Playwright Hugh Leonard dies


Irish dramatist, journalist and self-styled curmudgeon Hugh Leonard has died. He was 82.

Born in 1926, the prolific playwright had been ill for some time.

Hugh Leonard was the pseudonym of John (Jack) Keyes Byrne, who was raised in Dalkey, Co Dublin. He died early this morning.

He adopted the name in the 1950s while working in the Civil service fearing his employers would frown upon his writing.

His plays included The Big Birthday, A Leap in the Dark, Stephen D, The Poker Session, The Patrick Pearse Motel, The Au Pair Manand Da.

Daran for nearly two years on Broadway and earned Leonard a Tony Award in 1977. It was later turned into a film starring Martin Sheen.

He published two hugely popular volumes of autobiography, Home Before Night(1979) and Out After Dark(1989). He also adapted a number of classic novels for British television, including Nicholas Nicklebyand Wuthering Heights, and until recently penned The Curmudgeon column for the Sunday Independent.

President Mary McAleese said she learned "with great sadness" of the writer's death. She said he was "one of Ireland’s most gifted writers and thinkers, a fascinating man whom I have had the privilege of knowing personally over the last 30 years".

"As a playwright, journalist and radio contributor, Hugh infused his work with a unique wit, all the while demonstrating a great intuition, perceptiveness and forgiveness of human nature. Hugh will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of his company and counsel throughout the years.’

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he was sorry to learn of Leonard's passing and said he would be remembered as a "great literary figure of modern Ireland". He said Leonard was a man of "strong views and great wit".

Mr Cowen said that in his plays, Leonard was "often provocative" and never afraid to challenge the orthodoxies of the day.

"He was also a versatile writer with a great sense of history. He wrote a best-selling and celebrated fictional account of the life of Charles Stewart Parnell. Insurrection, the 1916 commemorative series comprised eight television dramatisations, which he wrote in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, did much to shape understanding of the birth of our nation for a new generation."

Minister for Arts Martin Cullen said Leonard's legacy was "immense".

"As a storyteller he was creative and compelling. As an individual he was honest, engaging, with a sharp wit and an enquiring mind. His plays in particular evoked a sense of nostalgia and of the triumph of the human spirit," he said. “Hugh Leonard was an immense presence in the fine Irish literary pantheon. Ireland will truly miss its beloved ‘curmudgeon’.”

Director of the Arts Council Mary Cloake said: “The council is deeply saddened at the passing of Hugh Leonard, a true giant of Irish theatre, who wrote some of the most popular and enduring plays of the 20th century. The success of Daon Broadway and around the world is testimony to Leonard’s stature as a world dramatist.

"Beyond theatre, Hugh was a wonderfully talented writer in other media who enjoyed deserved popularity with Irish readers.”

Head of theatre David Parnell said: "Jack was known throughout the theatre community for his warmth, humour and sharp intelligence. Like Donal McCann and Maureen Potter before him, who performed in Joe Dowling’s memorable production of Dain the 1990s, he will be missed by a great many of his theatre colleagues.”

The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival said Leonard had an "exceptional legacy" with the festival. He wrote 16 plays specifically for the festival since his premiere A Walk on the Waterin 1960. He was programme director of the festival from 1978 to 1980 and honorary patron since 1999.

"He will be sadly missed as an artist, a loyal supporter and friend," a statement said.

Fellow playwright Bernard Farrell paid tribute to his friend and recalled his wonderful sense of humour. Farrell said Leonard had been "very low" in recent weeks and that he had passed away "very gently" at about 4.30am this morning.

He is survived by his wife Kathy and daughter Danielle. His first wife Paule died in 2000.