Applause at playwright’s ‘final curtain call’

THE late writer, Hugh Leonard, received the traditional applause of the theatre world at his funeral mass in Dalkey yesterday at what mourners were told was his “final curtain call”.

The large congregation composed of many familiar faces from the Irish stage and screen heard the prolific author described as “acerbic, waspish and satiric” but also as “warm, affectionate and wickedly funny”.

Mourners at the Church of the Assumption in Dalkey also heard how it was Leonard’s dying wish that he would be reconciled with the people he had fallen out with over the years.

Chief celebrant, Monsignor Paddy Finn, a personal friend of the writer, said he felt concerned that he would sound like a character in the author’s play Da, because he referred to both his friend’s pen name, Hugh Leonard, and his family name, Jack Keyes Byrne.

In his homily, he said Leonard had many devoted readers over several decades of his columns which had appeared under various mastheads including “The Curmudgeon”.

“He was a brave and fearless commentator of the Ireland he found himself in. Despite the jibes and complaints about his country, he never really wanted to live anywhere else,” said Msgr Finn.

He also recalled Leonard’s loves and passions including his cats, travel, cruising on waterways in France and his hometown of Dalkey.

Msgr Finn said he was astonished at the extent of his body of work which had included 31 stage plays, seven screenplays, the RTÉ radio series, The Kennedys of Castleross and 76 TV plays.

The writer, who died aged 82 last Tuesday after a long illness, was described as “a decent, intelligent man, who was interesting and sensitive and spoke with refreshing frankness”.

Msgr Finn said he was also surprised to learn that Leonard had been “a trenchant atheist” in his earlier life but that he had subsequently “shed that skin”.

“Allez allez! Go on Jack. Sail on brave boatman into a heavenly harbour,” said Msgr Finn at the end of his homily.

In a tribute, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, Patrick Mason movingly recalled how the life of a “shy, vain, diffident and overbearing” civil servant had been transformed after seeing a production of Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in the old Abbey Theatre in the 1950s.

He also joked about Leonard’s response to having his first play rejected by former Abbey director Ernest Blythe because he didn’t like plays with ghosts. “So much for Hamlet,” retorted the budding dramatist.

Mr Mason also said the grief and confusion of his friend’s early life had been articulated and mastered through his new identity as a writer, while he delighted in exposing hypocrisy and political chicanery.

He praised the quantity and quality of Leonard’s work as well as its ability to generate laughter, adding how there was no more difficult theatre than comedy.

Mr Mason said Leonard’s reputation was assured. “Thanks for the great work. Sleep well now and sweet dreams,” he concluded.

The chief mourner was Mr Leonard’s only child, Danielle, who was accompanied by family friends including the dramatist, Bernard Farrell and Margaret Dunne who gave the readings.

Among the large attendance were actors, David Kelly, Emmet Bergin, Barry McGovern and Pauline McLynn; director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail and director of the Gate, Michael Colgan.

Other mourners included Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, Fine Gael TD, Seán Barrett and Seanad colleague, Eugene Regan as well as Goal charity founder, John O’Shea, broadcaster, Olivia O’Leary and theatre critic, Emer O’Kelly. President Mary McAleese was represented by her aide-de-camp, Capt Martin Larkin.

After the funeral Mass, the writer’s coffin was brought to Mount Jerome for cremation.

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