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Darragh McManus: Documentary didn't gloss over Tóibín's human flaws

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Niall Toibin

Niall Toibin

Niall Toibin

ONE of the most startling aspects of Niall Toibin: Everyman on RTE One last night was being reminded of just how much the Corkman achieved in a long career.

Hear his name and you probably think first of “mane Cavan bashtard” jokes, then his lengthy stint as Brendan Behan in an award-winning stage adaptation of Borstal Boy and then maybe that pompous priest in Ballykissangel.

However, as we learned (anew) on this hour-long documentary, Toibin also appeared in The Irish RM, Bracken, The Nephew, Far and Away, Brideshead Revisited and Ryan’s Daughter.

This is even before we mention the theatre career, or acting opposite Richard Burton in the star-studded mini-series Wagner.

He played against Pierce Brosnan and Stephen Rea, intimidated Gabriel Byrne, terrified Jim Sheridan, amazed Victoria Smurfit and Deirdre O’Kane and blew away Holt McCallany, the Mindhunters star whose Irish dad produced Toibin on Broadway in the first Irish play to win a Tony Award.

That, of course, was for Borstal Boy. Toibin played the older Behan for 22 years, on and off, here and abroad.

Pat Kenny joked in one clip that he had been Behan almost as long as Behan himself had been; Toibin added that, sadly, he had made more money from being Behan than Behan ever did for being himself.

Brian Reddin’s film took us back to the start, the Cork city of 90 years ago where Toibin grew up under the eagle eye of a loving but strict father who insisted that everyone speak Irish (even, amusingly, up to the point of his deathbed).

The young Niall wanted to study arts, but his parents insisted he join the civil service. “I was neither civil nor a servant,” he quipped. After six years, Toibin left and a long performing career began.

He was a theatre actor first, working with the Radio Eireann Repertory Company and then the Abbey, but most of us probably know Toibin best as a screen actor and, perhaps most memorably, a stand-up comedian and chat-show raconteur.

The sense of timing, the mastery of accents, the quick wit and, above all, the sureness and swagger of a born entertainer: all were present and correct down the decades.

It was easy to understand how Toibin had lasted so long at the top of the game in such an unforgiving work environment.

The show was honest about the man he was: it didn’t sugar-coat or gloss over the human flaws.

His daughters remembered how his drinking got out of control when he was a young man; eventually his wife laid down an ultimatum, “your wife and children or alcohol”, and he gave up the drop for good.

He could be brusque, contributors remembered, unfriendly, short-tempered, an unforgiving perfectionist, but once you had won his affections, you were in for good.

Toibin didn’t come across as some wonderfully nice guy. Indeed, he seemed cantankerous and egotistical at times, but then again, that’s what actors are generally supposed to be like, isn’t it?

The harder edges were softened by an ever-present twinkle of mischief in those eyes.

Contributors included everyone from Hollywood stars such as Brosnan and Byrne to veteran Irish actors including Don Wycherley and Mary McEvoy and Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, who recalled writing for an early Toibin TV show that caused a ruckus with its “loose morals”.

This documentary was meant to mark Toibin’s 90th birthday, last November 21, but he died eight days short of the landmark.

In a funny and very apt coda, his son recounted how Toibin’s one concern about what would happen after he died was that “you don’t f*ck up the eulogy”.

As a postscript assured us, he didn’t.

 

Online Editors