Versatile actor took part in 130 Abbey productions


Niall O'Brien: NIALL O’BRIEN, who has died aged 63, was an actor who appeared in 130 productions at the Abbey Theatre. These included 27 world premieres, among them Brian Friel’s Aristocratsand Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. He also made many film and television appearances.

Director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail, acknowledging the contribution of an “important member” of the company – both on stage and as a board member – described him as “always a committed actor, who was fun-loving and positive in his outlook”.

Fellow actor Eamon Morrissey said: “He was a pleasure to work with and a joy to be with onstage, always wanting the story of the play to be told.”

Born in Dublin in 1946, he was the youngest of the five children of Michael O’Brien and his wife Maureen (née Wright). He was educated at Presentation College, Glasthule, and Westland Row CBS, where he sat his Leaving Certificate.

He joined the Abbey School of Acting in 1965, and became a member of the company in the mid-1970s under Tomás Mac Anna.

An early stage appearance was with Deirdre Purcell and Séamus Forde in Maurice Davin Power’s The Noon-Day Devilat the Eblana in 1967. He subsequently appeared with Gerry Alexander in Retreatby Sydney Cheatle, and in Rehearsal for Chaos, an experimental piece, at the Peacock.

He was Laertes in Ray McAnally’s 1972 Dublin Theatre Festival production of Hamlet, in which Donal McCann played the title role. In 1973 he appeared in Brian Friel’s The Freedom of The Cityat the Abbey.

Also in 1973 he played the Clown in Michel de Ghelderode’s Escurialat the Peacock. In his review for this newspaper, Kane Archer wrote that he gave the role “a pathos and a discipline that turn to a simple and moving majesty”.

David Nowlan wrote that the production “showed through Robert Carlisle and Niall O’Brien that at least some Irish actors can use controlled physical and vocal energy to electrify and astonish audiences”.

In his review of Peadar Carr’s The Food of Loveat the Peacock in 1974, Séamus Kelly praised the “superlatively controlled characterisation from Niall O’Brien, the apotheosis of all the ageing lifetime ‘students’ that are to be found in every undergraduate pub”.

In 1974 he appeared in David Storey’s Homeat the Peacock, and in King Oedipus, directed by Michael Cacoyannis, at the Abbey.

In December 1974 David Nowlan described his performance in Witches’ Brewas “one of the most disciplined and minutely observed comic caricatures seen in Dublin for years”.

The following year Nowlan praised his “convulsively funny thug” in The Shaghraun. And in 1976 he wrote that in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms“Niall O’Brien grew to a barbaric maturity from scene to scene as Eben”.

Subsequent plays at the Abbey included Seán O’Casey’s The Star Turns Red(1978), Stewart Parker’s Nightshade(1980) and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fella(1984).

His film credits include Excalibur(1981), Gorky Park(1983), and Vanity Fair(2004). He was offered a part in Out of Africawhich he was unable to accept because of other commitments.

Irish-made films in which he appeared include Kieran Hickey’s Exposure(1979), John Davies’s John, Love(1983) and Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin(1985). Most recently he starred in Teeth(2007), written and directed by his son Ruairí. His television credits include Bachelors Walk(2001), The Royal(2003) and Secret of the Cave(2006). He played Owen McCarthy in the RTÉ adaptation of Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French(1982).

He performed in both the US and the Soviet Union. He retired from the Abbey in 2000 but continued to work as a freelance until he became ill.

Devoted to his family, he had limitless time for his children and encouraged them to make their own decisions. He liked a walk and a pint with friends. In recent years he and his wife Brigid spent much of their time renovating an old cottage in Wicklow and enjoying the countryside.

He is survived by Brigid, their sons Ruairí, Tadhg and Luke and daughter Clover

Niall O’Brien: born February 8th, 1946; died February 25th, 2009