Friday 22 November 2019

Eileen Colgan

Fair City actress, her career on stage and screen ranged from roles in Ulysses to Strumpet City, writes Emer O'Kelly

VERSATILITY OF TALENT: Actress Eileen Colgan as Esther Roche in the RTE drama, Fair City
VERSATILITY OF TALENT: Actress Eileen Colgan as Esther Roche in the RTE drama, Fair City

Emer O'Kelly

EILEEN Colgan was a rock of sense, and it showed in her acting: a kind of solid, quiet worth that made light of the hard work which went into it.

To contemporary audiences, she was Esther Roche in the RTE soap Fair City. Earlier, she had been the priest's housekeeper Mynah in Glenroe. But there was nothing of the kind of woman to be found working 30 years ago as a priest's housekeeper in Colgan's character. She was much more a cross between Molly Bloom and Strumpet City's Mrs Mulhall, both of which parts she played with distinction – Molly Bloom in a memorable Ulysses in Nighttown at the Peacock, and the long-suffering Mrs Mulhall in the RTE Eighties' television epic of James Plunkett's Strumpet City. And, one suspects, she would prefer her career to be remembered for those portrayals, even if it was a considerable achievement in itself to show enough physical mettle for the demands of TV soapland in her late Seventies.

She was the widow of Alan Simpson, whom she met and married after his divorce from the late Carolyn Swift. Simpson had "shot to international notice" when he was prosecuted for indecency over the Pike Theatre production of The Rose Tattoo when it was (falsely) alleged that a condom had made an appearance on stage. The case ruined the struggling Pike, and destroyed the Simpsons' marriage. Swift never managed to "move on", but Simpson did, and his second wife played no small part in that.

She was endlessly supportive, while still managing to pursue her own career, and while he worked intermittently at the Abbey, even serving as artistic director there for a brief period, she served as a member of the permanent company from 1971 to 1988. The company was later disbanded and is remembered differently by different people for its standard of acting. But Eileen Colgan could never have been accused of the complacent slovenliness, including drunkenness on stage, which was a merited accusation levelled at some members of that company. She was always impeccably professional.

But then, she believed in standards in all things. I remember meeting her and Alan at a party around Dublin Theatre Festival time many years ago. He was expounding on the interview he had had with the company for which he was directing at the time. One always had the impression that Alan did the interviewing, and Eileen added to it. "Yes," she said, "it was one of the occasions when I had to lay out his greys." It conjured up an entrancing picture of another era: Alan Simpson was a "son of the rectory"; his formal clothes were always the grey of a churchman, and apparently were laid out in impeccable condition and order by his wife in the role of meticulous valet.

Eileen also had a considerable, if minor, career in films, playing small roles in such films as Angela's Ashes, Far and Away and in Ireland's first great film success, Noel Pearson's My Left Foot. And although that work was all Irish-based, watching her on screen and on stage, it was easy to see that at a younger age, Eileen Colgan had enough versatility of talent to move beyond the stereotype of "Irish parts".

It didn't happen, but like all good actors with the theatre in their souls, all she asked was to be in work ... they call it being an old pro.

Eileen Colgan Simpson is survived by her sons, Cathal and Ben, and by her daughters, artist Katy Simpson, and Clara, an actress, and by her eight grandchildren.

Sunday Independent

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