Michael Patrick Gillespie
Florida International University, USA | Views:

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Donal Donnelly was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on July 6th in 1931, and died in Chicago on January 4th 2010. Shortly after his birth however, Donnelly’s family moved back to their native Ireland where he first made his mark as a performer. He began on stage as a young boy, in productions at the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, and, after an apprenticeship at Callaghan’s outfitters on Dame Street, Dublin, he took up acting first at the Gate Theatre and then at the Globe in Dun Laoghaire. The career that followed established him as a quintessential Irish stage and film actor.

By many accounts Donnelly considered the theatre rather than the cinema his primary area of work, and certainly early exposure to the stage had a formative effect. In fact much of Donnelly’s professional career and a great many of his acting successes took place on the stage. He first gained international attention for his performance in the role of Private Gar in the première of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come. For the next four decades Donnelly earned acclaim for roles in numerous Broadway and London dramas. Work on various plays by Friel’s yielded some of his strongest stage performances, gaining him particularly recognition for efforts in a 1979 Broadway production of Faith Healer and again in New York in 1991 in Dancing an Lughnasa.

Despite these successes, at least one friend and colleague in the early 1960s, the Irish actor, teacher, director, and writer, Sam McCready, felt that Donnelly’s efforts on stage did not match his cinematic work. In a recollection of Donnelly, McCready made the following observation to me:

My belief is that Donal never reached his full potential as a stage actor because he was rarely challenged  —  as he was by Huston. Especially in the US, he could get away with whimsy and charm but he was capable of more: the ability to touch the deeper pain of a character, the sadness masked by clowning, wit, alcoholism, and so on, which gives rise to great performances in the Irish tradition. That was what he found in the Playboy: the loneliness, the isolation from an abusive Da, and the discovery that he had within him the potential to change this  —  an epiphany, if you like.

As the final sentence makes clear, McCready had great respect for Donnelly’s work in the theatre, but he also offers keen insight into what factors informed Donnelly’s best performances both on stage and in film. While the role itself stood as significant, the director had a pronounced effect upon Donnelly’s performance.

When not on stage, Donnelly performed steadily in both films and television. Most of his film work was done in England and Ireland. Beginning with a minor role in John Ford’s 1957 trilogy The Rising of the Moon and continuing through to This Is My Father in 1998, Donnelly worked in the cinema for over forty years. In many efforts, he demonstrated workman-like skills in supporting roles from Young Cassidythrough Love and Rage.  Like many Irish actors before and since, Donnelly appeared in some American films, including a distinguished performance in the otherwise forgettable The Godfather, Part III, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. However, two films stand out as distinguishing his career.The Dead (1987) directed by Huston, and Korea (1995) directed by Cathal Black offer profound examples of the impact that Donnelly had on Irish film-making. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to explore his achievements in each.


Donnelly’s portrayal of Freddy Malins in The Dead reflects both his own genius as an actor and the deft approach that John Huston took in adapting James Joyce’s short story for the screen. As Huston did with the entire screenplay, Donnelly made the character of Freddy Malins his own while remaining within the structure of the individual that Joyce had created. In consequence, his performance beautifully expresses the distinctiveness of his interpretation without trying to change the role of the character into more than what the screenplay outlines.

Certainly, Freddy’s drunkenness is a great problem for the character. I suspect it is very difficult to convey the nature of an individual who is impaired in any fashion. Presenting a character who is drunk as more than a stumbling fool strikes me as a particular challenge. This is especially so when the role itself is set in the narrow time period of a few hours while the filming of it takes weeks to complete. Retaining the continuity of Freddy’s inebriation from day to day while shooting and reshooting scene after scene requires tremendous powers of concentration and recall. Nonetheless from his opening appearance as he tries to manoeuvre his way up the stairs to join the guests at the Morkans’ party to his final words directing the cabman as he and his mother and Mr. Brownee leave the house, Donnelly has the perfect pitch. We never forget that Freddy has taken too much to drink, yet he never becomes a caricature. The effect of alcohol shapes but does not define Donnelly’s representation of Freddy in a masterful fashion.

The distinctiveness of Freddy’s character goes beyond simply that of a man who has had too much to drink. Donnelly gives it a unique stamp early in his performance as he tells the story of his father’s bashfulness at urinating in front of other men. Without giving the narration a heavy-handedness that would turn it into a slapstick routine, Donnelly conveys Freddy’s blithe lack of awareness of the embarrassment his recitation creates in Gabriel Conroy and the consummate solipsism of a man who believes such a banal account of interest. In this brief exchange he lays down the defining features of Freddy Malins that will unfold over the course of the film.

In this scene and elsewhere, Donnelly has Freddy speaking with a slight stammer, a detail not presented in Joyce’s story. As with his inebriation, Freddy’s stutter is understated, but contributes marvellously to our sense of the character.  It combines an impression both of vulnerability and of strength as he determinedly engages in a range of conversations with a range of people who all seem put upon by his discourse. As he attempts to explain to Browne why monks do penance for others, for example, there is a trembling in his tone and an eagerness and earnestness in his expressions, yet he never quite manages to come to a coherent elucidation of what the holy men are doing or why they are doing it.

Donnelly also deftly catches the stunted features of Freddy’s emotion growth, representing in him a middle-aged boyishness that gives his character a poignant yet slightly foolish aura. Bracing himself to meet his mother and aware both of his transgressions and of her disapproval, Freddy’s character falls into the frame of a young boy apprehensive of being scolded. Timidity and eagerness to please combine deftly with a certain disregard of all he has done to upset her that mark the exchanges he has with his mother (wonderfully played by Marie Kean).

Of course, Donnelly is far too good an actor to rely on a single trait to distinguish his character.  At the dinner table, people begin talking about distinguished opera singers. With the lack of concern one finds in children and drunks, Freddy shifts talk from a discussion of opera tenors with a statement on the merits of a Negro singing in the Christmas pantomime. When Browne, who at this point is also feeling the effects of alcohol, dismisses the effort, Freddy responds with some violence, defending the singer and implicitly accusing Browne of racism, in an exchange that ends with a confrontation over Browne’s use of the name Teddy rather than Freddy. It is a wonderful culmination of what Donnelly has already suggested as a friction between Freddy and Browne shown in an earlier scene with Freddy’s overblown praise of Aunt Julia’s singing.

Even when Donnelly has no lines, he shows a wonderful presence.  During Mary Jane’s piano playing, Aunt Julia’s singing, and Mr. Grace’s recitation, Donnelly’s face conveys just the right impression for the occasion. As Freddy, he knows how to watch in a manner that contributes to the audience’s sense of the scene without distracting them from the central concern by his own behaviour.

Donnelly also displays an admirable touch for physical comedy. Near the end of the dinner, he unselfconsciously helps himself to celery arranged in a vase in front of him, and is rewarded for his efforts by his mother treating him like an errant child for not restraining himself until the pudding is served. Donnelly also manages a nice bit when he tries to capture the decanter being passed along the table, only to be thwarted by his mother and other guests. He handles all of these exchanges as comic moments without ever slipping into exaggeration or slapstick.

Throughout the film, Donnelly shows a wonderful knowledge of his character and a great sense of control. As Freddy he is not afraid to look the foolish drunk, yet he can walk a fine line between going too far and looking unconvincing. A gesture as simple as taking a chair down a flight of stairs shows clearly his inebriation yet never goes so far as to look ridiculous.

If his role in The Dead allows to show him a kind of extravagance, albeit tightly controlled, in his representation of Freddy, Donnelly’s portrayal of John Doyle in Cathal Black’s film Korea presents a very different challenge and makes very different demands upon the actor. Doyle is a pensive man with deep felt emotions but with little skill or desire to articulate them. Bitterness and frustration have come to inform Doyle’s life, and the result is a mass of contradictions that, because of the nature of the character, are revealed to the viewer only in carefully calculated stages.

Donnelly’s characterization of Doyle grew out of a collaborative effort with director, Cathal Black, and the patience that was inherent in Donnelly’s approach to acting allowed the nature of Doyle to emerge in a measured but revelatory fashion. Shooting in Cavan on a limited budget meant that conditions were not always ideal, yet Donnelly embraced being part of the production community.  Indeed, as Black noted to me, Donnelly felt a strong commitment to indigenous Irish filmmaking and was happy to be among others with similar dedication.

Although the characters were markedly different, the same techniques that distinguished Donnelly’s interpretation of Freddy Malins gave great power to his portrayal of John Doyle. In scene after scene Donnelly’s facial expressions, particularly his eyes, enhance and enrich the dialogue without ostentation or distraction. His movements incorporate gesture as demonstrative statement while exuding a stillness that tempers the tensest scenes with tranquillity.

The effort is particularly challenging, for Doyle is walking anachronism. He pursues an occupation, eeling, that is dying out in Ireland and is threatened by the rural electrification project. He nurses frustrations that go back to his participation in the civil war, and cultivates a grudge against an old enemy, developer Ben Moran, who was on the opposite side in the Civil War. Added to the friction is Moran backing the local electrification project because he hopes to profit from an increase in tourism while Doyle opposes tourism because he fears he would lose his license to fish so that stock can be built up for tourists. Donnelly underscores this conflict, as did with the nature of Freddy, through a dark sadness that underlies without overwhelming the character of Doyle.

Part of this animosity he feels against Moran leads Doyle to attempt to send his son Eamonn to America, going so far as to buy the ticket of passage, rather than allow a romance with Eamonn and Moran’s daughter, Una, to flourish. The underlying concern is that Eamonn will end up in the American Army and be sent to Korea. This is what has happened to Moran’s son, Luke, and local gossip accuses Moran of profiting from the money paid to the family after his son is killed in Korea. While this element of the narrative may make the film seem like a variation on Romeo and Juliet, in fact Donnelly’s portrayal of John Doyle shifts the emphasis to issues of the scars of the Civil War, the stagnation of Ireland by the DeValera government, and the animosity that arises in the struggle between tradition and change. Economic stagnation with the band aid cure of emigration comes as an important issue throughout.

The dynamics between father and son stand as the crucial feature in the film, and Donnelly’s generosity of spirit made that interaction so engaging. He shared a father-like bond with the young actor Andrew Scott, and made the latter’s performance so much stronger for the advice Donnelly gave to him. (Scott, who came from Fermanagh, reciprocated by helping Donnelly perfect the Cavan accent for which the script called.)

Like Michael Furey in Joyce’s story “The Dead” Eamonn becomes ill after seeing Una on a wet night. Una defies John by coming to the house to see the ill Eamonn. After his recovery, Eamonn confronts his father for the first time while they are fishing on the lake. Returning to shore, Una is waiting on the jetty. Reluctantly, John takes Una’s hand of support as he alights from the boat. The scene, devised by Donnelly, mirrors an earlier one in which Doyle had helped Una out of a boat after she and Eamonn had visited Luke’s grave, giving a sense of completion to the process of reconciling.

As portrayed by Donnelly with patience and energy, Doyle is neither a victim nor a victimizer. He comes across as a complex man, not a tragic figure but an individual with tragic, self-inflicted wounds. Donnelly’s deft representation makes the film as much about the love story of a father and a son as about that of Eamonn and Una. Indeed, the contradictions within Doyle’s nature and his conflicted feelings toward his son make their relationship far more interesting than the hormone fueled desires of Eamonn and Una.

Over the course of his career, Donal Donnelly established himself in the cinema as a marvellous character actor. While that may seem to signal a limitation in his ability, quite the contrary is the case. Donnelly may well have worked as a miniaturist, but the art he could produce within the tight confines of such characters shows a creative ability not always found in the conventional leading man. Donnelly represents a generation of Irish actors (David Kelly is another fine example) whose flexibility and range are manifest in subtle variations and the world of Irish film is richer for them.