

Deeply committed politically, O’Leary had joined the organisation in 1967, aged 21, when the then-unified IRA had developed from a purely nationalist organisation into an internationalist revolutionary movement.

This was very much at odds with the traditional perception of the IRA’s role among many in its membership, which was to result in the split in the IRA in December, 1969, into its Official and Provisional wings, with O’Leary retaining his loyalty to the former, newer, version of the movement.

O’Leary’s period in prison was transformational, both personally and educationally. Having left school at St Vincent’s CBS at 14 to work as a messenger boy for the now defunct Irish Yeast Company in Dublin’s College St, he had had little in the way of formal cultural schooling.

Jer O’ Leary, in character as Jim Larkin, giving a speech to dockers and Jacobs workers at a recreation of events at the State Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on O’Connell Street, Dublin on August 31st, 2013 Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Jer O’ Leary, in character as Jim Larkin, giving a speech to dockers and Jacobs workers at a recreation of events at the State Commemoration of the 1913 Lockout on O’Connell Street, Dublin on August 31st, 2013 Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Artistic work

In Mountjoy Prison, however, he took art classes and upon his release showed a natural talent for graphic art by participating in, and winning in three successive years, competitions held by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’s (ITGWU’s) Union Members’ Art Committee, chaired by the then director of the National College of Art and Design, Noel Sheridan.

Scott Millar, now a communications officer with the ITGWU’s successor, SIPTU, told The Irish Times this week that O’Leary, having been commissioned by Michael Mullen, the union’s general secretary, to design a new set of banners for the organisation “really revived the colour tradition of trade union banners in Ireland”, something dormant since the early years of the State when such banners “often were just very basic, sometimes featuring images of traditional Irish saints”.

O’Leary replaced the saints with images of James Connolly and, for the Federated Workers’ Union, James Larkin, whose name was anathema to some of the older members of the ITGWU, following the split in the trade union movement which had led to Larkin setting up the rival Workers’ Union of Ireland in the years following independence.

A cast member took umbrage, shouting 'this [a theatre] is no place for political speeches' to which O’Leary shot back 'this is the only place for political speeches!'

Indeed, it was as Larkin, pre-eminently, that O’Leary was to make his career as an actor, appearing in that role in the ground-breaking The Non-Stop Connolly Show, a 24-hour piece of radical agit-prop theatre produced by Jim Sheridan, Margharita D’Arcy and the late John Arden at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre in 1975.

He was to reprise this role many, many times, all of them with a force of emotion, powerfully delivering the most famous of Larkin’s speeches in performances recalled at his funeral wake in Dublin’s Mansion House last week by veteran theatre director and writer Peter Sheridan, Jim’s brother, as “probably the greatest example in my lifetime of taking an audience on a journey they never suspected they were going on,” most notably in a production of The Risen People, an adaptation of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, directed by Jim Sheridan, at the Gaiety Theatre in the early 1990s.

His acting career included also appearances in many films including My Left Foot, directed by Jim Sheridan, Michael Collins, as Thomas Clarke, directed by Neil Jordan, The Field, In the Name of the Father, both also directed by Sheridan, and more recently, Game of Thrones.

Razor-sharp wit

O’Leary’s wit was famously razor sharp. In a production of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade, set in a lunatic asylum during the French Revolution, at the Project in 1976, O’Leary, playing the asylum’s governor, suddenly went off script to denounce the arrest of the Sallins Three following the train robbery at the Co Kildare village.

A cast member, Peter Sheridan recalled at the wake, immediately took umbrage, shouting that “this [a theatre] is no place for political speeches,” to which O’Leary shot back “this is the only place for political speeches!”

O’Leary’s ability to work for rival unions, before their merger to form SIPTU in 1990, demonstrated an enduring characteristic of his, the ability to retain friendships across a wide political and philosophical divide.

As Scott Millar recalls “one of the amazing things about him was that he remained on good terms with people in the Workers’ Party, Sinn Féin, and the Communist Party of Ireland [in each of which he had been a member at one stage or another]; he would have been absolutely unique in that respect.”

Jer O’Leary, a true original if ever there was one, was born in Dublin to Denis O’Leary, a barman, and his wife Sarah, always known as Sadie, nee Healy.

He enjoyed a deeply happy marriage to Eithne O’Brien, a shipping clerk to whom he was already engaged when he received his prison term, and who waited for him to be released, and who passed away almost exactly a year before he died.

It was a blow from which he never recovered.

He is survived by their daughters Nora and Clare, and his sisters Margaret and Carmel. He was predeceased by his brother Denis jnr, and by his son, Diarmuid, who died tragically in a fire at a guesthouse in Glasgow aged just 22 while on a visit to see his beloved Glasgow Celtic play a game there.