As an inspirational teacher, actor and producer, few people have had such a beneficial effect on Cork theatre as the late Dan Donovan, writes Jo Kerrigan
WE HAVE lost a true giant of Cork theatrical tradition. Dan Donovan took his final bow last Saturday, and his going is mourned everywhere that values the swish of the curtain, the murmur from the stalls. Teacher and mentor of so many, co-founder of the Everyman as well as the Southern Theatre Group which brought John B Keane to the world, director and actor extraordinaire, his passing leaves a gap that will be almost impossible to fill.
Presentation College, where he taught all his working life, and became deputy principal, named its theatre in his honour, and past pupils, including film star Cillian Murphy, reacted to the news of his passing with deep sadness but also deep affection. And this was characteristic of everyone who knew Dan.
“He was the most erudite and entertaining of teachers, a gentleman who offered his wisdom and example,” said Fergal Keane, the BBC’s Africa editor.
The late Michael Twomey, another former pupil, once said that of all people, Donovan had had the most influence on his own life and career. “Actor, director, visionary — there couldn’t be another like him.”
“Only those teachers who were genuinely good left a mark,” observes journalist Niall Kiely, a former pupil of Donovan’s at Pres. “It was striking at a recent 50th anniversary get-together of our Leaving Cert class that first in all our memories was Dan Donovan. He inspired a love of words, and language, and poetry and verse, in the most unlikely of pupils. He could and did get entire classes engaged with Shakespearian scenes, with the shyest and most tongue-tied giving at least some semblance of performance.”
Playwright Declan Hassett, former arts editor of this newspaper, confirms that wholeheartedly. “I remember being quite shy at the time, not a great speaker in public, and I begged Dan not to involve me in a reading of Hamlet.”
These class readings are remembered by everyone who had the good fortune to be taught by such a master. In marked contrast to rigid school systems of the time, students stood on desks, declaimed great Shakespearean speeches, gesticulated, shouted, and never ever forgot the experience.
Donovan made the young Hassett stand on high, speak Ophelia’s words with pathos, and even fall into the reeds to her death. “From that day, I never feared public speaking in any form! Dan had that gentle way with him, not so much a teacher as a guide, counsellor, mentor. I am forever grateful to the man.”
“He acknowledged the reality of working with teenagers,” says Ger Fitzgibbon, emeritus head of theatre studies at UCC. “To say Dan taught us Irish and English in Pres is to miss the point. The way he spoke, the way he ran his class, the respect he showed to us and his boundless enthusiasm and energy opened up for us a way of learning and being. He showed what it meant to be a rich, humane person with a wide-ranging mind, with a passionate love of music, poetry and, above all, theatre.”
One day, reveals Fitzgibbon, the class asked Dan if they could have homework off. “He looked as stern as he could and demanded a good reason. There was a cough and a shuffle and one brave soul said ‘St Als [girls school] have their sports today and we wanted to go’.
“With no other teacher could we have risked this but with Dan we were on safe ground. There was a low chuckle and a world-weary sigh, followed by a nod.”
As an actor, remembers Fitzgibbon, Donovan could produce wonderful theatrical rages, but only remembers one occasion of real anger. “Someone had offered a particularly stupid answer to a question in class and the rest of us started jeering the unfortunate. Dan turned and savaged us, leaving no doubt how much he hated what he called ‘the mob mentality.’ That was something I never forgot.”
Many years after leaving Pres, Ger Fitzgibbon became the first head of the drama & theatre programme in UCC. Among the first cohort of students to take that degree was Julie Kelleher, who is now artistic director of Everyman Theatre. The legacy goes on.
It was 1963 when Dan Donovan, together with John O’Shea and Seán Ó Tuama, created the Everyman Theatre group, first based at the CCYMS in Castle St, then at the Fr Mathew Hall (where Angela Lansbury performed the opening ceremony in 1972), and finally the Palace on MacCurtain Street, where the Everyman has been ever since.
Pat Talbot, former director of the Everyman, is in no doubt that Dan was the fulcrum around which the cultural history of his native city revolved from the 1950s onward.
“What I will remember him most for, though, is his towering presence as an actor. As a young schoolboy I was mesmerised by his performance as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. Dan’s innate sense of the tragedy of the man he was playing resonates with me to this day. I also vividly recall how Dan compelled audiences into stunned silence with his playing of Caiphas the High Priest in Denis Potter’s Son of Man.”
Indeed this writer remembers such powerful performances too, from the compelling title role in Ó Tuama’s Judas Iscariot and His Wife, and a mesmerising Krapp’s Last Tape, to a delightfully melodramatic informer in Boucicault’s The Shaughraun.
In 2008 Everyman published Dan Donovan: An Everyman’s Life, to mark his 80th birthday. Author Vera Ryan had the joyous if demanding task of interviewing the octogenarian and discovering some little-known facts about his early years.
“It is not generally known that Dan’s father had been in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Before Dan was born, two young relatives were on the run during the Troubles. They were concealed in the Donovan home, a brave act for his father because of his own former employment.”
That father died when Dan was only 9, and in interviews Dan revealed that later on his choice of plays and his own performances of fathers (such as Strindberg’s The Father) helped in healing the pain of that loss. What was he like to interview for the book?
“Courteous, kind, concise. Not confessional. He sought balance. Linking the early mentions of his father with the later sessions where he was more personal about the influence of his father’s death on him as a creative being, was I felt a breakthough.”
Dan Donovan will be an almost impossible act to follow. But, even as we mourn, the best way we can honour this giant of the theatre is to follow his footsteps, and continue the great legacy of theatre which is Cork’s proud characteristic today.
Funeral Mass at 10am, tomorrow (Thursday) at Christ the King Church, Turner’s Cross, Cork