Family and friends give final ovation to 'Glenroe' star, a compassionate and spirited actor, writes Emer O'Kelly
His wife Peige had presumed it would be a small family funeral, in keeping with the simplicity of her late husband. In fact, it had all the air of a State occasion when Mick Lally's life was celebrated in a humanist service at Newlands Crematorium in Dublin last Thursday. But RTE had guessed more accurately, and lent the Lally family the services of two of its executives to help organise the massive tribute that they knew would be paid to the man who was one of Ireland's best-known actors on the basis of a single role.
Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport Mary Hanafin was there, punctual and quietly retiring, as was the Taoiseach's ADC, Comdt Michael Treacy. The country's first ever Minister for the Arts, Michael D Higgins, was there, merely a face in the huge congregation inside and outside the chapel. The director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach MacConghail, was there with his wife the actor Brid Ni Neachtain. The playwright Tom Murphy was there, as was the poet Michael O Siadhail. And actors were there in their hundreds, the instantly recognisable faces from TV soap-land, and the chameleon professionals of huge talent and little fame, all there to pay tribute to a life well-lived, as Brian Whiteside, of the Humanist Association of Ireland, said as he opened the service of simple, fond anecdote and musical lament.
And Mick Lally's two families were there: his blood relations, including his mother (his father was not well enough to attend) enduring the unnatural heartbreak of outliving her son, Peige and his daughter Saileog and sons Darach and Maghnus; and his other family, the founders of Druid Theatre Company bonded to him over 35 years of love and passion for theatre.
Mick Lally was not the world's greatest actor, but he was bloody good in roles that suited him, and they were almost always roles that incorporated decency and innate dignity. He had the quality summed up by the Irish word "uaisneach", as Gary Hynes, his old friend and fellow founder of Druid, said at the service. He was a "dhuine uasal". He was also, she said, a tearful chuckle in her voice, cranky and cantankerous. He was; but he also had a tolerant geniality that served him well. I remember our last meeting: we sat side by side at the opening night in Galway of Enda Walsh's Penelope, and he kept me highly and wickedly entertained with his comments on socialising at the Galway Arts Festival.
But the geniality could disappear like the sun before a thunderstorm if he felt our humanity (and indeed his own humanist principles) was being outraged or challenged. Mick cared, and the caring was not something casual or instinctive. It was a deep intellectual commitment to fairness. It was his son Darach, standing at the funeral like a vision of a son of the Fianna, the sun catching his mane of tawny hair, who explained his father's nature with pride and desperate loneliness, to the people gathered to celebrate and remember him. As an actor, Mick had shared the almost universal belief that you should leave them wanting more. But now, Darach said simply and heartbreakingly, "I want more".
And he described his father's delight in alienating people whose behaviour enraged him by its stupidity, and always, always, challenging hypocrisy wherever he found it. To live out that kind of principle was not as calm as you might imagine, his son said, because the strength of a self-developed code of ethics was not easy to come by or live by. It was a simple definition of atheistic humanism, godlessness if you like, that his father would have been proud of.
Mick was born in Tourmakeady, Co Mayo, 64 years ago. He grew up on a farm that was probably very similar to that which his fictional character Miley Byrne worked in Glenroe. But he left the farm to study in UCG, planning to be a teacher. In tandem, he became interested in theatre, and as a fluent Irish speaker he worked as an amateur with the Taibhdhearc. Gary Hynes, then a restless and budding theatre producer, saw him there, and she and Marie Mullen approached him with the idea of setting up a Galway-based, full-time professional theatre company. That was in 1975.
That company, Druid, exploded four years later with an almost revolutionary production of The Playboy of the Western World. Mick, only in his 30s, but craggy and ravaged of look, played Old Mahon to much acclaim. He went on to create many other roles on stage, always in the genre of the rural, and sometimes mythical Ireland that he loved. They were always character roles: Mick had no diversity in accent, and his rugged appearance ruled him out for anything that smacked of urbanity.
Then came Bracken the RTE soap that preceded Glenroe, and television claimed Mick Lally as its own. Originally a (once again) rugged foil for Gabriel Byrne in the earlier series, Miley was central to the life of the small town of Glenroe, and Mick Lally became a central feature of life in Irish homes. He was their own: safe, a polar centrality in the way we wanted things to be. (Of course he rocked it when he joined in an April Fool's joke on Morning Ireland announcing his retirement from the series on moral grounds because he had been asked to do a nude scene. He was inundated with congratulations on his "principled stand". What his correspondents didn't know was that Mick Lally might have mischievously relished rocking the boat by baring all.)
Many actors are uncomfortable with fame due to a soap opera. Mick Lally had too much sense: he gave Miley his all, recognised Glenroe's value, and never thought or talked down to its audience. But like most actors, he was happiest on stage, and gave more than one shatteringly memorable performance. For me, the highlight was Tom Murphy's monumental lament The Great Hunger, in which Mick created the role of John Connor, the tribal leader who watches his clan starve, and must take the hideous decision of comparative mercy, despite believing in a faith that will condemn him as a brutal murderer. And he was searing in the role.
Emphysema killed Mick Lally. How he managed to perform, particularly on stage, with his lungs in the state they were, was a mystery to all of us who watched him. But despite the ever-present packet of fags, one lit after the other, he managed to survive.
I even recall some years ago waiting in the Civic Theatre in Tallaght for a performance of Beckett's Happy Days in which Mick was playing Willie. I'd arrived early, and was treated to the sight of the bould Mick cycling across the courtyard. It's no easy or short cycle from Portobello to Tallaght, but it didn't seem to take a feather out of the man who was always laughing ruefully at the dire warnings of smoking himself to death.
Injustice was Mick Lally's overbearing and overweening hatred, and he could hate with the best of them. People loved him as Miley Byrne in Glenroe, but while Miley was his alter-ego, there was nothing of Miley inside Mick: an independent, fighting, awkward outsider spirit lived in the actor whose last great cause, according to his family, was the tragedy overwhelming the people of Pakistan. They asked that Mick be commemorated by donations to help Pakistan, not by flowers. An awkward cuss, Mick Lally. We need more of them.