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Seán McGinley: ‘We’re all asking why this play hasn’t been done more often’

The actor talks about faith, sectarianism and acting a saint in a rare revival of Brian Friel’s The Enemy Within


Seán McGinley, who is starring in The Enemy Within.Photo by Steve Humphreys

Seán McGinley, who is starring in The Enemy Within.Photo by Steve Humphreys

Seán McGinley, who is starring in The Enemy Within.Photo by Steve Humphreys

Seán McGinley is one of Ireland’s finest actors. He became a household name as Charlo in the 1994 BBC TV series Family written by Roddy Doyle. But he was always an in-demand stage actor, most notably associated with the plays of Tom Murphy. When we speak over Zoom, he is in the final week of rehearsals for an early Brian Friel play, The Enemy Within, about St Colmcille. He is in the foyer of An Grianán Theatre, the Donegal venue producing this revival. We speak at the end of a long day’s rehearsal but McGinley is as fresh as a daisy. Must be all that Donegal air.

The show is part of the Colmcille 1500 celebrations, which honour the legacy of the Irish saint. The play is set in 587 on the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. We meet a mature Colmcille (also known as Columba), who has founded a vast network of monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. He provides leadership for his community of monks who are farming, copying scriptures, praying, living. This fascinating history play about the struggle with ancient bloodlusts is rarely staged. Has McGinley ever seen it produced?

“No, and I’ve never met anybody who has,” he says. “The Abbey haven’t done it since its original production 60 years ago. And what a cast they had!” The cast he is referring to included Ray McAnally, Patrick Laffan, TP McKenna and Vincent Dowling. “The more we are digging into it as a company of actors and director, the more we’re asking... why this play has not been done more often. It’s beautiful, and that’s one of the words we keep using in rehearsal.”

McGinley plays Columba. The character is a natural leader: gregarious, dynamic, full of energy. In a stage direction, Friel writes: “He seems to charge the atmosphere with vigour and vitality.” How does an actor go about playing a character with this charisma?

“Structurally, what the play needs at that point is a lift. But you can’t play that. You can’t just ‘strut’ on,” says McGinley. “You have to bring it on with you in your head, and trust that it will work. There isn’t a shop where you can buy that stuff. The costume people can’t make you one, a ‘charisma’, whatever that is,” he adds with a laugh. “You need very sympathetic co-actors. If you get them to believe it, maybe the audience will. If your fellow actors don’t buy it, then you’re banjaxed.”

The central action involves Columba’s relatives trying to lure him back to Donegal to add his godly lustre to their armies as they pursue various brutal faction fights. Columba is descended from the High Kings of Ireland, so there is a political hinterland to his religious reach. Donegal is a siren calling to its sons. What is the play saying about violence?

“I don’t know how long it was gestating in Friel’s head,” says McGinley. “The first production was pre-Troubles by six or seven years, but all the makings of the Troubles were there, the gerrymandering, the sectarianism, the Catholics versus Protestants. But the play is not a polemic in any way. In its world you have the Christians, and you have the Picts and the Druids. The Picts are referred to derogatively as ‘those heathen Picts’.”

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It is about enmities between people, he says, “and family blood ties are fundamental”. “When your family is in trouble and they are calling for you, you must come back — that is what they [Columba’s brother and nephew] say,” he adds. “But Columba has disavowed violence some time ago, through bitter experience. That is very central to Friel, not just in this play.”

McGinley says he is “religious in the sense I was born a Catholic”.

“I think there is a lot of that culture that is very rich and very useful. We’ve seen the church, warts and all, over the last 30 or 40 years; it comes from somewhere good and noble. But in the end, it’s just another bureaucracy: people who live in palaces and wear handmade silk robes talking about humility. There is a disconnect there.”

Any kind of rational person must wonder what’s beyond the blue sky, he adds. “If you draw a line up into the universe, where does it end? That is where religions come from; it’s a way of embracing the unknowable. I’m not a mass-goer or anything, but I like sitting in the back of a chapel, because it’s a really peaceful place. And in certain parts of the world, like Rome, they are the most beautiful places you could be. I’m not religious in the traditional sense. I don’t know what belief in God means. But this whole play is about trying to embrace this world as a portal into the next world, to make us more pure and noble. The idea of that interests me.”

Surprisingly, this is only McGinley’s second Friel play (he played Eamon in a production of Aristocrats at the Gate), but the Donegal dramatist has been a significant presence in the actor’s creative life. McGinley speaks about the original Field Day Theatre Company production of Translations in 1980 which toured to Galway. “I remember there was a huge interest and excitement about it. This new company set up by Friel and Stephen Rea, with all these amazing actors like Liam Neeson and Mick Lally. I couldn’t get a ticket, but they let me in and I stood on a chair at the back.” It played in a school gymnasium.


McGinley was about 24 or 25 and had joined Galway’s Druid Theatre Company after attending college in the city.

“The idea of becoming an actor was as remotely impossible as becoming an astronaut,” he says. “But when you see something like that, you go ‘Wow — that’s the possibilities of theatre!’ and it shifted something in the room.”

Druid was a fruitful place for McGinley. It gave him a professional life, as well as a wife. He married Marie Mullen, the Druid co-founder and actress. They moved from Galway to Dublin, where they have lived since 1990, first in Sandymount, now in Rathcoole. Home and homesickness is a major theme in the play. Does he have any personal sense of homesickness?

“It’s Columba’s biggest problem,” he says. “Someone like Grillaan [another monk, Columba’s second in command] has come to terms with his exile, but I don’t think Columba has. The homesickness aspect of the play is so complex: to do his job as abbot, he has to be this gregarious person of the world. But his body and soul are very far apart.”

McGinley has certainly come to terms with his own exile from Donegal. “I think of Dublin as home now,” he says. “Our girls grew up there [they have two daughters]. We’ve a lot of friends there. We love Dublin. I’ve big time for Galway as well, because we met there and Marie works with Druid pretty much all the time. But Donegal is very important too.”

He speaks fondly about his hometown of Ballyshannon, where his family moved due to his father’s job as a customs officer. He waxes lyrical about the landscape of south Donegal and north Leitrim where he and his two brothers attended the school where his mother was a teacher. He still has a Donegal lilt.

There is a certain panache to McGinley’s return to Donegal to play this particular part. And the show’s director, Caitríona McLaughlin, recently appointed as the Abbey Theatre’s artistic director, is also from the county. As in the play, these artists have been summoned home to help lead an army, this time an army of talent, putting Columba/Colmcille centre stage in his ancient native place.

‘The Enemy Within’ is at An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny, from November 21-27 and online at angrianan.com from December 2-5

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