JOHN FlNEGAN embodied what may well be the most important attribute of a theatre critic: he was addicted to all forms of drama. From pantomime through melodrama to great classics and the avant garde, from vaudeville to the humdrum of routine, predictable plays, John was to be seen at virtually everything on offer, whether in Dublin, Cork, Galway or wherever in this land, and in such places as Berlin, Moscow, New York, London, Israel. Attending a theatre anywhere in the world, one was somehow slightly surprised and disappointed if John was not there too. Paradoxically, the disappointment will be greater now that he has gone, for he will not be around later to exchange views and experiences.
He also manifested, in his writings about theatre, those qualities that are most important to the readers: consistency and integrity in the expression of his opinions. Regular readers of his reviews (and even of his invaluable Saturday column in the Evening HeraId, which for many years kept everyone with an interest in theatre here fully informed of what was going on) knew exactly what were his likes and his dislikes, and could judge unerringly from what he had written whether they would love or hate whatever show he was reviewing.
Above all, in a world where the critic is more often perceived as curmudgeonly than enthusiastic, John wrote with gentleness and generosity. Even when he felt he had to deliver a negative opinion (more often by omitting mention than by a laboured review) he still left those who knew his work in no doubt about his perception of the quality of a play, a performance or a production. He would go a great distance out of his way not to be hurtful and, even when he did not admire the work, his response still managed to seem affectionate, and wise.
His kindness and generosity extended far beyond the creative artists whose work he was reviewing. Colleagues and competitors in other newspapers could always call John to elicit a point of historical information. Very often he would remember the information sought. If not, he would consult his huge personal archive of theatrical material which covered a period from the early 1920s to the present day, and come back most courteously to answer the question. It is to be hoped that, now that John no longer has need to use his archive, it will find its way into safe and expert hands so that others may gain access to it.
It was always hard to believe that John had been at the first performances of the great works of Sean O'Casey, had been a regular theatre-goer since before Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir had founded the Gate, and had seen more theatre live in Dublin than most of the rest of us put together. His modesty would never allow him to boast of his prodigious record. It was much easier to see why, when he finally retired from active reviewing, many theatre. managements kept him on their invitation lists to opening nights. And it was no surprise to find, at the celebration of his 90th birthday, that there were more actors, directors and producers present than there were journalists.
He was a lovely man, and he is much missed.