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New lives added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography – Mick Lally

One of the 41 new lives added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography online in June 2016.

An intervarsity boxing champion, left-wing protester, teacher, and actor – Mick Lally was a co-founder of the Druid theatre company. Well known to Irish audiences through his appearances in RTÉ soap operas Bracken (1978–82) and Glenroe (1983–2001) as ‘Miley’ – whose catchphrase, ‘Well, holy God’, became proverbial – Lally remained deeply commited to stage acting and social causes.

Lally, Mick (1945–2010), actor, was born on 10 November 1945 in Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo, the eldest of seven children (two sons and five daughters) of Thomas Lally, a hill farmer with thirty acres, and his wife May (née McGing). The district was bilingual and Lally grew up as a native speaker of Irish. He later recalled the role of radio broadcasts of GAA matches in promoting demand for rural electrification, and traced his interest in the plays of John B. Keane (qv) to a childhood memory of a radio broadcast of Sive.

Educated through Irish at the local national school (walking six miles daily to attend and taking part in school drama productions), Lally then received his secondary education at St Mary’s College, Galway (1960–65). (His fees were paid by his maternal grandfather, who had emigrated to America and strongly believed in education.) Lally had no interest in the prospect of inheriting the family farm – though his parents later offered it to him – and recalled that while boarding school raised his ambitions beyond simple emigration, in many other respects it left him naïve. From 1965 he studied Irish, sociology and history at UCG with the aim of becoming a teacher. He captained the university boxing team, twice winning the British and Irish intervarsity championship, and later remarked that the experience of boxing in a ring was not unlike that of an actor onstage.

Lally’s university years and participation in Galway’s developing bohemian subculture, including the burgeoning folk-music scene, brought general radicalisation. He came to see himself as part of a new generation determined to break with the restrictions of the past, and became a left-wing Labour party supporter, participating in a sit-in at Galway social welfare offices in protest against reduction in small farmers’ benefits. He acted with the UCG drama society, particularly in Irish-language productions. Although Lally’s extensive extracurricular activities led to his being obliged to repeat his final BA exams after failing in 1969, the growing demand for teachers following the implementation of free secondary education enabled him to secure a job even before he graduated BA and H.Dip.Ed. (1970).

He taught in Tuam Vocational School (1969–75), and later recalled that he had tried to make teaching fun, encouraging his students to act out Irish-language stories and appear in feiseanna. At the same time, he acted with the Galway-based Irish-language theatre company An Taibhdhearc, appearing in up to eight productions per year; his height and craggy features made him a well-known figure on the Galway scene. He was also noted throughout his career for vocal flexibility and love of language. He described himself as an instinctive actor who, like most of his theatre contemporaries, received little or no training and learned by experience.

In 1975 Lally was considering emigrating to London for the summer (to combine work on building sites with inquiries about the possibility of entering the city’s theatrical scene) when he accepted the invitation of Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen to join them as a co-founder of the Druid theatre company, based in Galway city. In the company’s production that August of ‘The playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge (qv), Lally played Christy Mahon. (In a 1982 Druid touring production he played Christy’s father, Old Mahon, a part he revisited in the filmed DruidSynge version of 2005.) Druid’s most frequent early performing venue was the Fo’csle, a tiny studio auditorium seating little more than forty; Lally later joked that the Fo’csle’s small scale made it ideal training for television acting. Initially without government funding, Druid developed into the only professional theatre company in Ireland outside Dublin, touring widely to provincial theatres and community halls. Lally participated in the company’s tour to Australia in 1987 to participate in celebrations of the bicentenary of European settlement; appearing in the ‘Playboy’, he took the opportunity to join a protest demonstration of Aboriginal Australians.

Moving to Dublin late in 1977 (although he continued to appear in Druid productions throughout the 1980s), Lally began to get parts on the Dublin stage. During his career he appeared in twenty-three Abbey Theatre productions, including a 1991 adaptation by John McGahern (qv) of Tolstoy’s ‘The power of darkness’. Lally’s performance as a blind fiddler in ‘Eejits’ by Ron Hutchinson, a 1978 Project Theatre production, brought him to the attention of the RTÉ head of drama, Louis Lentin, and led to his being cast as a religious maniac in Eugene McCabe’s television play Roma (1979). This role, along with his performance in the series Bracken, won him a Jacob’s television award. Lally later delivered one of four monologues in McCabe’s television drama Tales from the poorhouse (1998), filmed separately in both English and Irish.

By 1979 Lally had secured the role for which he became best known: Miley Byrne in the RTÉ soap operasBracken (1978–82) and Glenroe (1983–2001). The naïve Miley and his conniving hill-farmer father Dinny (played by Joe Lynch (qv)) were initially introduced as comic relief offsetting the stormy activities of the protagonist of Bracken, Pat Barry (introduced as a character in later seasons of The Riordans, and played by Gabriel Byrne). When Bracken was discontinued, Dinny and Miley were portrayed as selling their land and moving to a new farm in the Wicklow lowlands closer to an urban area, where they became market gardeners (later operating an ‘open farm’ for urban visitors) and were made somewhat more sympathetic figures. Their subsequent activities became the basis of Glenroe.

Lally later admitted that he only expected Glenroe to last for a year or two, and was surprised at the extent of its success. His portrayal of Miley combined an overlay of innocent naïveté (his catchphrase, ‘Well, holy God’, became proverbial) with an underlying body of inarticulate knowledge and fundamental common sense. Lally drew on his own knowledge and youthful experience of farming life, combined with his subsequent training and reflection, to considerable effect; it was often remarked that although Lally differed from Miley in many respects, he consciously refused to condescend to the character or to those who lived such a life or who identified with Miley. The character attracted tremendous popular affection, notably in his courtship of and subsequent marriage to Biddy McDermott (played by Mary McEvoy). Lally was often addressed as ‘Miley’ by people who met him in the street: ‘Even the punks at the top of Grafton Street will stop me and ask how are the carrots and the mushrooms doing’ (Irish Farmers’ Journal, 8 March 1986). In 1990 Lally remarked that many members of the audiences for his theatre productions came expecting to see Miley and left with the impression that they had seen Miley – rather than Lally – playing a part.

To some extent Lally played up this identification with Miley (though they shared certain personal qualities; posthumous tributes from Lally’s co-stars emphasised his gentleness and humility, which were conspicuous sources of Miley’s appeal to audiences). In 1985 Lally participated in an April Fool’s Day joke, announcing on the radio news programme Morning Ireland that he was resigning from Glenroe because RTÉ wished to introduce nude scenes. (Such an objection would have been more in character for the pious Miley than for Lally. Some years before his death Lally publicly revealed that he was a longstanding atheist, believing the suffering and cruelty in the world incompatible with the concept of a benevolent God.) In 1985, when Lally joined a picket line in support of Dunnes Stores workers who had been dismissed for refusing to handle goods imported from apartheid South Africa, it was suggested that it was unclear whether he was appearing as himself or as Miley. (Other activities associated with his left-wing political commitments, such as fund-raising events in support of the beleaguered leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and canvassing for the far-left political activist Joe Higgins in Dáil Éireann elections, were more clearly undertaken in propria persona.) In 1990 Lally as Miley even had an Irish chart hit with ‘The by-road to Glenroe’. Lally filmed the series every season from August to April, and engaged in travelling theatre productions during the summer hiatus.

In tandem with the last season of Glenroe (2000–01), Lally appeared in the sixth and last season of the BBC drama Ballykissangel (also filmed in Wicklow) as Louis Dargan, a solitary, inarticulate and economically marginal hill farmer. After the demise of both serials, Lally mainly engaged in touring theatre productions, although he continued to do television and film work. In 2008–09 he played a businessman in the Irish-language soap opera Ros na Rún, on TG4.

Lally appeared as a garda sergeant in Poitín (1978; dir. Bob Quinn), the first feature film made entirely in Irish, and his performance as the charismatic and sinister wandering shaman-fiddler Scarf Michael in The outcasts(1982; dir. Robert Wynne-Simmons), a horror film set in pre-famine Ireland, was critically praised. Other film appearances (mostly cameos) included The ballroom of romance (1982; dir. Pat O’Connor), Fools of fortune(1990; dir. Pat O’Connor), The secret of Roan Inish (1994; dir. John Sayles), as a horse seller in Alexander(2004; dir. Oliver Stone), and in the animated The secret of Kells (2009; dir. Tomm Moore) as the voice of the illuminator Brother Aidan. Lally declared, however, that he was primarily a theatre actor who saw film and television as stimulating variations on his true vocation.

On stage and in television plays Lally frequently played Irish countrymen and culturally conservative individuals in works by such authors as Keane, McCabe and Tom Murphy, though these were often isolated or deranged figures contrasting sharply with Miley’s benignity and deliberately intended to counter idealised images of the peasant as archetypal Irishman. Such roles included the lonely Sanbatch Daly, trying to hold a declining community together, in the 1983 Druid production of ‘The wood of the whispering’ by M. J. Molloy (qv); John Connor, the morally disintegrating O’Connellite village leader in the 1984 Druid production of Murphy’s ‘Famine’ (which Lally had translated into Irish, and performed, as ‘Gorta’, in 1975); the violent, pseudo-aristocratic fantasist Cornelius Melody in ‘A touch of the poet’ by Eugene O’Neill (1987 Druid production); the embattled conservative teacher Raphael Bell in the 1990 Macnas adaptation of ‘The dead school’ by Patrick McCabe; and the gravedigger suspected of murdering his wife in Martin McDonagh’s ‘A skull in Connemara’ (1997).

In 1980 Lally went to Derry city to create the role of the lame, frustrated schoolteacher Manus O’Donnell in ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel (1929–2015), the first production of the Field Day company, and was depressed by seeing the Northern Ireland troubles at first hand. In the 1990s and 2000s he participated in the generally successful project of the director Ben Barnes to rehabilitate Keane’s image as a serious dramatist by staging innovative productions of major Keane plays involving revised texts developed in collaboration with the playwright. Lally drew particular attention for his portrayal of a lost, isolated and anguished Bull McCabe in ‘The field’ (as distinct from earlier renderings, notably by Ray McAnally (qv), which played up the character’s demonic violence), of the title character in ‘The year of the hiker’ (who returns years after abandoning his family to become a tramp), and of the frustrated bachelor John Bosco Hogan in ‘The chastitute’.

Lally married Peige (1979), a nurse from Inis Meáin; they had a daughter and two sons, and lived on the South Circular Road, Dublin, where Lally became a familiar sight on his bicycle. Irish was the language of the household; in later life Lally expressed dismay that the language-teaching methods his children experienced in school were fundamentally unchanged from what he had experienced in his own teaching career. Despite his atheism, his children received a Roman catholic education as he did not wish them to be isolated from their classmates. Lally died in a Dublin hospital on 31 August 2010 of a heart condition brought on by the emphysema that affected him in the last years of his life, and received a humanist funeral ceremony. In 2014 the Druid theatre’s auditorium in Galway city was renamed the Mick Lally Theatre. This was particularly fitting; for while Lally will be primarily remembered as Miley Byrne, his role in bringing modern literary stage drama to provincial Ireland was more fugitive but quite possibly more important.

Ir. Farmers’ Journal, 8 Mar. 1986; Ir. Times, 27 June, 21 Nov. 1987; 9 July 1988; 16 July 1990; 16 Mar. 1993; 23 July 1998; 25 Oct. 2008; 1, 3, 4, 8 Sept. 2010; 9 Oct. 2013; Cork Examiner, 26 Aug. 1987; 4, 17 May 1999; 24 Feb., 18 Aug. 2001; Sunday Independent, 12 July 1988; 5 Sept. 2010; Southern Star, 28 July 1990; Connacht Tribune, 17 Sept. 2004; Ir. Independent, 2 Nov. 2006; Ir. Catholic, 2, 16 Sept. 2010; Guardian, 9 Sept. 2010;Independent (London), 11 Sept. 2010; Druid Theatre Company, (accessed May 2016)

A new entry, added to the DIB online, June 2016