Noel O’Donovan obituary: An actor who specialised in vulnerability

Cork stage and screen actor had the ability to see every aspect of a production’s problems

Noel O’Donovan: ‘Underneath, he could render a character or a situation so well’

Noel O’Donovan: ‘Underneath, he could render a character or a situation so well’


Born: December 6th, 1949
Died: September 13th, 2019

Noel O’Donovan, who has died aged 69, was one of Ireland’s best-loved actors of his generation, revered by his peers in what can be a fractious profession.

O’Donovan had a very particular quality that characterised his thespian achievements and simultaneously reflected his personality: his ability to appear vulnerable and defeated on stage or screen, an impression he conveyed, nonetheless, with a quietly understated professionalism.

“He was the kind of character you might not have taken seriously … but, underneath, he could render a character or a situation so well,” according to his long-time colleague and friend, actor Brendan Conroy.

Conroy had been cast with O’Donovan in one of the most successful Irish plays of the past 20 years, Jimmy Murphy’s The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, which premiered in a production by Red Kettle Theatre Company in Waterford in 2000. It toured the following year to the Tricycle Theatre, London, where its box office takings equalled those of Marie Jones’s hit comedy Stones in his Pockets.

The following year the show went to the Irish Arts Center in New York, where it had a six-week sell-out run, with a cast that included also the late Sean Lawlor, the late Joe Kelly, Frank O’Sullivan and Eamon Hunt.

The Kings of the Kilburn High Road deals with a group of Irish men of a certain age in north London, emigrants from the hungry Ireland of the 1950s, condemned to live out impoverished retirements, single and alone with only their memories and their friendships with others of their ilk to comfort them. In the play, O’Donovan created the character of Git Miller, in a performance vividly recalled by Conroy in his eulogy at O’Donovan’s funeral last month in Dublin:

“Every night … I stayed completely still and watched as Noel in the part of Git stunned the audience to silence and to tears as he described the last moments of [character mentioned in the script] Jackie Flavin’s life. It was a masterclass in acting and storytelling that stayed with me for ever ... and I suppose there was so much of him in a performance that I won a little prize for later on in the film version of the Kings and he would joke ... ‘You got that for playing me!’ ”

Vulnerable men

O’Donovan seems always to have had this ability to portray the vulnerability of the outwardly manly male. The theatre director Peter Sheridan worked with O’Donovan in the former’s play The Liberty Suit, produced for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1980 by Project Arts Centre, and written in collaboration with Gerard Mannix Flynn. The play was based on Flynn’s experiences as a prisoner in a juvenile prison in Ireland, and Sheridan recalled that even as a young man O’Donovan “had that quality of looking like a guy who had once been good-looking, but who had fallen on hard times. He had the job of playing a haunted and haunting figure [Furey, one of two young Traveller men in the prison], and he played it brilliantly. It had a huge impact on the audience.”

The production sold out at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin and later transferred to the Royal Court in London.

O’Donovan’s skill as an actor owed much, believes his old friend and fellow actor Paul Bennett, to what he describes as O’Donovan’s “third eye”, the ability to see every aspect of a stage play’s production problems. This was a legacy, Bennett believes, of O’Donovan’s theatrical apprenticeship as a stage hand in London as a very young man in the late 1960s. In these jobs O’Donovan worked with very famous actors and singers, including Cork-born Danny La Rue and the tenor Josef Locke, learning everything about how a show is produced, including lighting, design and electrical set-ups.

Acting scholarship

O’Donovan had left his native Cork city aged just 17 for London, and, after initially working as a labourer, found work at the Saville Theatre in the West End as a behind-the-scenes functionary. He became “fascinated with theatre”, says Bennett, and secured an acting scholarship with the renowned Joan Littlewood, founder of the famous Stratford Royal Theatre in the East End of London.

In 1970 he returned to Ireland to join the Abbey Theatre’s acting school, where he got to work with acting greats such as Maureen Toal and Godfrey Quigley. From there he moved to the nascent Project Arts Centre, at that time a pioneer of socially involved theatre in this country, appearing in, among many other productions, Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, in 1978, and designing and lighting Paul Bennett’s one-man play about the US counter-culture comedian Lenny Bruce, which won a Fringe First prize in Edinburgh, also in 1978.

O’Donovan went on to enjoy a successful television and film career, appearing in over 40 screen shows in both mediums, including, most prominently, Jim Sheridan’s The Field and the same director’s The Boxer, in Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin, Cathal Black’s Our Boys, Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and, on television, in Ballykissangel and Eastenders.

Noel O’Donovan was one of the seven children of Finbarr O’Donovan, a mill worker, and his wife, Nora McCarthy, a homemaker, and grew up in Greenmount council estate in Cork. He left school aged 13 and went to work immediately to help support his family after his father’s early death.

He is survived by his widow, the Irish folklore scholar Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, his daughters Sinéad, Anna and Eleanor, and by his sisters Madeline, Nora (Hegarty) and Angela (McGreevy), and his brothers, Finbarr, Mathew and Patrick.