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Sunday 15 December 2019

Rare talent and wry insight into absurdity of Irish life took his act to another level

Niall Tóibín in Mountjoy Prison for Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ in 1994
Niall Tóibín in Mountjoy Prison for Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ in 1994
With actor Tony Doyle on the set of ‘Ballykissangel’. Photo: CHARLIE COLLINS
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Niall Tóibín was a versatile actor of stage and screen with impeccable comic timing which he showed to best effect in his one-man shows, which were the precursor of what is now called 'stand-up comedy'.

He was best known for performances in different versions of Brendan Behan's play 'Borstal Boy', including long stints over the years on Broadway in New York, where the play was well received.

"It was a very tough and demanding role," he said later in a TG4 documentary. "All the while I'd be drinking and drinking... Brendan was a big part of my life."

He also revealed at the time that he gave up alcohol because, he said, "it was affecting my wife Judy and my children".

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I recall a moment in the Green Room of The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin back in the 1980s when the elderly Kathleen Behan, a cigarette dangling from her lips, looked at him and said: "You're the spitting image of me darlin' Brendan" before he went on stage to perform his one-man show 'A Jar With Brendan Behan'.

Tóibín was of a generation of adaptable character actors who played roles in radio plays, the theatre, films, mostly when they were being made in Ireland, television series and one-man shows when the opportunity arose.

However, he had a broader range than many as his one-man comedy performances won him a wide non-theatre audience. His routine had a particularly Irish flavour with wry observations on the absurdity of Irish life.

One of his long-running anecdotes concerned an official from the Department of Agriculture who is horrified to find a prize bull given out on loan attached to a plough and being whipped by a Cavan farmer saying: "I'll show you there's more to life than romance."

In a career that spanned several decades he played parts in many films including 'Ryan's Daughter', which was shot in Dingle in 1969, starring Robert Mitchum. He recalled being "highly paid for doing nothing but drinking porter and playing poker with the occasional gawk at the lens of a multi-million-dollar camera thrown in to break the monotony". He also played a judge alongside Cate Blanchett in the Hollywood movie 'Veronica Guerin', based on the life and death of the 'Sunday Independent' reporter.

Born on the south side of Cork city, the sixth of seven children, he grew up on Friar's Walk in a bilingual family, his Cork father and Waterford mother being both native Irish speakers. He was educated by the Christian Brothers at the North Monastery and was a member of the Gaelic League and the Cathedral Choir. He migrated to Dublin to join the civil service, becoming an official in the cultural section of the Department of External Affairs before leaving to joint the Radio Éireann Players.

He got his first major role as a freelance actor in Brian Friel's 'Lovers' and he first played in 'Borstal Boy' in the Abbey Theatre in 1969, a role he would reprise in various productions over the next four decades in theatres around the world. His facility for the Irish language also meant a steady income, playing in the Irish language plays and television series.

After the success of the series 'If the Cap Fits', the follow up 'Time Now Mr T' in 1977 raised a storm of protest because of its content and he left to work in England because of what he saw as the subservience of the national broadcasting service to protests by doctrinaire Catholics.

He worked for a time with the National Theatre and later played Slipper in the highly successful Channel 4 series 'The Irish RM' and a part in the BBC drama 'Ballykissangel', which was filmed in Co Wicklow, and the RTÉ drama 'Bracken', which starred Gabriel Byrne.

In 1987 he returned to the Abbey Stage to play 'Bull' McCabe in the John B Keane play 'The Field', a part which went to Richard Harris when it was made into a film. He also played parts in such Irish classics as 'Philadelphia, Here I Come' and films like 'Eat the Peach' and 'Far and Away'.

Most of his work was in the commercial theatre and he said his appearances in the Gaiety Theatre in various plays, shows and revues "were the highlights of my career".

He gave his last performance in 2018 alongside his daughter Muireann in a short film called 'Remains'.

Niall Tóibín, who had been in a home for some years, died yesterday, eight days short of his 90th birthday. His wife Judy died in 2002 and he is survived by his children, Sighle, Aisling, Fiana, Sean and Muireann.

Irish Independent

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