Thursday 15 November 2018

Laughs and love of a fierce Bull

As IFTA prepares to bestow a special tribute award on national treasure Niall Toibin, the actor and genius story-teller talks to Barry Egan about his childhood memories, the heartache of losing his wife to cancer and his glittering career on stage and screen -- from Broadway to Ballykissangel

NATIONAL ICON: Niall Toibin hopes to meet his dead wife Judy in another place. Photo: Tony Gavin
NATIONAL ICON: Niall Toibin hopes to meet his dead wife Judy in another place. Photo: Tony Gavin
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

IT'S like listening in on a scratchy radio play from your past, hearing Niall Toibin talk. His voice is ingrained in the Irish psyche, part of our DNA. We grew up on Niall Toibin, grew old with him. I tell him that my late mother brought me to see a play about Elvis at the Gaiety in Dublin for my 10th birthday, in which he played the King's villainous, spiv manager Colonel Tom Parker.

Toibin shrugs and says it was a "f***ing crap production" and that I should have looked for my money back.

I was only 10, I point out.

"Then your mother should," he roars good-naturedly as he sips his tea in a shadowy snug in Clontarf Castle, Dublin. The 81-year-old is a national treasure, the funniest man this country ever produced, perhaps. A rumbustious god of voices and dialects, with a genius for telling stories and making them not only funny -- wickedly funny -- but poignant too. He was also, without question, one of Ireland's greatest actors.

His still-talked-about portrayal of Brendan Behan on Broadway in New York 40 years ago won the play a prestigious Tony Award. Toibin remembers it all fondly. "We lived in New York, the whole lot of us," he says. "It was about seven months. It was a great time for us and the kids in New York. It was huge. It frightened the s**t out of people, that performance did. People freaked out. They thought it was Behan. I knew Brendan very well."

I ask what was Behan like to go on the lash with.

"When you'd start off the evening he was great and then he'd get pissed and he was a f***ing nuisance and he'd get very aggressive. You'd know by the change in the voice. A darkness descended and he started resenting people."

And what kind of drinker were you?

"Very uproarious and then when I got really drunk I'd get argumentative. Anything. But that was very late in the night."

I say that his wife Judy obviously put up with him.

"Well, she put up with me but she appealed to me eventually to stop," he answers. "And I did. I stopped completely. I stopped because she asked me to. I knew that I'd have to stop anyway. That was in 1972."

Toibin had been up in Belfast on Patrick's weekend for some television work. He took the Sunday evening train home. "I had been drinking during the day and I drank all the way down," he remembers, adding that he got out of the train in Amiens Street and fell out of the carriage onto the platform. He picked himself up to get into a taxi. He knew things were really bad when the taxi man said to him: "You should f***ing stop. You're in an awful condition."

"I knew he was telling the truth. I couldn't get up the following morning. The doctor came and he said 'Look, you can work the way you work or you can drink the way you drink, but you can't do both'. I stopped. I went for a few of these meetings; gave me a pain in the ass to be honest with you. I never drank again. Nothing, because I knew."

He says he also knew that his life would never be the

same again when Judy died eight years ago. "I was with her pretty much my whole life." It is almost like the shadows fall upon his face when he says these words.

He adds that he stuck it out in their house opposite Mount Argus church in Harold's Cross for a year after Judy died, then moved to a flat in Milltown for a few years. He then moved to a house on the grounds of Clontarf Castle. "I'm nearly six years here. I have a son up in Swords," Toibin says, referring to Sean.

"I'm retired for three years. I haven't done anything and I don't want to do anything because my memory isn't great." He was in Limerick on stage in the middle of a sentence when he went blank. "I could not, for all the tea in China, remember. This was something I was doing for years," he says.

"So I stopped. It was a very wise thing to do: because if that happens to you once, you are going to be terrified it is going to keep happening. I didn't have to work anyway, for f***'s sake."

That was the last time Toibin performed on stage, officially. The first time Niall Toibin performed on stage was at eight years of age in the North Monastery Christian Brothers School in Cork. Young Toibin played the bloody child in an Irish translation of Macbeth "who appears and advises Macbeth to be brave and brutal and all that".

He recalls it clearly 73 years later. There was a very good Brother there -- "Brother Byrne, he was a Dublin man; he survived in Cork, but anyway... on the day of the dress rehearsal, nobody gave me anything to eat. So I started crying because I was hungry and your man came over and got me something to eat, buns or something."

Donkeys' years later, as he puts it himself, Toibin was in a play at the Damer Hall in Dublin. "I had a torrid love scene in the play with Aine Ni Mhuiri. I actually had her up on the table. It was very daring for the time," he laughs, "but when I came out ... who was standing at the door but Brother Byrne? He was a very old man at this stage. White hair.

"He just looked at me and later he said to me, 'You weren't crying for your tea this evening!'" Toibin cracks up now at the memory. "He had a grin in his eye like he was obviously getting great fun out of this." Toibin has a similar expression all these years later. "I think that's where I got the bug; when I played the boy in Macbeth who warns him of the tragedies to come."

His early life has echoes of another enthralling piece of literature: Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People. Like Hugo's father, Niall's da Sean spoke only Irish. "He never spoke English to anybody," Toibin remembers, pausing for dramatic effect. "Ever."

"No matter who you were -- you know, which was a pain in the ass for everybody," he says with a laugh. "You got on the bus with my father in Cork and when father would go to pay in Irish, the conductor would go, 'Whaaa? Jesus, what's he saying? '"

Toibin, who was the sixth of seven children, roars now at the memory. His mother Siobhan, who spoke very good Irish too, "spoke English the minute his back was turned. We'd all be. He was a fanatic, a gaelgeoir revivalist and that was it. There was a fella I used to play with who was a cousin of Jack Lynch's who lived up the road. They would be a very sort of nationalistic family too but your man Frankie Reilly -- he's dead now -- said to me: "Your f***ing oul' fella! F***ing mad man. Going around talking f***ing Irish," he says in a heavy Cork accent. " Oh Jaysus! Isn't it no wonder you're f***ing half mad yourself?"

How would his own kids describe him as a father? "Fairly well, I'd say. Fairly well. I rarely had any rows with any of them. I have one son [Sean] and four daughters," he says, naming Muireann, Aisling, Fiana and Sighle. "There is an old saying: 'As civil as a man with seven daughters.' Because," he groans with laughter, "you have to be nice to everyone to try to marry them off. They all did well for themselves."

So did he himself. He has earned plaudits from all over the world. He played King Claudius in Hamlet at the Abbey Theatre; Cromwell in World Turned Upside-Down in the London National Theatre; Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, along with Peter O'Toole and Donal McCann at the Nottingham Playhouse (there is a mad drinking story, of course).

I ask him of which of all the great roles he's played is he most proud. He answers, after a good think, that it was playing the Bull McCabe in the Abbey in 1987. "John B Keane said to me, after he'd been to see The Field, 'Jesus, it was very good. You were the smallest man ever to play the Bull but, by Jesus, your rage would frighten the sh*t out of the divil. The audience thought you were going to burst into flames. It was so vicious it was very effective.' I was really exhausted coming off stage after that."

Toibin is full of the legendary wit and theatrical charm that made him such an important part of Ireland's cultural life for the past five decades. A simple question about his first memory of meeting Judy Kenny from Athlone elicits an answers that is sheer John B Keane. It all started in a boarding house on the South Circular Road.

"I was shaving one morning and the door burst open and I was pushed away from the sink and this lady said 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, get out of my fecking way or I'll be bloody well sacked.' She brushed her teeth, and rushed down the stairs. I came down the stairs and described her to Mrs Martin (the landlady) who said 'That's Judy Kenny, she's mad as a hatter that wan.' There was three lads and eight girls in the house and that evening the landlady asked me what was I doing that night. I said I was going to the dogs in Harold's Cross. Judy said she was sorry about this morning and she'd go to the dogs with me. I said 'you weren't asked'." Judy and a pal of hers went anyway with young Niall Toibin to the dogs. "We won money actually. That was in 1955." He married her in 1957.

Asked when did he realise that he was falling in love with Judy, he smiles: "Very, very quickly. She was great fun. But she got very ill for the last 10 years of her life. She got cancer and she fought it very well. She smoked a lot; and I think it just caught her in the end. Like when I met her, I smoked myself but I stopped. She loved an oul' fag."

What would be his biggest memories of her? "Throwing her head back and laughing like hell. Even when she was very ill, I made some comment about someone, and she nearly choked laughing. She got her breath back and she said: 'I love you. You make me laugh.' It nearly broke my heart, because I knew she was on the way out. It was a nice thing to remember her by," he says, on the verge of tears

We remember the great Niall Toibin for his interviews on the Late Late with Gaybo, for his one-man shows, for Ryan's Daughter, Veronica Guerin, Far and Away, for Bracken and The Irish RM; and for his beloved role of parish priest Father Frank MacAnally in Ballykissangel. I ask him is he a religious man. "I'm not a-religious."

Does he think he'll meet Judy again in another place? "I think so. Well, I hope so. I have no reason to believe that I won't," Toibin smiles, the shadows of the snug falling on his iconic face once more. "But on the other hand ... "

Niall Toibin will receive the Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA) Life On Screen Lifetime Tribute Award 2011, at Dublin's IFI on November 3. The event will be hosted by Gay Byrne. A limited number of tickets will be made available to the general public. Visit www.ifta.ie or www. facebook.com/iftaonline for details

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