Sunday 19 May 2019

'I didn't realise what a big deal it was at the time' – Ian O’Reilly talks Moone Boy and making his stage debut

Four years since he played best friend Padraic in Chris O'Dowd's coming-of-age sitcom 'Moone Boy', Ian O'Reilly is excited about making his stage debut and unfazed by the realities of an actor's life

Time out: O'Reilly wasoffered the part just a few weeks before he sat his Leaving Cert last summer. Photo by Arthur Carron
Time out: O'Reilly wasoffered the part just a few weeks before he sat his Leaving Cert last summer. Photo by Arthur Carron
Child's play: a 12-year-old Ian in the Sky show Moone Boy
John Meagher

John Meagher

Even today, it still happens. Ian O'Reilly will be walking down the street when a stranger shouts "Moone Boy!" at him from across the road. It's always affectionate and the young Mayo actor says it's a testament to the enduring appeal of Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical TV series of the same name.

O'Reilly didn't play the titular hero of the three-season series that was a critical hit for Sky - he was Martin Moone's best friend, Padraic O'Dwyer - but he was a fundamental member of a gifted young cast who helped make the early 1990s Boyle, Co Roscommon-set comedy-drama so funny and authentic.

It's only now, almost four years after the final season was shot, that he can grasp just how good it was.

"I didn't really realise what a big deal it was at time - I was 12 when I got the part - but looking back on it now, I can see that it was really sharp and funny and nostalgic," he says. "It's a bit like Derry Girls, maybe, and largely because the writing was so good."

Child's play: a 12-year-old Ian in the Sky show Moone Boy
Child's play: a 12-year-old Ian in the Sky show Moone Boy

Now, the 19-year-old is getting to put another side of his acting to the test. He makes his professional theatrical debut later this month in a new production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, and he is both nervous and excited.

"I'm so lucky to have my first proper onstage experience at such a great theatre [the Gaiety in Dublin] and such a great cast, with people like [veteran stage actress] Rosaleen Linehan," he enthuses. "It's nerve-racking. I didn't realise it was going to be so high profile - all the posters and radio ads!"

We are meeting straight after that day's rehearsals in south Dublin. Everything is gelling well so far and he says he's thrilled to be playing a part in one of the more covetable plays in recent Irish theatre.

"There's great comedy in Martin's writing," he says. "And the wit is so dry, it doesn't catch you until afterwards. And some of it is so un-PC, too, but then we're talking about a play set in the west of Ireland in the 1930s. I'm playing Bartley McCormick - he's basically the village idiot - the silly, innocent and too-young-for-his-age kind."

Along with the Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan is one of McDonagh's early plays from the mid-1990s that moved him from nowhere man to theatre's major leagues in a matter of years.

Not everyone has been enamoured with those early plays from the London-Irishman, not least due to their evocation of an unflattering Ireland, but O'Reilly dismisses such talk.

"It can seem at first to be stage Irish, but that's how people spoke back then. My grandmother on my mother's side was born in 1927 in a very rural part of Mayo [Tourmakeady] and her accent is straight from that time. She had a very thick 'wesht' accent, so I kind of play on that a bit for my part."

O'Reilly was offered the part a couple of weeks before sitting his Leaving Cert last summer.

"I got an email about The Cripple of Inishmaan and I saw [the name] Martin McDonagh, and I thought, 'Wow, I love his work'. They said, 'Are you free?' I said, 'Not really, but I'll make myself available' so I made the trip up, met Maureen the casting director and Andrew the director, and it really clicked - and that was it basically. Then they said they'd leave me alone until after the Leaving Cert."

He says he wanted to come to the play fresh so he resisted the temptation to watch recordings of the acclaimed Broadway production, which starred Daniel 'Harry Potter' Radcliffe as the titular Cripple, or to study Robert Flaherty's famed 1934 documentary film, Man of Aran, which gave McDonagh inspiration for the play.

"I wanted to start with the script - which is really great - and work my way in from there."

O'Reilly grew up in Moorehall, not far from Ballinrobe in Co Mayo.

"My mam was in an amateur society in the community for years. She loved it and she kept saying I should try drama classes. I tried everything else but I couldn't find a hobby."

He wasn't especially sporty. "I grew up in a part of Ireland where it feels like there's only one of two choices: Gaelic [football] or soccer. I had to do something different."

That something was drama class in nearby Ballyheane. "Two of the girls in my class [in primary school] had been there - to the All Stars Academy of Performing Arts - and I tried it out and found I really loved it.

"Eleanor, who was behind the academy, really encouraged me. I owe them so much, especially as the audition for Moone Boy came through them in late 2011. I was doing the drama classes for about three months when I got the audition. It was a case of right place, right time in a lot of ways - they wanted people that were from the country and myself and David [Rawle, who played Martin Moone] were from the west of Ireland."

The young actors worked brilliantly in their respective parts and O'Reilly reckons it was because he came to it so raw.

"I hadn't gone to a Billie Barry. I hadn't gone to panto. I wasn't one of these people who was like 'when I grow up, I want to be an actor'. I kind of fell into it. And it was a part that was set in a location that was familiar to what I'd known. Even though I was only alive for three months of the 1990s - and it's all about the early 90s - it felt familiar."

One season of Moone Boy was filmed during the school holidays, but the shooting of the other two required significant time off school. "A lot of it was done in Ardmore Studios in Wicklow so by the time you get there and back and get work done, there's an entire day gone. I had to get used to playing catch-up in school."

He decided to take a year out after the Leaving, and not just because The Cripple of Inishmaan had come calling. "To be honest, I haven't a clue what I want to do in college," he says. "I've time now to concentrate on this brilliant part, and there are one or two things that might happen after [in acting] but they're not solidified yet."

He is under no illusion about how difficult it can be to make a living as an actor.

"I was sheltered from that side of things in Moone Boy," he says. "But I'm very aware of it now, not least because other actors sometimes talk about how hard it is. I remember one actor asking me what I wanted to do [career-wise] and I said I wanted to do acting and they were like, 'Oh no, don't - it's awful, it's horrible'. And I thought that's the wrong thing to say to anyone. I get that it's not easy but it was so negative.

"Young people need to be encouraged. It's so easy to be put off. But you've got to believe in yourself."

'The Cripple of Inishmaan' opens at the Gaiety, Dublin, on January 25 and runs until March 9

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