Sunday 15 December 2019

Barry Egan: 'A stage, a few lights and the incomparable Niall Toibin'

Niall Toibin was funny and talented, a great drinker and then not, and brilliant company, writes Barry Egan

AN IRISH GREAT: Actor and comedian Niall Toibin, who died last week just shy of his 90th birthday, pictured in 2011 at the age of 82. Photo: Tony Gavin
AN IRISH GREAT: Actor and comedian Niall Toibin, who died last week just shy of his 90th birthday, pictured in 2011 at the age of 82. Photo: Tony Gavin
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The review in The New York Times of the opening night of Borstal Boy at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway on March 30, 1970 was a reminder of this young Cork fella's brilliance...

"A stage, a few lights and an actor, Niall Toibin. Mr Toibin looks at the audience and for a shocked instant, Brendan Behan, Dublin's own darling, roaring boy is among us again. The resemblance is uncanny. The moment passes, but its special magic endows the Abbey Theatre's adaptation of Borstal Boy which was taken from Behan's autobiography by Frank McMahon," wrote Clive Barnes.

"We are never going to get another play from Brendan, or another drink, so let us be grateful for Mr McMahon's adaptation and the chance it gives not only for Mr Toibin's rich and lusty picture of the mature Behan... Mr Toibin is beautifully quiet and relaxed. He sits on the side of the stage, a sad yet cherubic smile ironically playing round his mouth..."

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The New York Times of July 16, 1970 reported that seven people associated with Borstal Boy on Broadway had been the victim of "a mugging or assault after a performance within the past three weeks".

"The seventh, Niall Toibin, who stars as Brendan Behan in the play based on the late Irish playwright's autobiographical account of life in an English reformatory, was mugged near his apartment on West 81st Street," wrote Joseph P Fried.

A year later, Toibin might have briefly preferred mugging to being directed by Peter O'Toole in an Abbey production of Beckett's Waiting For Godot with Donal McCann and O'Toole himself. He recounted the experience to the Guardian in 2001...

"Listen to me, you pillock," O'Toole hissed at him. "It's a pause."

"I paused," replied Tobin.

"You stopped," roared O'Toole.

Despite the tension, the critics loved the performance. "Together with Mr Toibin's Pozzo they [O'Toole as Vladimir and McCann as Estragon] succeed in projecting Godot, not as a play about waiting but one which forces audiences to wait," wrote one review at the Nottingham Playhouse. The mind, and possibly the liver, boggles at three great drinkers of that era sharing a stage. In New York in 1970, Toibin, like Behan before him, "fairly guzzled back" the mostly free drink.

"Because every time you went into a bar someone would send you down a drink, so I was paying for nothing, and the pubs in New York were open until four in the morning," he told Joe Jackson in the Sunday Independent in 2004 "But even back in Dublin I'd drink every night, yet I was able to hold it."

Yet Toibin could remember telling Micheal Mac Liammoir in 1974 he had given up the drink, for Mac Liammoir to reply: "Why? Were you having bother with it?" Tobin said: "No, but everyone else was!"

Toibin, one of this country's greatest actors, comic, straight or otherwise, died last week, just shy of 90. We met for a cup of tea in October, 2011. Sitting in the snug of Clontarf Castle, he looked like Spencer Tracy. It was a joy to have a long chat.

I told Toibin that for my 10th birthday my parents brought me to town to see a play at the Gaiety about Elvis with him in the role of Elvis's crooked manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Toibin rolled his eyes. "It was a f**king crap production and you should have looked for your money back." I was only 10, I said.

"Then," he said, "your mother should have looked for her money back."

Toibin first performed on stage aged eight in the North Monastery Christian Brothers School in Cork. He played the bloody child in an Irish translation of Macbeth. "I appear and advise Macbeth to be brave and brutal and all that," he told me.

He remembered "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."

"Donkey's years later," Toibin said, "I 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, 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!'"

The fun ebbed out of Toibin's life after his wife Judy died of cancer in 2002, aged 70. "I was with her pretty much my whole life," he told me.

Yet he always knew how to tell a story and it wasn't a shock to be soon roaring with laughter when he told how he met Judy Kenny from Athlone in a boarding house in Dublin.

"I was shaving one morning," he said, "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. "We won money actually. That was in 1955. We married in 1957.

"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."

His strongest memories of Judy were 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."

Toibin played everyone from King Claudius in Hamlet at the Abbey Theatre to Cromwell in The World Turned Upside Down in the London National Theatre to Fr Frank MacAnally in the BBC's Ballykissangel, Tom Cruise's father in Far And Away, Judge Ballaugh in Veronica Guerin, O'Keefe in Ryan's Daughter, Boots in Eat The Peach, Bull McCabe in The Field at the Abbey, Andy in Brian Friel's Lovers at the Gate, to RTE's Bracken and The Irish RM on Channel 4, and endless colourful interviews with Gay on The Late Late. Toibin joked he worked in all spheres of entertainment - "except striptease, ballet and the circus".

On that day, I asked about his proudest role. "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 shit 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."

I also asked about playing Behan on Broadway in 1970. "We lived in New York, the whole lot of us," he recalled "It was about seven months. It was a great time for us and the kids in New York. It was huge. It frightened the shit out of people, that performance did. People freaked out. They thought it was Behan. I knew Brendan very well."

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

Asked what kind of drinker he was, Toibin laughed: "Very uproarious and then when I got really drunk I'd get argumentative. Anything. But that was very late in the night. Judy put up with me but she appealed to me eventually to stop. 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."

Niall Toibin was one of the funniest Irish men ever. I never laughed so much as on that day in Clontarf with the 81-year-old Cork man. He told me his father Sean spoke only Irish. "He never spoke English to anybody. Ever! No matter who you were - you know? Which was a pain in the ass for everybody! 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?'"

Niall's mother Siobhan "spoke English the minute his back was turned".

"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**king oul' fella! F**king mad man. Going around talking f**king Irish'."

Toibin, barely holding back tears of laughter, recounted in a Cork accent that would make Roy Keane sound like Little Lord Fauntleroy: "Oh Jaysus! Isn't it no wonder you're f**king half mad yourself?"

Sunday Independent

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