Joyce McMillan: Kenny Ireland’s lasting legacy

Actor and theatre director, Kenny Ireland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Actor and theatre director, Kenny Ireland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE late Kenny Ireland taught us to lean into the corners and overcome fear, writes Joyce McMillan

After the show is over, theatres famously feel like haunted places. It’s something to do with the ephemeral quality of the art form, and the sharp alternations between intense shared experience and complete darkness and silence that shape every theatre’s daily life; in quiet times, the echoes of what’s no longer there seem strong, and ever-present.

So it seemed absolutely right, on Sunday night, that when a group of 150 friends and colleagues met at the Royal Lyceum to remember the theatre’s former artistic director Kenny Ireland – who died in July last year – the gathering took place on the stage itself, in the space where Ireland made so many things happen.

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Obituary: Kenny Ireland, actor and director

A big man in every sense (a French interviewer once described him as “ronde et truculent”), Kenny was director of the Lyceum from 1993 until 2003, during the vital period that saw the coming of the Scottish Parliament, and – under Kenny’s chairmanship of the Federation Of Scottish Theatre – the first steps towards the creation of Scotland’s new National Theatre without walls. Yet in truth – as NTS associate Graham McLaren, who helped shape Sunday’s event, pointed out – he was a driving force at almost every major turning-point in Scottish theatre between 1972 and 2010, as well as building the acting career that reached a climax – in terms of fame at least – with his final hugely enjoyable performance as ageing swinger Donald Stewart in the television comedy Benidorm.

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So on Sunday night, a huge range of stars gathered to celebrate the range and energy of his life, from Brian Cox, who returned to act at the Lyceum during Kenny’s time as director, through his great lifelong colleague Bill Paterson who appeared with him and Billy Connolly in the legendary Great Northern Welly Boot Show of 1972, to whole rafts of well-known Scottish actors, directors, and playwrights, including Jimmy Chisholm, Gerda Stevenson, Peter Arnott and Liz Lochhead. There were memories of his years at the Young Lyceum in the 1970s; and the actress Maggie Steed came from London to recall his wonderful creative relationship with the mighty English playwright Howard Barker, and The Wrestling School, the company they set up to perform Barker’s work.

And as the evening rolled on, it became ever more clear that Kenny Ireland’s huge energy has left an immense legacy in Scottish theatre. Born in Paisley in 1945, Ireland was part of a generation that, like no other, began to link ordinary working-class life to the possibilities of theatre, and to take possession of it as a medium that no longer belonged only to a social elite; and the sheer vigour with which he set about building that bridge in Scotland made him a key figure in the lives of many others who might never otherwise have thought of a career in the arts. As an actor, he had a deep understanding of other actors, their weaknesses and potential; and as a director, he combined a real passion for the classics with a huge enthusiasm for new work.

Great as his commitment to Scotland and its theatre life was, though, it was always matched by the scale of his personality. In the week of his death, his old Great Northern Welllyboot colleague John Bett wrote a short poem about Kenny, read on Sunday night by Juliet Cadzow. It describes how Bett, who was frightened of motorbikes, was once persuaded to ride pillion with Kenny, through the dark streets of London. “You showed me how to lean into corners,” wrote Bett, “enjoy the wind, celebrate the rain.” Both artistically and personally, it seems Kenny Ireland had that effect on countless people during his life, encouraging them to overcome fear, to lean into the corners, to enjoy the journey. And it was a fine thing, last Sunday night, to hear his story told so well, by so many friends; and engraved a little deeper into a history that – because of the transience of the art they make – sometimes finds great theatre-makers like Kenny Ireland too easy to forget.

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