Very few actors can walk on stage and, without uttering a word, make the entire audience
laugh. Dónal O’Brien could. And did. Often. I know. And I know because I was often in that
audience, grinning from ear to ear as Dónal, the ‘Dame’ O’Brien, waddled or toddled or
strutted – depending on the mood he was in and the high heels ‘she’ was wearing – on stage.
Dónal O’Brien was a natural and ‘The Mother of all Dames’ in my humble opinion and I
state this with utter respect for those talented ‘Dames’, Derek, ‘The Dame’, Dooley (Donal’s
successor in the Watergate pantos) and John ’The Dame’ Coogan in Castlecomer. Dónal’s
repartee with Brendan Corcoran and Joe Murray was priceless while his famous, infamous
even, Too-Ra-Loo panto finales are now the stuff of legend. Am I exaggerating? I am not. ‘O
Brien was brilliant. Full stop. And he had the awards to prove it.
If Dónal O’Brien could bring tears of laughter to our eyes he could also bring tears of
sadness. He most certainly brought tears to my eyes with his portrayal of the Da in Hugh
Leonard’s play of the same name in the Friary Hall back in the seventies. That was my first
experience of Dónal O’Brien in a serious role. My very first experience of Dónal on stage
was in the Presentation Primary school hall in his school’s (the CBS Secondary) production
of ‘Columbus in a Merry Key’. I went along to see my cousin in the chorus (you were great,
cous) but this other guy, this O’Brien guy stole the show. Even at that young age Dónal
O’Brien’s gift for comedy and entertaining shone out. And yet, as much as I admired Dónal’s
comic talent (and always will) it’s that sensitive and profoundly emotional portrayal of Da
that will stay with me forever.
But Dónal O’Brien didn’t reserve his talent just for the stage. In a packed St. Canice’s Fr. Jim
Murphy told how he regularly read the Sunday lessons with ‘panache’. Panache! A perfect
summation of Dónal’s oratorical skills. Fr. Jim said that Dónal’s readings ‘were a lesson in
elocution, execution, delivery and style, but he never let the style eclipse the beauty of the
words.’ And I learned from Dónal’s fellow thespian, Ger Cody, who presided over the
presentation of the gifts, that Dónal (and a theatrical clearing of the throat here from Ger)
‘was the self-appointed captain of the Choc Golf Club’. Choc Golf Club? Cody, Holland,
O’Brien and Conway (Liam) as Dick Holland, who brought up a golf club as a gift, later
explained to me. And I loved the anecdote told by Declan O’Brien (Dónal’s brother) about
Dónal playing the bishop in ‘The Field’; as Dónal blessed himself, loudly intoning: ‘In the
name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost’, the entire audience blessed themselves in unison!
There were two stops on the way to Foulkstown; outside the Watergate Theatre (part and
parcel of Dónal’s life, and which he was instrumental in establishing) the CBS Secondary
School Choir sang ‘Let It Be’ while Derek ‘The Dame’ Dooley performed some Too-Ra-
Loos about ‘Dame Dónal’. At the Town Hall, the second stop, councillors paid a last farewell
to their former Town Clerk before bursting into a Too-Ra-Loo of their own about him! I jest.
But Dónal, I feel, would have liked the joke and given it a laconic chuckle of approval.
Dónal’s demise came as a shock. A friend met him in St. Luke’s a few weeks back and asked
how he was. ‘Being brave’, he replied. Typical Dónal – laconic as ever. Dónal has been
described as ‘Enigmatic’, ‘Iconic’ and ’Reserved’. All of which he was but he was also
endearingly engaging. We occasionally crossed paths and in that low, conspiratorial tone of
voice of his he’d tell a little anecdote about someone, perfectly mimicking them (he was a
superb mimic) while totally engaging you as only a master story-teller could. Panache! I’ll
finish with a word of my own to describe Dónal – unique. Dónal O’Brien was a unique man
with a unique talent and we were blessed to have enjoyed his unique theatrical gifts. For sure:
Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís. Finally I want to extend my deepest sympathy to the O’Brien
family and to the family of Dónal’s late wife, Mary, the Bretts. Rest in peace, Dónal O’Brien.