Admired and gifted Abbey actor who put family first

 

Joan O'Hara(76), who died on Monday, was one of the finest actors of her generation, best known recently as Eunice Phelan in RTÉ's Fair City, which she joined in 1994, but with a near six-decade association with the Abbey Theatre and the Dublin stage.

Over the years O'Hara performed to strong reviews in up to 60 plays, including works by Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Tom McIntyre, WB Yeats, Seán O'Casey, JM Synge, Lady Gregory, and her own son, the playwright and author Sebastian Barry. She was named Best Actress at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1980 for her performance in Graham Reid's play Dorothy.

In 2003 she performed in The House of Bernarda Alba, a play she had first acted in back in the 1950s, this time adapted by her son. Her last role at the Abbey Theatre was in the centenary year performance of The Dandy Dollsby George Fitzmaurice.

She had a long association with RTÉ, beginning with her portrayal of Countess Markievicz in the 1966 production of Insurrectionand in the television series Teems of Timesin 1977. In 1978, she was in the Maeve Binchy drama Deeply Regretted By, which took awards at the Prague Television Festival, as well as two Jacob's awards.

In 1994, she starred in the television play A Mother's Loveis a Blessing by Pat McCabe, which won a special recommendation at the Prix Futura in Berlin.

Her film roles included She Didn't Say NO!(1958), Da (1988) and Far And Away(1992).

The family home was on Harbour Road in Sligo and it was there she was raised with siblings Mary, the renowned singer and harpist, Angela (deceased) and Dermot. Her parents, Mai and Jack, would remain the most powerful influence throughout her life, particularly Mai, an alcoholic and very strong personality. Joan neither drank nor smoked, but "mythologised" both her parents.

Sebastian Barry based his play Our Lady of Sligoon Mai, a formidable Galway woman who is said to have turned to drink in response to the then closed world of Sligo. She is also believed to have been the first woman there to wear trousers, and "imported" boxes of glamorous clothes from Dublin. She used to bring her children to the local cinema and would dress Joan as Shirley Temple. It has been said that Joan's acting was a response to the chaos of home life.

Joan and Mary took part in local feiseanna and Joan wrote poetry, some of which was published by the Sligo Champion. At 14 she wrote a play that attracted the interest of dramatist and Abbey Theatre board member Lennox Robinson. He adjudicated on the play, believed to be The Demon Pier, at a feis and asked to see its author. When Joan arrived at his home in Dublin he is said to have been astonished that someone so young could have written such a work. She played the lead in its production at the Sligo feis.

In 1949, still just 18, she became an Abbey player, performing in War, the Monster and living on Mespil Road. Her parents and siblings followed her to Dublin, living in Clontarf, with Mary boarding in Sion Hill and Dermot at Blackrock.

Soon Joan met Francis Barry, a young architect and poet who, with Thomas Kinsella, worked alongside Liam Miller at the Dolmen Press in days when they would set their own work in type. Joan and Francis lived in a flat on St Stephen's Green and were very much the centre of the 1950s Dublin bohemian world which included Brendan Behan.

The relationship with her son Sebastian could be uneasy in later years when they worked together, as they did on his play Prayers of Sherkin. Privately she was said to be a completely different person from the sometimes imperial, powerful, and slightly feared actor she could be.

She was adored by younger acting colleagues and, while she greatly admired and loved people in theatre, she could be quite dismissive and angry at times. She adored Yeats and gave many very brave performances in his works, not least in a Dublin Theatre Festival production of The Old Woman Broods.

Directors were intrigued by her, especially foreign ones, who believed they had discovered a great undiscovered actor. There were two reasons she had not become more widely known: her dedication to her family, including her niece Jane, who joined her three children in the home on the death of Joan's sister Angela; and her dedication to the Abbey.

At home she was always very peaceful and was said to do "everything for peace and was never angry". She was witty with children, a great raconteur, very Catholic in some ways, and in others ways "very much a pagan".

As the child of an alcoholic she experienced some difficulty expressing affection. Emotionally and spiritually, some have said, "she remained a 17-year-old and at the beginning of her career". She didn't attend plays much herself, even her son's, probably as she knew they were most likely based on stories she had told and she may have preferred her own version.

She is remembered warmly by people in the theatre world: "A wonderful, lovely person", "a joy to work with", a "brave, committed" actor. One friend remembered her in words from Yeats's In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz, recalling her as "beautiful . . . a gazelle".

She had a great sense of humour. On one occasion, a friend recalls, the two of them auditioned for the same film role only for the friend to meet Joan and the casting director leaving as she arrived. As they walked past, Joan commented loudly to the casting director within earshot of her friend and would-be rival, "She's too young for the part, is awfully difficult to work with and, in any case, she can't act." The same friend insisted, "I don't think she had a malicious bone in her body."

She recalled weeping at Joan's powerful performance as Mrs Tancred in a production of the Plough and the Starsand spoke of all the major roles she didn't play because of her commitment to her family.

Then there was the fact that she looked so well into later life. "At 50 she still had the body of a 16-year-old. You'd meet her in February when you'd be skulking along the pier in Dun Laoghaire and she'd look like Queen bloody Maeve," as one admiring colleague put it.

She had health problems all of last year and at Christmas a clot was discovered on her lung. Despite a poor prognosis she lived until last Monday.

She is survived by children Siuban, Sebastian and Guy, her niece Jane, grandchildren Merlin, Coral and Tobias, her sister Mary, and brother Dermot.

Joan O'Hara: born October 11th, 1930; died July 23rd, 2007