, former arts editor of the ‘Irish Examiner’, marks the passing of a ‘true great’, Niall Tóibín
THE auld triangle that went jingle jangle along the banks of the Royal Canal is silent, Brendan Behan’s dramatic hard times theatrical evocation as represented by the myriad talents of Niall Tóibín is no more. Cork’s most famous “exile” has stepped away from the theatre lights, the stage has gone dark, another ‘true great’ has gone to his reward.
Last week, Gay Byrne, the wizard of the TV and radio studio has left us and now, actor/ comedian/ raconteur/the master of the rolling Rs, the Corkonian lilt and pure Dubisms, has taken his final bow, no more to grace Irish and international theatre houses. The stage door has slammed shut and we’ll not see his likes again.
In my encounters with Niall, there was never a hint of affectation. His artistry may have been an amalgam of precious metals but was essentially pure gold, be it his uncanny and unerring representation of the dialects and intonations proliferating the silence of a little island off, but attached, to Europe and the world. When I was arts editor and reviewer for this paper over 25 years, our paths crossed to my benefit. He went to infinite trouble to attend the launch of a three-part memoir and when a mountain of work meant he could not do so, he went so far as to prepare a telecast to be screened on launch night. When the then artistic director of the Everyman Palace, Pat Talbot, invited Niall to do the honours for my Make ‘Em Laugh book, Niall made it to Cork on the night. His joy at being back in his native city was palpable and obvious to all. The North Mon boy was at the height of his powers but appreciated his short stay by the Lee.
I once suggested to Niall that his hilarious and sold-out one-man shows around the country marked him as a natural in the stand-up genre. He disagreed. He had no time for the more risqué, expletive-laden monologues and preferred to deliver a more accurate word picture of ourselves. Recognition of that delicate art was that which pleased Niall most. If it was called for, Niall did not take prisoners and the audiences soon got the message. The late Michael Twomey, the doyen of southern theatre, saw Niall in this way.
“He extracts his humour from his observance of the foibles and eccentricities of his fellow countrymen, which he expertly weaves into his stories, complete with local accents, delivered with accuracy and always a touch of divilment.”
I wrote in Make ‘Em Laugh that Niall grew up in the radio age and he always recalled sharing the laughter for hours at home with his strict and serious father, as they listened to The Charlie Chester Show. Radio favourites at the time were Jimmy O’Dea on Radio Éireann and live performer Tadgh Foley who Niall recalled was gently naughty.
Civil service exam success brought Niall to Dublin and he spent 14 years with the radio rep players. Niall once pointed out to me that he was not into deep analysis of the art of comedy but subconsciously, through the broad repertoire of Irish drama, he was developing that sense of the sound of the human voice and its accurate representation. He particularly loved being Fr MacNally in the hit TV series Ballykissangel. He said in the early days, the producers helped to establish the character, but Niall did make his stand when he felt that they were making Fr Mac “too stage Irish”. Niall got his way.
One of my fondest memories of Niall’s work on stage was his portrayal of the father in Jim Nolan’s Salvage Shop, produced first by Red Kettle in Waterford. Niall was Nolan’s hard-bitten bandsman and the play revolved around a beautiful study of a relationship between father (Niall) and daughter played by Emily Nagle.
It may sound like a cliché, but it is nonetheless sincere, that when a performer of the calibre of Niall Tóibín is lost to us, a simple light goes out and now, the winter seems that much darker.