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Friday 23 March 2018

Talking rugby and getting sloshed with my pal Peter

Former Ireland rugby player Keith Wood remembers the late 'hellraiser' and his master-class in storytelling

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
Richard Harris (left) and Peter O'Toole. Photo: Yoi Mok.

Keith Wood

My head is hung low. Another day passes, another match in Twickenham gone down the swanny. These are quiet times, of reflection, of failure, of depression.

These are quiet times.

Until a kerfuffle escalates outside in the corridor and two unruly wild old men explode into the inner sanctum. "Well lads, unlucky, jees you tried your hearts out. Peter, this is Woody, I sat beside his father in English class in 1947, shake his hand."

Thus was my introduction to Peter O'Toole, by, of course, Richard Harris.

It was surreal to be sure, and days don't get much stranger, sitting in a lonely changing room flanked by Dumbledore and Lawrence of Arabia.

They had cajoled their way through all the Twickenham security to get to the changing room. You had to admire their acting skills and perseverance. I remember meeting 'Dickie' Harris in Dego's Bar in Corbally in 1979 with my Dad and been struck by his size and presence.

I met him on the night before my first time on the bench for Ireland in 1992 and we had become friends. Now by extension I got to know Peter.

I met Harris often after that day and O'Toole rarely, but always the conversation drifted to Limerick in the 1940s, rugby and hellraising. I liked the link, it reminded me of my father.

On Harris's passing a couple of years later, my good friend Brendan Gallaher rang and said: "Woody, Peter would love to have dinner with you, can I invite him to sit with us at the Rugby Writers Dinner at The Cafe Royal in London?"

I drove into central London, excited at the chance to pick up on our conversation and learn more scraps of his past. We got sloshed of course and the car was abandoned in its car park but not before Peter recounted story after story after story.

This being the time prior to smoking bans, he declaimed while brandishing an extravagant mother of pearl cigarette holder and waved it in time to each story. His body was weak but his voice and eyes were clear and strong as he delved back through his memory.

He spoke of all the stars and starlets he had known, and offered insights into their character and their foibles. And yet every thought mentioned was discrete and enhancing, never diminishing. One star of the silver screen was described as "a delicate little flower" as if Peter was unwilling or unable to expand on her issues.

It was a study in how not to gossip. It was all in the delivery and he had each and every person at our table eating out of the palm of his hand. We were his audience and he was in his element.

We got to rugby talk and I started a long, protracted begging to get Peter to play in a charity rugby match in Killaloe.

"I couldn't possibly my boy! I'm too frail, I would be broken in two'.

More begging and the promise that he could wear a yellow jersey so no one would mistake him for anybody else, and if that failed I would run interference if anybody came anywhere near him, swung him to the dark side.

"I will play, my boy, under one condition," as he elegantly inhaled his cigarette and cast his piercing blue eyes in my direction, "provided you procure me a pair of fine cashmere shorts."

That game never happened, although I always held out hope. And now of course it will never take place. But I'm still left with an indelible image of a master actor holding court, waving a cigarette holder, declaring once more his willingness to step out in front of a crowd.

Irish Independent

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