Wednesday 17 January 2018

Moira Hoey

Emer O'Kelly remembers the woman who played Mary Riordan, the iconic Mammy for a generation of Irish people

IT WAS what is known in the business as a tag-line: an announcement at the end of an RTE news bulletin that the actress Moira Hoey had died at the age of 88.

"Who?" I thought.

I suspect it was the reaction of thousands of her devoted fans. Because for a generation of Irish people, she was the iconic Mammy of their childhood and teens, but under another name: she was, of course, Moira Deady, the actress who played matriarch Mary Riordan in the equally iconic RTE rural soap The Riordans.

Dear heavens, it was an innocent time: there was scarified outrage when Maggie and Benjy (Biddy White-Lennon, now a cookery writer, and Tom Hickey, now an elder statesman of Irish acting) were agonisedly and agonisingly debating the ins and outs of "artificial" contraception. It was to the horror of Mary Riordan, but the reality was that there were many Irish mothers and mothers-in- law with strings of children who were advising their daughters and daughters-in-law to find any means they could to ensure they could limit their families to the financially affordable and relationship preserving.

But reality was always silent, never intruding on official Ireland, of which RTE was a part. The most that could happen was a discussion; the portrayal had to be a matriarch who was deeply shocked and saddened by it.

Mary Riordan was what was expected of Mother Ireland: tough merely within the kingdom of her domestic scene, stoically subservient beyond it. And Moira Deady played the part to perfection.

She was that best of "soap" actors, one who drew the cloak of her character around her, using her own personality to enforce the portrayal. There was no Stanislavski transference there, no stepping beyond the text to create an imagined situation for Mary outside the confines of Leestown in order to round out the performance.

But then, Irish acting didn't do that during the 14 years of The Riordans. The actors lucky enough to find the steady employment the series represented were thankful for it in an era barely beyond the hungry subsistence of the travelling companies, the "fit-ups".

Indeed, Moira Deady had worked with the fit-ups; today we listen to tales of those days in tents and icy cold parish halls, flea-ridden digs with three to a room, a ragged curtain and a flashing torch the only possible stage effects. And we laugh. But many a good actor learned the trade that way. Moira Deady (Hoey was her married name, and she was the mother of three daughters and a son) was not the least of them. She "came to fame" from nowhere with The Riordans. And when it was axed in deference to a changing Ireland in 1979, she was devastated, perhaps fearing she would never work again.

She was wrong: she was a good enough actor to be re-employed as Nellie Connors in Glenroe, and she also went on to have a minor career in film, including a small role in Angela's Ashes. And there was many a cinema-goer who saw her and thought, "Isn't that Mary Riordan?"

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