Why Miley will always have a place in our hearts
TV critic John Boland mourns the passing of Mick Lally, the acting legend who embodied the values of an Ireland long gone
Published 01/09/2010 | 05:00
All day yesterday, from early morning to late afternoon, Mick Lally's life, career and unique place in the Irish imagination were recalled by radio presenters and their guests, and by listeners who wished to register their sadness at news of his untimely death.
Mercifully absent was the hysteria that recently surrounded Gerry Ryan's sudden passing, most of which was generated by RTE colleagues, who lost the run of themselves entirely in their mourning for one of their own.
Yesterday's reaction was markedly different. A sense of loss was no less palpable in the reaction to Lally's death, but the tone was a lot less frenzied -- indeed, more in keeping with the spirit of the man who was being mourned, or at least with those aspects of himself that he had chosen to reveal to us through his stage and television performances.
That was fitting because from the very outset of his career Lally had a relationship with his audience that few other performers manage.
As with any actor, his job was to play someone else, but he did so with such apparently unforced artlessness, truthfulness and integrity that it was he himself, and not the character he was portraying, who seemed to be the embodiment of honesty, trustworthiness and all that's admirable in a human being.
It was this that led Gavin Jennings, on yesterday's lunch-time news, to describe him as one of Ireland's "best-known and best-loved actors", that caused Taoiseach Brian Cowen to deem him one of our "most-loved" performers and that had scriptwriter Wesley Burrowes recall him as "a very loveable character".
And it was the same note -- using much the same words -- that was sounded most often throughout the day, as if somehow the man and the actor were indivisible and that both were equally cherishable.
I never knew Mick Lally but I'm sure that the general public's blurring of distinctions between person and performer must have frustrated him.
Here, after all, was someone who had co-founded the Druid Theatre and who had played a wide variety of roles under Garry Hynes and other directors, and yet the fond general awareness of him was that, whoever he was, he was always Mick Lally.
That's a tribute, of course, but it's a limiting one, and Lally, though modest of demeanour and seemingly mild of temperament, must sometimes have cursed the straitjacketing effect of the role that made him famous -- his 23-year stint as Miley Byrne; first in Bracken (1978-82) and then in Glenroe (1983-2001).
Indeed, rather than always being Mick, he remains in the memory of most television viewers as having always been Miley -- initially the bumbling son of Joe Lynch's cantankerous Dinny; then the stumblingly gauche suitor of Mary McEvoy's Biddy; and finally her decent, dogged, sometimes errant husband.
All soap-opera stars, of course, court the perils of typecasting, but in a country the size of Ireland it's all too easy for viewers to completely confuse the actor with the role he plays, and the fact that Miley was the longest-running central character in our indigenous soap-opera history meant that escape from typecasting was never going to be easy -- as Tom Hickey discovered when, after almost 15 years of playing Benjy in The Riordans, he went in search of more serious dramatic challenges.
These Hickey found -- and obviously found fulfilling, too -- and Lally clearly experienced the same kind of fulfilment in his many roles for Garry Hynes, whose work is always challenging and almost invariably enriching, both for performers and for audiences.
But such is the nature of television's potency and its audience reach that those who recall him for his stage achievements are greatly outnumbered by those who will always regard him as a Wicklow farmer, no matter that he came from Co Mayo.
Glenroe ended in 2001, and not happily, either. For quite some time, there had been plans by RTE management to axe it, and Lally himself told a newspaper at the time that in its last years, "I got the sense of it being tolerated rather than nurtured" (Joe Lynch was characteristically more forthright, declaring: "They hated it from the word go").
In truth, it had long had its day. In the 1960s, The Riordans had been a genuine innovation, engrossing even to non-culchies in its evocation of a rural society that was being forced to confront the social realities of the time, and Bracken had seemed a strikingly fresh development from that.
But by 1983, with the departure of Gabriel Byrne, Bracken had been re-jigged and re-branded as Glenroe. Familiarity was, if not quite breeding contempt, then evincing a too-easy contentment with a rustic situation that was becoming less and less relevant to an Ireland confronting joblessness and enforced emigration.
As the years passed, it didn't help that Miley and Biddy became two of the mopiest characters to be endured in any soap anywhere, or that the storylines became increasingly tired and contrived. And so, when in 2000 Mary McEvoy finally said she'd had enough of her character and of the series, it was impossible not to sympathise. Less than a year later, Glenroe was no more.
But it lives on in the collective and individual memory as few other RTE dramas have done. That has a lot to do with its longevity, but also with the presence of its male star, who seemed to enshrine, both in himself and in his most famous character, all of the modest virtues that the Celtic Tiger tried to obliterate.
"I'm a person who never took very well to fame," he said in an RTE interview some months ago, and it's a testament to the man and to our affection for him that we wouldn't have imagined him feeling otherwise.