The last vaudevillian in town - the show must go on for Noel V Ginnity
'A small man with a stream of stories dressed in a funny suit', talks to Liam Collins
'I am the last of the vaudevillians," he says - and like most of his kind, Noel V Ginnity has that melancholy streak common to comedians, a moment when laughter turns to tears as he talks emotionally about a pivotal moment in life when he realised he'd almost thrown it all away.
He left school at 13 to go picking potatoes, but found Luke Kelly as his tutor in the university of life, sat drinking with artists like Michael Farrell and Patrick Collins in Fitzgerald's pub in Sandycove and, apart from having a gun shoved in his ear during a 'tiger' kidnapping at his home, his most memorable moments were touring the world with The Dubliners.
Now on the edge of 80 Ginnity seems to have always been around. A small man with a stream of stories dressed in a funny suit he's been there and done that in the best showbusiness tradition - and he's by no means finished yet.
Although he says "nothing was easy", Noel V Ginnity doesn't want it to be defined by "whingeing and moaning" about the varied life he has lived from the time he left Kells in Co Meath all those years ago.
"I got what I was due... I just wish I was due more" he says with a half-sad smile. He spent 33 years with Jury's Cabaret, which he describes as "hearing Danny Boy every night for 20 years", and he's now preparing for another season of cabaret at Taylors Three Rock at Marley Park in south Dublin.
"I used to open for The Dubliners - it was the greatest period in my life. Luke Kelly was my best man. No matter what happened, they always made the stage, although how John Sheahan - who didn't drink - put up with it I'll never know. It was unreal how big they were at the time.
"Luke was an avid reader, he was always reading newspapers or Hibernia [an intellectual journal closed by a libel action in the early 1980s] and he'd give it to me and I learned an awful lot that I never learned at school. My job was to go on stage and 'warm up' the audience, and basically I had to stay on until I saw all of them on the side of the stage - only then could I leave. But I was glad of the work and I loved the whole bohemian thing with them."
Noel V Ginnity was born into a poor family in Kells, Co Meath. His father had been a prominent IRA man who had gone through 43 days of hunger strike, but ended up with a sinecure of a job after Eamon de Valera came to power.
"I never saw eye to eye with my father, he frowned on the showbusiness thing," he says now, with a tinge of regret. "If there were two suits, one dark and one yellow, I'd pick the yellow one."
Ginnity was smitten from an early age when the circus came to Monaghan's field in Kells with Siberian tigers or Anew McMaster and the 'fit-up' theatre companies or roaming theatrical groups like the Bohemian Players. He ran errands for them, brought the local gossip and ingratiated himself into their company.
He graduated to charity shows, but that wasn't enough.
"I wanted to get paid," he says. "I wanted to be like one of them".
But first came the day jobs, tending pumps in Kells, working in a tractor dealership and eventually getting taken on by two fellow-townsmen making a name for themselves cutting hair, Peter and Mark Keaveney. He eventually did an apprenticeship as a hairdresser in Enniskillen and opened his own salon in Dun Laoghaire.
"One of my customers was Lady Oonagh [Guinness] Oranmore and Browne. She would send her butler, Cummins, in the Rolls-Royce to collect me and bring me to Luggala to cut her hair. I was at her son Tara Browne's 21st birthday in the house and did his hair before he left to go back to London and was killed in the car crash," he says.
The lure of the stage was still strong and he began hanging out in The Embankment pub near Tallaght, drinking and telling stories with the ballad singer Paddy Reilly, the writer Christy Brown, and Sean McCarthy, the songwriter brother of the colourful owner of the pub, Mick McCarthy.
One day Mick told him, "I'm going to put you on in the big room", where he was noticed by Noel Pearson, and Ginnity had finally 'made it'. There followed a life on the road, the glamour and drinking with The Dubliners, getting to know Billy Connolly and ending up "places I would never have gone otherwise".
He also toured the pubs and clubs of Ireland and England, recalling the vast Ardri auditorium in Manchester, his friendship with his hero Harry Bailey, a former circus strongman who played the fiddle and told gags and, along with another Irishman, Joe Locke, dominated the quintessential capital of English working-class entertainment, Blackpool.
"It was the era of Jack Cruise, Cecil Sheridan, Hal Roche, Danny Cummins, Maureen Potter - they're all gone now, I'm the last of the vaudevillians."
Then he recalls the night it almost all fell apart.
He'd been drinking heavily after a show in Cork and a kind barman persuaded him not to drive back to Dublin, getting him a room in a local hotel. But he got up at 5am and hit the road, stopping off the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire to check if he had a gig there that night.
He was told he hadn't, and was looking forward to an afternoon drinking when, on his way out of the hotel, he walked through a plate glass window. "I was in a terrible state, I got 90 stitches in one leg," he recalls. "The surgeon, Joe Mathews, arrived in the hospital and before he started the operation told me I could lose the leg and asked me, 'who is your next of kin?' I told him I was my own next of kin, and he said 'I'm after coming in from my yacht to fix you up, don't be smart with me', and I had to tell him, my parents were dead, my wife wouldn't come next nor near me and that I had nobody else.
"I woke up glad to have two legs. I couldn't work, I had no finance, I was a sorry sight and a fellah I knew, Michael Fitzgerald and his wife, only recently married, took me in and looked after me for 16 weeks. It was very noble of them. They sent a fellah out from John of God's and he asked me 'are you an alcoholic?' and I replied, 'what do you think?' And that was that."
Ginnity chokes up with emotion, about the life he led, the suffering he inflicted on himself and others and the pain of being so alone at such a traumatic time. But it wasn't to be the last trauma in his life.
Although his marriage only lasted "seven or eight years", he had two daughters and one of them worked in the accounts office of Musgrave cash and carry and was, as he puts it "in charge of the money". In February 1994, Noel V was in his house in Dun Laoghaire when the doorbell rang and, before he knew it, there were two men in the hall and he was on the ground with the barrel of a gun in his ear.
As instructed, he rang Musgrave's and was put through to his daughter. He told her a kidnap gang wanted £250,000. "Don't be acting the fool," she replied, but after eventually convincing her it was a genuine hostage drama, the gunmen were put through to her boss.
"They knew everything about him, where he lived, where his children went to school, everything. While the negotiations were going on they had me tied up but I managed to get loose. They had cut the phones wires, so I ran around to the barracks in Dun Laoghaire and they surprised me when they said, 'we know about it'. Some time later they got the two guys walking along the Bray Road."
He tells the story matter of factly and without emotion before adding: "It wouldn't have been good for a plumber or carpenter but once my daughter was all right, it was great for me... the publicity was enormous."
That's showbusiness: if there's a silver lining, Ginnity will find it. He's also be back on the stage in a new show, which opens in Taylors Three Rock on April 3.
NOEL V’S SHOUT-OUTS
Of the young fellahs today, the only one I have any time for is Al Porter. I think he was the most original. I worked with him in panto and he was very, very talented. I am hoping he will come back. He is an Oscar Wilde figure, intelligent, funny and a bloody nice fellah.
I am with Stephen Fry on the subject of religion. I would love to have a deep faith but can’t do it. I envy people who can. We grew up at a time when people were browbeaten by priests and everything you did was wrong.
All that drinking wasn’t good, but it was part of what we were at the time. Between 5pm and 8pm I’d be drinking with judges, businessmen, civil servants, artists like Michael Farrell, Charlie Brady and Patrick Collins. I got on well with them and I learned a lot from them, and they were interested in hearing what I was doing, where I’d been and who I’d met.