Donal Donnelly


Born: 6 July, 1931, in Bradford.

Died: 4 January, 2009, in Chicago, aged 78.

DONAL Donnelly was an actor who embodied a variety of Irish characters on stage and in film, notably in the plays of Brian Friel and in John Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's short story The Dead.

Donnelly, a handsome, spindle-framed performer who gave off the energy and aura of youth long after he had lost his own, was, in his own words, "an itinerant Irish actor".

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A veteran of stages in Dublin and the West End of London, appearing in J M Synge's Playboy of the Western World and Sean O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman, and in British television productions of Playboy and O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, he made his first impression on wider audiences in an antic 1965 film comedy, The Knack...and How to Get It.

The following year he went to the US to appear in Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, in which he earned a Tony award nomination playing the private self of the protagonist, a young man who is about to cast off his rural Irish upbringing and move across the ocean to the title city.

Thus began a career of regular appearances on the US stage, usually as an Irishman, though his next play was about a British family, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which he replaced Albert Finney in the role of Bri, a father undone by his severely disabled child.

The character "retreats from the situation and takes shelter behind a cover of antic humour masking despair," wrote one critic. "It is a weak man's defence, and it is just this frantic, almost hysterical weakness that Donnelly so skilfully exploits."

Donnelly also took replacement roles in the plays Sleuth and The Elephant Man, but he became known mainly as a regular member of Friel's casts, appearing in Faith Healer (1979), Dancing at Lughnasa (1991) and Translations (1995).

In film and television roles, Donnelly was busy but cast so as to be often overlooked. He had small roles in blockbusters such as Twister and Godfather Part III, and appeared in Law and Order and Spenser: For Hire, among other television series.

His most celebrated film performance was as Freddy Malins, the amiable and sentimental sot who attends the dinner party in John Huston's widely praised adaptation of Joyce's The Dead.

Donal Donnelly was born in 1931, in Bradford, where his father, James, who was from Northern Ireland, was working as a doctor. His mother, Nora, was Irish, and the family moved to Dublin when Donal was very young.

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He would eventually have seven brothers and sisters, six of whom survive and live in Ireland, among them his youngest brother, Michael, formerly mayor of Dublin.

Early in his career, Donnelly worked at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and was a member of a theatre company founded by Cyril Cusack.

To round out his personal history of the Irish theatre, in the late 1970s he toured in a one-man show called My Astonishing Self, based on the notebooks and letters of George Bernard Shaw, in which he played Shaw as both a young and old man.

All of this was quite possibly foretold in his youth. As a boy Donnelly attended the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, an academy known for turning out actors. Synge Street was not named for the playwright, though oddly enough, Shaw was born there. Synge, it turns out, was born on Shaw Street.

"If you open yourself to Sam Beckett and Godot; if you open yourself to Brian Friel and Faith Healer, Donnelly once said in a discussion of Irish playwrights, "you benefit from it."

His survivors include his wife of 45 years, Patricia Porter, a former dancer whom he met on a production of Finian's Rainbow in London, and two sons, who live in the US.

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