The facade of the Forum theatre in Waterford looks down on a sloping plaza that is itself surrounded by the small terraced houses that mark this historic part of the city. Here and there between the houses run narrow streets with centuries-old names, some leading down towards the Quay, others up the town to Ballybricken and beyond. It was down one of these streets, as I stood outside the theatre after a performance of The Castlecomer Jukebox in 2004, that I watched a solitary, tall, hunched figure lope away, hands in pockets, probably off for a quiet post-performance pint in one of O’Connell Street’s pubs. That figure was Mick Lally.
I never had the good fortune to meet Mick Lally in person, but I cannot shake the feeling that I have known him all my life. To my brothers and me, like many Irish children in the 1980s, the Glenroe theme tune signalled the dreaded Sunday-night bedtime (as much as it probably signalled to our parents the time when they could finally sit down and watch some TV in peace). Even when we were too young to actually watch Glenroe, we and our schoolfriends knew all the characters and especially Miley, the beleaguered everyman with the bewitching voice and a brilliant catchphrase that we repeated with delight at every opportunity.
Being finally allowed to stay up beyond 8 pm on Sundays to watch Glenroe was a real rite of passage. As well as being a staple in that show, to those of us growing up in Ireland in the 80s, Mick Lally always seemed to be around, be it on TV or radio. He even managed to turn a TV ad for cheese into a memorable experience, his mellifluous tones combining deliciously with the thrumming of a bodhran’s beat.
The years passed, I moved to Dublin, and even though as a student I no longer had access to a TV, Mick remained a constant. My Austrian friend Sabine visited Dublin and to give her a taste of Irish theatre, my boyfriend and I took her to see A Skull in Connemara, with Mick in the lead role. We had great seats looking down on the stage. I remember being overawed by Mick’s looming, menacing presence in that role. I was also delighted that we had an actor of such calibre in this country that enabled me to show off our culture to a visitor so successfully. In the pub afterwards, Sabine’s English was tested to the limits as she tried to put into words the impression his performance had made on her.
These days, my husband and I, now with three children, rarely get to listen to an entire radio show, so it was a special treat on a recent drive to Dublin to turn on the radio and hear Mick’s voice. He and another wonderfully familiar actor, his Glenroe co-star Mary McEvoy, were being interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan. As the children, miraculously, slept in the back, it was a delight to hear him describe his life and career with endearingly self-deprecating good humour, and just as much a delight to simply sit and listen to his voice. To hear his gorgeous spoken Irish was another pleasure.
Perhaps because that interview is so recent, the news this morning comes as a particularly sad shock. It strikes me that as we advance into our mid-thirties, us Glenroe children have now reached the age where the death of a well-known person can feel like the death of something in us. Mick Lally was part of the background of our lives, whether we paid his presence there much heed or not. Now that he is gone, I personally, for the first time, feel the loss of a person I never actually knew.
Although, thanks to that radio interview, it is not long since I heard him speak, my last, and lasting, visual impression of Mick Lally is that evening in Waterford in 2004, when I watched him walk away down a dark street after another brilliant performance, alone, seeking no accolades, a quiet master.
(c) Curmumgeon 2010