(Derek O’Connor’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 9/23.)
Derek O’Connor remembers the actor, who was a giant of Irish theatre
I never saw Diego Maradona play football. I never saw Nijinsky dance. And I never saw Miles Davis play the horn.
But baby, I saw Donal McCann act.
So, you know what? Fundamentally, I’m good.
I’m not quite sure that they make actors like Donal McCann any more. I’m not quite sure that they ever did. Twenty years after his passing, McCann is far from forgotten. Talk to anyone with a passing knowledge of Irish theatre, and chances are that they’ll acknowledge him as a giant, one of the greats, a master of the form.
But then talk to someone who witnessed him ply his trade – scratch that, his vocation – and the tone changes to one of reverence, of something resembling awe, a single question left unspoken . . . How did he do that?
I came to the party late. The first time I saw McCann onstage was in a Gate Theatre production of Juno And The Paycock, playing Seán O’Casey’s poetic wastrel Captain Boyle. Little more than a decade later, he would be dead at the ridiculously early age of 56, from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t see him on purpose, either – I was on a school trip. Juno was (as it remains now) on the Leaving Certificate curriculum. An enthusiastic English teacher – one Declan Fitzpatrick – insisted we experienced the work onstage.
Captain Boyle is one of the great archetypes, in that the character so exquisitely personifies a particular strain of Irish male, as prevalent now as ever. With a pitch-perfect wingman in the shape of John Kavanagh’s wired and wiry Joxer Daly, McCann’s Boyle was both pantomime turn and Falstaffian tragedy, sometimes within the same scene, sometimes within the same sentence. I had never – and have never since – seen anyone so utterly alive on the stage. How did he do that?
Photo: The Irish Times