Thursday 23 November 2017

From farm to footlights, that lived-in face and warm rural voice endeared him to all

Brian McDonald

JUST as the commentary of Micheal O Muircheartaigh identifies the GAA, the voice of Mick Lally has been the iconic sound of Irish theatre, film and TV for more than a quarter of a century.

His rural tones in either of our preferred languages, cast him as a natural in his craft and a figure with whom the public was utterly comfortable.

And if it wasn't his distinctive speech, then it was that well lived-in face which eased itself into the consciousness of just about every family in the country.

Repeatedly, he was described yesterday as one of Ireland's best-loved character actors. Along with Niall Toibin, he won a special place in the affections of thousands he never met.

And perhaps it was Toibin who captured the mood of the country best. "Everybody knew him, everybody loved him. It didn't matter what part he was playing--as long as it was Mick Lally, people would pay to see him," he said.

Born into a farming family in the south Mayo Gaeltacht of Tourmakeady, his early life was ideal preparation for the character of Miley which he would play to such acclaim in the RTE series 'Bracken' and later 'Glenroe'.

His parents raised the family on a 25-acre stone wall mixed farm alongside Lough Mask and in the shadow of the Partry mountains.

"It was mountainy land, but it was good mountainy land in that the men who'd gone before us had done a great job on it," he recalled in an interview with the 'Irish Farmers Journal' last year.

"We were self-sufficient vegetable-wise: potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, onions, everything. We had cattle and sheep and pigs occasionally, though my father was never that fond of pigs.

"But the work was never-ending. I don't know how I got an education at all," he said.

He went to national school locally and made his stage debut in a parish play at the age of 12. The seeds had been sown.

A grandfather in the US provided the funding for his secondary education as a boarder at St Mary's College in Galway. From there, it was a short hop up the road to UCG where he enrolled as an arts student.

He joined the university boxing club, but quickly swapped the canvas ring for the boards of Cumann Dramaiochta where he developed his twin loves of the theatre and his native language.

He graduated with a BA in Irish and history in 1969 and completed his Higher Diploma in Education a year later. Now equipped to teach at second level, his first job was at a school in Tuam, but he kept returning to Galway city -- the tug of the theatre was now proving irresistible.

He joined up with Galway's Irish language theatre, An Taibhdhearc and came to the attention of a couple of UCG students who were similarly infected with the acting bug.

"I was in the Cellar Bar in Galway, contemplating going to England for the summer, working on the building sites, when these two young ladies came in to me. They were thinking of doing a production of 'The Playboy of the Western World' and asked me if I'd play Christy Mahon," he recalled.

"It transpired the two women were Marie Mullen and Garry Hynes. After the first week of rehearsals, it was decided to call the group, Druid."

The new company quickly became one of Ireland's shining artistic successes and played to packed houses across Ireland in the West End and on Broadway with riveting productions of Irish classics and new works by JM Synge, John B Keane, Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Martin McDonagh.

Mick Lally also joined up with the Field Day Theatre Company founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea. He went on to star in the premiere of Friel's play 'Translations' in Derry in 1980.

But by now, he had also made his TV debut (1978) as Miley Byrne, the son of a cute Wicklow farmer in the RTE production of 'Bracken', starring Gabriel Byrne and Joe Lynch.

In 1979 he won a Jacob's Award for his portrayal of the role. And such was the success of 'Bracken' that RTE wanted a follow-on and in 1983 'Glenroe' was born, this time with Mick Lally playing a softer, more gullible and more lovable Miley.

It was a role he would play for the next 18 years, endearing himself to Sunday night audiences on RTE which reached one million at their height.

He admitted to having suspected that the end of the much-loved soap was coming, but it was still a shock when the decision was made to axe Glenroe after 648 episodes. He pulled no punches in his assessment of that decision.

"I think there was always a coterie in RTE who were uncomfortable with it. It was a bit too 'culchie' for a modern Ireland," he said.

"I think it's a pity because, by and large, everything is Dublin-based and you'd swear there was nothing outside of the Pale. RTE seems to be more a station for the city than a station for the country."

Alongside his work in 'Glenroe', Mick Lally was now sought after for a range of other television and film work.

He starred in the BBC production 'Ballykissangel' and in the television adaptation of William Trevor's 'The Ballroom of Romance'.

Other major credits included the Oliver Stone directed Hollywood epic, 'Alexander' (2004), Maeve Binchy's 'Circle of Friends' (1995), 'The Secret of Roan Inish' (1994), the Fantasists (1986),' The Year of the French' (1982) and 'Strumpet City' (1980).

More recently he voiced one of the main characters in the hugely successful animated film 'The Secret of Kells' (2009).

He was known to have been particularly pleased to have been invited to play the part of retired businessman Eamon de Faoite in the TG4 soap 'Ros Na Run'.

"It's so nice to actually get a chance to work in your own language . . . the vibe on the set was so good. It's brilliant", he said.

Last year he celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary with his wife Peige. A nurse from Inis Meain, the middle of the three Aran Islands, they had three children, Saileog, Darach and Maghnus.

Recalling their earliest days as a couple, Mick said: "I was going out with her just over three months when we decided to get married. I just knew straight away that she was the right woman".

Irish Independent

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