Donal Donnelly: An Appreciation

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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 premiere 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 Cassidy through 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. …