A scholar with a voice like silk — Marie Mullen remembers Mick Lally

Marie and Mick rehearsing  in 1975

Marie and Mick rehearsing in 1975

A scholar, a big personality, and a marvellous actor with a voice like silk is how the actress Marie Mullen will remember the late Mick Lally, a close friend with whom she co-founded Druid, with Garry Hynes, and with whom she shared the stage on numerous occasions.

Mick Lally was born and reared in Tourmakeady, a Gaeltacht village in south Co Mayo, in 1945. In the 1960s he came to Galway city to study in UCG, graduating with a BA in 1969 and a HDip in education in 1970. After university he found employment as a schoolteacher in Tuam.

As well as his academic studies, Mick also took time to develop his love of acting and the theatre by joining Dramsoc in the university and later working with An Taibhdhearc. He was also a popular man and became part of the city’s social scene, centred around such places as The Cellar Bar in Eglinton Street.

Marie Mullen was a student in UCG in the 1970s and was also enthusiastic about acting. It was through the theatre that she first got to know Mick.

“I met him in Galway in about 1974,” she says. “He was working as a teacher in Tuam at the time. I probably would have first seen him performing in An Taibhdhearc in The Shaughraun and I thought he was amazing, his Irish was so beautiful.”

Marie says it was easy to make friends with Mick as he was “a big personality and was always interested in people.” It also helped they had Tourmakeady in common.

“I found out he was from Tourmakeady and I had gone to boarding school there with his sister Marie, who was a year or two ahead of me,” the actress recalls. “That would have been the opening conversation we would have had.”

At this time both Marie and her friend Garry Hynes were in Dramsoc in UCG and they were keen to stage some plays during the summer of 1975. For one of the plays they wanted to put on, they had a certain local actor in mind to play the lead role. Little did they know at the time, but the trio were about to take the first steps towards founding Druid Theatre Company.

“Garry wanted to do a production to finish off the college year and she wanted to do The Playboy Of The Western World and two other shows for a summer season,” says Marie.

“There was only one person to play Christy Mahon and that was Mick Lally. We didn’t know him that well but we knew he would be finishing up for the school term so we went to meet him. He said he was due to leave for England on the Saturday but, ‘I will think about it’.

“If Mick had said no Garry and I would have gone to the US that summer to work but in a few days Mick came back and said ‘I’ll give it a go’. He played the part brilliantly and that’s how Druid started.”

That production of Playboy was a significant event in Irish theatre history, as it marked Druid’s debut performance. It was also the first time Marie acted alongside Mick.

“Mick was cast in the role of Christy, I played Pegeen Mike, so it was my first time playing opposite him,” she says. “The cast was made up of college friends and people we knew from around town, and so we could put on our summer season.

“Mick knew this already but it was only afterwards Garry and I realised that there was more to be got out of The Playboy than the pot-boiler, Oirishy play we thought it was, and so we planned to stage it again at a later time.

“We wanted to make the company last longer and get some money from the Arts Council so we decided to stage the play within a year and explore it again. Mick Lally stayed on and that’s how Druid got started.”

From that, Mick Lally went on to become one of the finest actors ever to stand on the Irish theatre stage. While he was widely admired by his fellow actors and theatre professionals, he was also much loved by the public.

As well as theatre Mick also had a long career in television and will be remembered for his role in Bracken, which ran on RTÉ from 1978 to 1982, and most especially for playing Miley Byrne in Glenroe, from 1983 to 2001.

Yet while he enjoyed his television work, he never left the theatre behind, and continued to perform regularly, in many important productions, during that time. “Theatre was his heartbeat, even though he loved his TV work,” says Marie.

So what does Marie feel were Mick Lally’s finest qualities as an actor?

“I think passionate, he had a passionate honesty and a natural fluency,” she says. “There was a musicality to his voice, I always thought his voice was like silk. He loved literature and was so happy reading. He was inspired by plays in a big, innocent, intelligent way and loved it in the true sense of the word.”

While everyone who ever had the privilege of seeing him on stage will have their own particular favourite role or performance by Mick Lally, what does Marie feel, were his finest?

“There were so many of his performances I loved - Old Mahon in The Playboy, nobody got that part as much as he did,” she says. “His performances in Tom Murphy’s A Whistle In The Dark and in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are among two of my favourites. There was also his performance as Sanbatch Daly in MJ Molloy’s Wood Of The Whispering.”

While Mick took acting, his role in a play, and his commitment to his art very seriously, he was also quite serious about the need to tidy up after the play is over, as Marie reveals in a humorous anecdote.

“I remember the way he used to dismantle the sets in the Jes Hall after a play was over as the hall would be in use as a gym the next day for school,” she says. “He would do it with great speed and strength as he wanted to get out for a well-earned pint very quickly.

“We had to keep out of the way to keep ourselves safe when he was doing that. He would be carrying huge sections of these massive sets down single handedly and in double quick time.”

Mick was married to Peggy and the couple had three children - Saileog, Darach, and Maghnus. He continued working in the theatre until quite recently, including a performance in a production of Brian Friel’s Last Train From Holyhead in the Town Hall Theatre in September 2009.

Mick passed away on Tuesday morning following a short illness, at the age of 64. His death was greeted with shock and sadness by people from all walks of life in Ireland.

“He was a dear friend. I loved him and he was the most gorgeous, gentle, lovely man I ever met,” says Marie. “His wife Peggy is also a dear friend, and I got to know their children well.

“I loved him for his knowledge. He was a scholar. He was a little older then me and was wise and was great for giving advice. He was always very supportive all through my career, and turned up at everything I did. When somebody close to us dies, it leaves a cold space in your heart. I will miss him dreadfully.”

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