Peter O'Toole and the wild west of Ireland




As the actor’s family prepares to scatter his ashes in Connemara, Paul D’Alton on his colourful childhood with the O’Tooles

NOT so long ago, myself and Kate O’Toole, the ebullient daughter of the late actor Peter O’Toole, who died last December aged 81 after a long illness, were merrily enjoying a great drinking session in Tom King’s Bar in Clifden, Connemara.

We hadn’t caught up in a bit and as things do in these circumstances, as the booze flowed, so did the great war stories we had all shared from the not-so-long-ago old days.

Kate’s family have been great friends of my family for generations and decades: my uncle, Roscommon-born Frank Kelly, was one of Peter O’Toole’s lifelong best friends as was, indeed, another family friend, Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland. At one time, the three men were their own personal Troika over the many glorious years they and us shared together in the West, before circumstances changed, although the close ties remained unbroken.

So it was, as ordering another round, I asked Kate: “So, how’s the Old Fella, anyways?”

“He’s fine, darling,” she drawled in her languid theatrical voice. “I’m over to see him at Christmas. He might be back to see us all in the New Year, if he’s well enough.”

No more was said. And no more, sadly, will O’Toole grace the rugged coastal shores of his, and our, beloved Connemara.

Except, that is, over the next few weeks and in one very poignant way, and a forever lasting one: as planned at the time of his cremation in north London, Kate, her sister, Pat, and brother, Lorcan, hope to scatter the Lawrence of Arabia star’s ashes at Eyrephort Beach near Clifden, a wonderful slither of wild coastline where O’Toole built a holiday home in the early 1970s, and where he was to spend some of the happiest times of his life.

The scattering of his ashes will end a remarkable, and largely untold — until now — chapter of O’Toole’s love affair with the West, a place where he claimed to have been born in 1932 before being taken to England as a baby.

Indeed, looking back on those halcyon days amid the sun and mist of those summers some time ago, it is fair to say that it was also a time which, even without the succour of easy nostalgia, changed and marked every one of us, a unique era that saw happiness, joy, madness and heartbreak in equal measure.

It was the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s, and O’Toole was spending more and more time at the multi-level house he and his former wife, actress Siân Phillips, had built with local brown granite — known as ‘Scardán Stone’ — at Eyrephort, a short drive from Connemara’s capital, Clifden.


I was privileged, because of my family’s close ties to the O’Tooles, to have played a bit part in what, was an uproarious, outlandish time. Inevitably, top of the list are incidents which can now be added to the litany of O’Toole’s hell-raising, drinking war stories.

Perhaps the best was the time in the late ’70s — it must have been after major portions of his intestine and stomach had been surgically removed in 1976 after years of alcohol abuse — when O’Toole had fallen off the wagon, something that happened not infrequently.

He’d spent the day in Mannion’s Bar, a family-owned town hostelry. After the closing-time rendition of Amrhán na bhFiann, and everyone well-sauced, O’Toole was invited to a nearby house for afters.

And it was there, surrounded by a few men and women then treading the ‘dark side’ of Irish Republicanism, that O’Toole jumped up on a chair, glass in hand, and roared: “Right, you culchies, please stand for God Save The Queen!”

O’Toole, a fierce Irish patriot, had meant it in jest. But like some of his Hollywood movies, it fell more than flat: as bedlam erupted in the cramped kitchen, bodhráns and bodies flying, O’Toole was, genuinely, lucky not to be disembowelled for a second time, non-surgically.

Remember that, in this era and despite Clifden’s famous artistic bent, Connemara was still something of a remote, at times lawless place. And O’Toole inevitably could not, for long, hide the showman in him.

One day, sitting in the off-licence of my uncle’s place in the town, he suddenly announced: “Darlings, I have a surprise for you. Look!”

So we all turned and stared and there, parked on the corner of Main Street, was a gleaming black London taxi.

O’Toole had bought it in London and had it brought over on the ferry. Its purchase was, as I was about to discover, the very mark of the man: at times, intensely, almost pathologically private; at others, a ribald, daring attention-seeker.

So off along the coastal boreens we went for a spin: my cousin, Philip, driving, O’Toole and me behind the plexiglass in the back. Astonished tourists and locals stared at a scene almost straight out of the cult film comedy, Withnail & I: a famous Hollywood star, Lawrence of Arabia himself, waving regally as we trundled up the world-famous Sky Road, with views as far to the south of Co Clare, and a massive joint being passed between us.

“But, Peter,’ I said between pulls (I was only 17 at the time), ‘I thought you were supposed to be here infuckingcognito!”

“Oh my dear,” he grinned, “Fuck them! It will give the poor dears a thrill for a bit,” before letting rip his wild, cackling laugh.

Today, few people pass any heed to someone having the odd cannabis roll-up. But it was different then: Mick Jagger and his then wife Jerry Hall had been arrested for marijuana possession in Barbados around that time, so the odd ‘spliff’ was treated like handling stolen goods, certainly in rural Ireland. But at the Eyrephort house, O’Toole had installed in the grounds a greenhouse. A local fella acted as his odd-jobs man and one day, standing with O’Toole in the greenhouse, he innocently asked: “Jesus, Peter, they’re mighty plants. What kind are they?”

“Ah,” O’Toole replied, “they are very precious non-flowering, non-fruiting tomato plants.”

So when O’Toole went back to London for a few weeks, his trusty handyman wanted to take special care of Peter’s precious ‘tomato plants’ and had fertilised and watered them so well that they had grown to a height of nearly 20ft.

So on his return and to his total horror, O’Toole had to have the cannabis plants quickly cut down so that the gardaí wouldn’t spot them.

Needless to say, the harvest from that culling of the best of the crop resulted in the entire town literally having shopping bags full of weed for weeks, months after. We were delighted but O’Toole, the poor man, was terrified. I remember him roaring up at the house: “I could end up in fucking jail, you fuckers”, as locals helped out and hid the stuff like something out of Whiskey Galore.

Somehow, perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves at the centre of bizarre dramas.

Such as the time the rock star Sting, then married to Irish actress Frances Tomelty, had rented a house in nearby Roundstone. Sting would roar through the town, burly bodyguard riding pillion, on a vast motorbike on his way to see O’Toole out at the house.

But that summer’s holiday didn’t last for long. After only a few weeks, on a day I’ll never forget, Sting barged breathless through the door of my uncle Frank’s bar at lunchtime. “I have to go! I have to go! Where’s everybody? Where’s Peter?” he shouted.

As the kerfuffle ensued in the adjoining off-licence, I returned to serving customers. Then, a few minutes later, Sting with bodyguard roared off, never to be seen in these parts again.

Later that day, O’Toole arrived in and claimed that Sting had received death threats from the Provisional IRA and terrified — this wasn’t long after the H-Block protest and black coffins still adorned some lampposts in town — he upped and fled back to England.

We all thought it was a terrible drama until I asked O’Toole, grinning from ear to ear, if they had really threatened to kill Sting.

“Did they fuck! But those feckers down in Roundstone couldn’t stand him so they ran him out!” Our laughter crackled through the building. “IRA my arse!” O’Toole roared.

Poor Sting.

The lawless, wildness of Connemara infected, even intoxicated, us and O’Toole in other ways. Not least the searing incident in 1984 when, eaten up with bitterness and rage, he conspired to kidnap his young baby son.

The saga had begun a year or so earlier when O’Toole had arrived back in Clifden with a beautiful American ex-model, Karen Brown. Despite her quiet charm, Karen didn’t take to the craic agus ceoil of the West.

Still, the couple had a son together, Lorcan (Irish for Lawrence), now aged 30. But when Karen returned to her home on the coast of New Jersey after the couple ended their love affair, O’Toole was furious and plotted to get the child back. At the time, he employed a gofer/chauffeur/bodyguard named John Kenny, an east Galway native, now deceased.

And I remember vividly hushed conversations around various houses as the kidnap plot took shape, and John getting more and more stressed by what he sensed, quite rightly, was going to end in a debacle.

The amateur plan, madness in hindsight, was for the baby, only ten months old at the time, to be taken for a few days vacation by O’Toole from Karen’s American home, and then smuggled back to Ireland. There was even mention, in true O’Toole cinematic adventurer mode, of stowing the father and child on a fishing vessel and landing in secret on the Connemara coast.

But the plan went awry from the start. Smelling a rat after O’Toole had left with the child, Karen and friends alerted authorities and O’Toole and the child were finally stopped at the airport in Bermuda. John had been waiting in Clifden for a call to either make for Shannon Airport, where O’Toole hoped to dash through Immigration as quickly as possible, or to London for a secondary rendezvous.

In the end, Lorcan was returned to his mother and after a long custody battle, it was agreed that Karen would have care of the boy during the school holidays — Lorcan eventually went on to the English public school, Harrow — while O’Toole would see his son during the school term, caring for him in Hampstead.

Of his beloved son, he once said to us: “The only thing I wanted more than life itself was to have him raised an Irishman.”

And the West was where he’d wish that to happen. Summers where Michael D Higgins, then a Labour senator, and his wife Sabina and their brood of wonderful children would ensconce themselves in a small cottage, known as ‘Nana’s Cottage’, just down from the main house and christened such after Siân Philip’s beloved Welsh mother — and where for many a night I’d have to babysit the tumultuous brood, now all grown-up and fiercely bright, like their parents.

If, as planned, his ashes, as Kate and the family wish, are scattered to the sea from the beach at Eyrephort, it would be a fitting tribute to the West’s famous adopted son.

O’Toole loved the life out here: although he knew nothing about horses, and was nearly decapitated when his Connemara stallion ‘Dr Slattery’ half dragged him across the show field at the world-famous Connemara Pony show as we died laughing watching the scene, he turned up every year in spotless, horsey tweed attire, pretending he knew a mare from a foal.

And when ‘Dr Slattery’ failed to win the top prize one year, O’Toole tired of the stallion and that was the last we heard of it.

But it won’t, for many generations, be the last time we hear of O’Toole’s time in his own wild west.


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