Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that one day, while Tom Kilroy was in Leaving Cert, an Adonis walked through St Kieran’s College. He inquired, in a very magisterial manner, where was one to find the headmaster.
No boy in the Ireland of the 1950s had seen a man wearing white make-up in day-time (or anytime ), while allowing his long, dyed -blond, hair, to weave naughtily around his face. He was dressed in a light-coloured suite, shirt and tie, revealed through the opening of his long cloak, with its Celtic motifs. Boys rushed to find the headmaster.
It was of course young Anew McMaster, an old-style actor-manager, with a deep resonant voice, sometimes dwelling on a particular word to extract every possible meaning, and to suggest there were far more meanings possible but that time was limited to explore them all.
He was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, and abandoned a banking career, to join a variety of travelling theatres or fit-ups. He played every Shakespearean character known to man; and some, I was told, were new characters, so perfectly portrayed, that only afterwards did people puzzle as to which of the bard’s 37 plays did he or she belong.
He came to Ireland in the 1950s, and was utterly charmed by Irish audiences.* The Irish, who were reared on story-telling, were mesmerised by McMaster. His entertainments, presented in a local theatre or, if none available, in small circus tent, usually consisted of a Shakespearian tragedy, preceded by a short melodrama, or, which became increasingly popular, McMaster himself telling one of Oscar Wilde’s great fairy stories. Audiences openly wept at The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant, and The Nightingale and the Rose.
A youthful prince
Tom Kilroy was fortunate to have an inspirational teacher, Fr Peter Birch, later Bishop of Ossory.** who invited McMaster into the Leaving class to talk about Hamlet. Tom recalls: ‘McMaster sat on a chair before the class of 18 year-old boys, one hand floating in an airy gesture. We had never seen anything like him in all our short lives: dyed, tossed blond hair, the daytime make-up clearly visible around the glaring blue eyes, the elegant tweed suit, the contrasting flowery waistcoat, and that voice, oh, that voice …The only way I can describe his ‘performance’ is that he ‘took us through’ Hamlet… a cliff-hanging narrative of the plot . ‘He acted out several parts as well, from a simpering Ophelia to a grumpy Polonius, and, everywhere possible, a youthful charismatic prince.
‘The years fell away from the actor in the chair in front of our eyes. It was my first experience up close of great acting, and a demonstration that such talent could theatricalise any space, … even in a broom closet. Or a school classroom.’***
A different life
If Tom Kilroy had little idea what he was going to be after he left school, falling under McMaster’s spell that morning was a total eureka moment in his young life. He knew he was going to become a playwright and novelist.
The late Tom Murphy had raised the new standard for Irish playwriting that famous Sunday morning in Tuam, when he and his friend Noel O’Donoghue made a vow that, yes, Murphy would write a play. ‘What would you write about?’ Murphy cried out: ‘One thing is f****** sure, it’s not going to be set in a kitchen!’
A wave of new young playwrights hit the Irish theatre in the 1960s, all as far from the old kitchen sink as it was possible, including John B Keane (Sive 1959 ), Tom Murphy (A Whistle in the Dark 1961 ), Hugh Leonard (Stephen D 1962 ), Brian Friel (Philadelphia Here I come 1964 ), Eugene McCabe (King of the Castle 1964 ), and Tom Kilroy (The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche 1968 ).
When the curtain came down on Tom’s first play, during the final applause, the director Jim Fitzgerald, whispered in his ear, ‘Your life will never be the same again.’ Perhaps a nod to an invisible Anew McMaster in the crowd.
NOTES: *Anew McMaster (1891-1962 ) adored Irish audiences and they generally loved him. He married Majorie Willmore, a sister of Micheál MacLiammóir. They had two children, Christopher and Mary Rose. They lived in a cottage at Howth Head.
**Bishop Peter Birch was a revolutionary man in many ways. One of his first objectives as bishop was to set up a series of social services throughout his diocese, which today is staffed by 45 professionals and more than 900 volunteers. It was the first of its kind, and is now widely copied. Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, and her team, largely continue Bishop Birch’s work today.
*** Harold Pinter was with McMaster on this particular tour. It was his first acting job for which he was paid £6 per week. McMaster, known as ‘Mac’, assured him that in Ireland digs were only about 25 shillings a week ‘all in’, and cigarettes were much cheaper that in England. The tour lasted two years. Pinter played a large variety of characters. In his affectionate MAC (published by Faber and Faber 1998 ) he recalls one evening playing Lord Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan in the old Cork Opera House. ‘It was a wonderful theatre with a back stage bar where actors could pop in for a drink while the play was going on.’ Suddenly John Nolan wondered on stage one night, all dressed in formal dinner suit, monocle, silver cane, top hat, everything, and came up to Pinter and stood in silence. After some effort to speak, he whispered: ‘I’m totally pissed. You better say something.’ ‘Ah my lord,’ says Pinter, ‘I see you were at the Garrick.’ And guided him off stage. The play, I assume, proceeded as best it could.
Tom Kilroy’s autobiography Over the Backyard Wall - A Memory Book, is just published by The Lilliput Press, and on sale €15. Tom is one of Ireland’s leading novelists and playwrights,. He has won numerous awards , elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary Fellow of TCD. He is professor emeritus of Modern English at NUI Galway.