Hard work is the key to Donal's success

Fergus Dennehy talks to renowned Killarney actor Donal Courtney this week about his ‘on a whim’ decision to take up acting, his love of teaching, how he felt compelled to tell the story of WWII hero Hugh O’Flaherty and his simple advice for all young actors

Donal Courtney
Donal Courtney
Donal Courtney
Donal Courtney

Widely credited as the acting teacher that 'discovered' the acting talents of the young Michael Fassbender, it is only after chatting with him this past week that I realise that there is far more to Killarney's Donal Courtney than meets the eye.

As an accomplished actor, renowned writer, creative director and acclaimed acting teacher, it's fair to say that Donal is a jack of all trades and judging by the success that he has achieved in each of these fields, it is also fair to say that he is a master of his craft', a title that Donal himself would no doubt scoff at; all of this is not bad for someone who decided to take up acting 'on a whim'.

"I went to the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin when I was about 20 and it was just an interest that I had really. I had no real experience at the time and my whole decision was made 'on a whim' so to speak really; acting is just one of those things - I sort of just fell into it, once I started doing it, that was it, there was nothing else that I wanted to be involved in," said Donal, talking to The Kerryman last week.

"I actually didn't do much acting in school - I was more interested in writing and writing plays especially at the time and I thought that if I studied acting in the Gaiety, that this would then help with my writing; but once I actually got into studying acting and everything associated with it, sure didn't I fall in love with it and I've stuck with it still after all these years," he continued.

Donal has become more nationally and internationally known over the past few years for his incredible performance in the one-man show 'God Has No Country' - a play written by Donal himself, which tells the tale of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty's war time exploits in Rome where during World War II, he helped to organise an escape organisation for Allied POW's and civilians through which which he and his colleagues saved over 6,500 lives.

It is a performance and a play that has brought Donal to the forefront of the theatre world, with his new found status as an in demand actor signified by Donal revealing to me that he has just returned from a tour of America where he performed his play to great critical acclaim; acclaim that he admits still surprises him to this day.

"It was never supposed to be this big" he laughed, it was only something that I might do once or twice, but it's just kept going from strength to strength; it's gone into the school curriculum, I'm actually heading to Rome this Summer as well with it and I'm around the country with it quite a bit as well so it's been quite successful."

Donal, whose father Michael was a councillor in the town and who was heavily involved in the awareness society around the story of Hugh O' Flaherty many years ago, admits that when he was growing up in Killarney, he was struck by how little he heard about the Monsignor's exploits;it was this desire to have story told that drove him to create the play that we know and love today.

"It was a labour of love. I mean, I'm from Killarney, I went to the same school as him so there was all these little connections that I had with him so it almost felt a little ike fate that I would write this play; when I actually sat down to try and write it, I mean I know there's already been a film about it, I just felt nobody's sort of told the story from his own point of view - he was a very humble and modest man so his own point of view would probably never have been talked about; so I just felt that he would be a great character in this one-man play, where he could get up and simply tell his story for the first time."

"He was a man of many faces and so, in the play, I play a variety of different characters that he would have dressed up as he tried to evade capture; it's just a very simple play, it's an hour long, it's just me on stage, there's no real huge set production behind it but it's that simplicity that I think that people love and people just love coming back to hear this story of this amazing man."

From career spanning many decades, Donal must have many fond memories of his time both on stage as an actor and off the stage as a writer and director and it would be quite cruel to ask him to choose his favourite from amongst them, so this is exactly what I do.

"Phew, oh, that's a tough one you've asked me there," he chuckled.

"Seeing students getting on, like Michael and all of the others, and seeing them go on to win awards and knowing that you've been a small part of helping them to get there - that's probably my fondest memory from a teachers point of view."

"On stage though, as an actor, I think performing 'Antigone' in Greece - I directed and performed that back in 2000 and we played in an ancient theatre and it was a moment that made me stop and go 'wow, this is a once in a lifetime thing' - this was certainly an acting highlight for me- being there, back where theatre first began, it was just amazing," he continued.

"Look, for me, the study of acting is the most exciting thing - it's not just the performance aspect of it for me, it's the research and the process that you go through - I mean like I said, I love teaching it; there's a lot of psychology involved in it, the study of human behaviour, it's very therapeutic. When I rehearse things in class with my students and I work on pieces, you get to work things out in your head and it's very helpful."

"The great thing about acting, for me anyway, is that there's such variety in it; I've just come from teaching a group of American acting students now this morning and it's things like this that I love about it, there are no two days that are the same. You could acting for theatre, TV, writing, teaching acting and directing - it's this huge variety of work that keeps it interesting for me - the variety helps to keep it fresh."

"I'm as passionate about teaching as I am about actually performing, I love it; when you are not getting the acting work, you're teaching and when you're not teaching it, you're writing and going back to the variety of the craft - that's what I love and you have to be versatile if you want to survive - my teaching informs and hones my acting."

The harsh reality of show business is infamous in our society today and Donal is certainly not one to sugarcoat this - he admits that there have been times in his career when it's been a slog and it's been tough and there's times when you want to pack it all in, but he says that if acting is something that you truly love and are passionate about, then stick with it.

His advice to all the young actors out there is typical of the man, it's simple and to the point: you have to put in the work.

"Hard work is always the thing that I would keep in mind when it comes to acting - I mean, obviously everyone knows that Michael Fassbender used to be a student of mine and he had a tremendous work ethic as a young actor. To me, acting is very hard work and of course, there's a lot of people with talent out there but the ones who put the work in, they're the ones that survive - talent will only get you so far. - you have to put in the hours to really hone your craft," he finished.

From Killarney to the Gaiety to America and to Greece, it's certainly not been a bad career for a man who decided to take up the craft 'on a whim'.

Long may it continue, Donal.