Tuesday 12 December 2017

My memorable encounter with the great, if moody, actor

O'Toole found respite from the pressures of fame among the Connemara locals, writes Liam Collins

Peter O'Toole ,a native of Roundstone in Co.Galway on his 52nd birthday pictured with one of his Connemara ponies at his home on the Sky road, Clifden, Co.Galway. Photo: Tom Burke
Peter O'Toole ,a native of Roundstone in Co.Galway on his 52nd birthday pictured with one of his Connemara ponies at his home on the Sky road, Clifden, Co.Galway. Photo: Tom Burke
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It was Peter O'Toole's 52nd birthday and myself and photographer Tom Burke were in Galway covering the races, so we thought it was worth a trip out to Clifden to see if he was at home.

O'Toole was legendary, as an actor and hell-raiser, but also as a notoriously temperamental individual.

When we found his house on the picturesque Sky Road a few miles from the town, nobody seemed to be at home. It was hard to tell, because there was no knocker or bell, but there wasn't much sign of life.

On the road outside, admiring the view over Galway Bay on a bright August morning we were debating what to do next, when there was the sound of horses' hooves sparking off the asphalt and the legendary actor came up the road leading a couple of Connemara ponies. It was a good day, he couldn't have been more charming.

As it happens I had been at the re-opening of the Gaiety Theatre the previous week. It was a gala evening with various people doing their turns, including O'Toole, who was at the height of his powers and fame.

With his usual provocative way he didn't go for the easy option -- choosing instead to read a piece by Dean Swift, written in 1729, called 'A Modest Proposal' -- suggesting that the Irish should eat their children to avoid starvation.

Of course, it was a satire, but a lot of people in the audience that night didn't get it, or even if they did, felt it was out of place. There were cat-calls and people walked out nosily in protest but O'Toole kept on declaiming through the storm.

When I congratulated him on the mayhem he caused, he laughed heartily.

That's what he enjoyed about it -- challenging the stuffy audience in their monkey suits.

Being his birthday, we asked him about where he was born.

Yorkshire, he said proudly, but he didn't mind being described as an Irishman either and even if he wasn't born here he felt an affinity with the place.

It was his love of the local horses and the wild landscape of Connemara that brought him to Clifden to live between acting assignments.

He loved the dry stone walls snaking across the landscape and resolved that he would build a house using the same techniques. The architects told him it was impossible but eventually after arduous discussions in the pubs of Clifden he came up with two local stone workers who took the job and completed it.

He could point to parts of the wall he had worked on himself.

He loved the country life and the people who treated him as one of their own, rather than the film star he was.

Deep down, I suppose, I was hoping he would suggest a trip to town and a pint that might lead to one of those legendary sessions for which he was famous.

But no, he was too busy for that. "Priorities, dear boy," he declared.

He had horses to ready for the annual Connemara Pony Show the following week. It was, he told us in that rich thespian voice of his, one of the most important occasions of his year and he had to have his animals in prime condition.

After an hour or so, we parted, we were heading back to the excitement of another day at the Galway Races and Peter O'Toole to the quiet enjoyment of his birthday in what he called "my little part of paradise".

Irish Independent

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