Star of stage and screen who played role in all our lives

 

MICK LALLY:MICK LALLY, who has died aged 64, was an actor whose commitment to the stage helped to found one of Ireland’s most accomplished and internationally respected theatre companies and whose affinity with the small screen brought him national fame.

A performer of tremendous physical presence, whose face was etched deep with character and a disarming gentleness, Lally was a cultured and erudite man who could have pursued various careers.

At University College Galway, he studied Irish and History and later taught the subjects in Tuam Vocational School. During his studies he proved an accomplished boxer, captaining the University’s boxing team and twice winning the British and Irish intervarsity championship. But it was performing that secured his deepest commitment, a pursuit he compared to being in the ring. “In a curious way, it’s not that much unlike acting”, he said not long ago. “Even in a play with 20 people on stage with you, you’re still very much on your own.”

Lally was born in November 1945 and brought up on a hill farm in the Tourmakeady Gaeltacht, Co Mayo. The eldest of seven children, with five sisters and one brother, he attended the local national school and had little expectation of receiving a secondary school education. His grandfather, a man with strong belief in education, who had emigrated to the United States, provided for his tuition in St Mary’s College in Galway. Uninterested in working on the land and considering emigration to be the only other option, Lally broadened his hopes as a result of his grandfather’s munificence. “Only for that”, he recalled, “I wouldn’t be here.”

When, in the summer of 1975, two young women approached Lally in Galway’s Cellar Bar and asked him to appear in a play, he was already an actor of local renown. His reputation was established in An Cumann Drámaíochta, UCG’s Irish language drama society, and later as a commanding performer with An Taibhdhearc. Those women were Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen, the play was The Playboy of the Western Worldand the company that Lally founded with them became known as Druid. Lally played Christy Mahon, bringing an innate musicality to the language of JM Synge. (He might also have been a singer, having performed professionally with the Galway fiddle player Mickey Finn.)

In a moment that anticipated Lally’s long association with the company, they agreed that if Druid lasted as a company they should revisit the play and try and do it right. That went on for 35 years, Hynes recalled. Lally, an ageless performer, gave a career-defining role as Old Mahon first in 1979 and again in the astonishing DruidSynge project of 2005.

Encouraged by the kinship and commitment of the company, Lally went to the vocational college in Tuam to seek a leave of absence. The man who granted his request was Garry Hynes’s father. “Do you know at all what you’re doing?”, Lally was asked. I think I do, he replied.

As a stage performer Lally’s greatest roles exploited his rugged features and his mellifluous voice, drawing from his deep connection with rural Ireland. He originated the part of Manus, the vulnerable aspiring teacher, in Brian Friel’s Translations, the first production put on by Field Day. In Druid’s production of MJ Molloy’s The Wood of the Whispering, in 1983, he played Sanbatch Daly, standing fast against the loss of traditional values and rural decline. In Druid’s production of Tom Murphy’s Faminehe was the village leader Tom Connor, tragically unable to repel a disaster. For the Abbey, among 23 productions, he won wide acclaim as the landowner Peter King in John McGahern’s troubling morality tale The Power of Darkness in 1991. “He was quite ecumenical about it all”, recalled the director of the Abbey, Fiach MacConghail. “He took Tom Murphy, MJ Molloy, Synge and John B Keane just as seriously.”

It was the screen, though, that won him most recognition and the role of Miley Byrne, the artless and innocent farmer, with which he became most associated. Miley, who first appeared as comic relief on the short-lived RTÉ soap opera Bracken and whose courtship and marriage to Mary McEvoy’s Biddy McDermott provided both the spine and heart of Glenroe, was a character that followed Lally everywhere, along with his catchphrase: “Well Holy God!”. Fame sat uneasily with Lally, who maintained strict boundaries between his public and private life. “I never sat easy with the recognition factor,” he told The Irish Timesin 2005. “People are very familiar to me, and I don’t know if I’m polite enough. Sometimes, I’d say, I’m rude. A bit briary. I’d say they walk off thinking: That Lally, he’s a quare hawk.”

Lally could certainly present a grumpy exterior, but he was more often considered intensely diffident. He was fond of the maxim, “acting is the shy man’s revenge”, but friends remember a vivacious personality – strongly opinionated, politically engaged, proudly atheist and immensely fond of a good argument. His voice would be moved to song or poetry at any gathering. “Company was his lifeblood”, said Hynes. “But he loved solitude too.”

An instinctive actor in the rehearsal room and a modest actor in front of the camera, Lally was generous with his ideas, his appreciation and his advice. He would deflect the camera from himself to his co-performers if he thought the performance warranted it, volunteered appropriate embellishments and preserved a deep sense of fun. In 1985 he memorably conspired with Morning Ireland’sDavid Hanly to announce his exit from Glenroein indignant protest at RTÉ’s decision to feature nude scenes – a wickedly successful April Fool’s day joke.

His abiding love of Irish permeated his home in Dublin, where he and his wife of 31 years Peige spoke only in the language, bringing up their three children as fluent speakers.

Lally suffered pneumonia 10 years ago and had been managing with emphysema in the years since. He continued to work tirelessly, though, his distinctive cadences recently lending gravitas to the Irish animation success The Secret of Kells while touring the country with such popular stage works as The Matchmaker, which he was due to reprise next week with his long-time co-performer, Mary McEvoy.

The plaudits and tributes from friends, artists, performers, politicians and the public would have gratified and surprised him, brushed away with soft Gaelic slang: “Musha musha musha”, or “Would all you latchicos go home now”. Nonetheless, theatres across Ireland resounded last Tuesday evening with applause and standing ovations in honour of his passing.

A loving husband and father, he is survived by his wife Peige, his children Saileog, Darach and Maghnus, his parents May and Tommy, his brother Thomas and sisters Teresa, Marie, Sarah, Nuala and Rita.

Mick Lally: born November 10th, 1945; died August 31st, 2010