by John Fitzgerald

Many a tear has greeted the death of one of Ireland’s best loved actresses. Biddy White Lennon was a household name for thirty years as Maggie in RTÉ’s iconic rural drama series, ‘The Riordan’s’, before making her mark as a highly successful food author.

Born in Dublin, Biddy became an actress at the age of four, encouraged in this precocious career move by her mother, Ursula White, a well-known drama professor who managed a school of acting in the Pocket Theatre.
Her big break came in 1965. She was 18-years-old when she landed the role of Maggie Riordan (née Nael) in ‘The Riordan’s’, broadcast by the then, Telefís Éireann, and later Raidio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ).

Written by James Douglas and later Wesley Burrowes, the drama was set in the fictional rural village of Leestown in County Kilkenny. It quickly became essential and, in many instances, compulsive viewing for virtually every household in the country.

The streets of towns and villages would empty coming up to that much anticipated moment when householders hummed along with the familiar signature tune of ‘The Riordan’s’. Because most people in the early days of the programme had only one TV channel, it was an easy choice to sit back and watch the latest episode without worrying about what might be happening on rival shows.

Biddy took pride in the fact that ‘The Riordan’s’ was a groundbreaking production in its day, and not only in Ireland. Its use of Outside Broadcast Units (OBUs) in filming episodes on location in farming country influenced the making of “soaps” worldwide.

Such programmes had, up to that point, been almost exclusively studio based to avoid the expense involved in transportation of sets, cameras and other equipment. In the case of ‘The Riordan’s’, the sound of traffic and overflying planes would have spoiled any attempt at creating a convincing rural setting at Montrose in Dublin. So, a realistic set was created on a farm at Dunboyne, County Meath.

Biddy continued in her role as Maggie right up to the day the programme ended in 1979. When ‘The Riordan’s’ was broadcast for a brief period as a radio show, she scripted some of the episodes, revealing an extra dimension to her creative talent and insights. Her input greatly enhanced the quality of the drama.

Biddy was saddened by RTÉ’s decision to bring the long-running TV series to a close (it was still competing with the ‘Late Late Show’ to top the TAM ratings in its final weeks), but she didn’t let the passing of ‘The Riordan’s’ into television history get her down. She was a firm believer in the truth of the adage that “God never closers one door but he opens another.”

After giving up acting in the mid-1980s, she went on to make a major contribution to culinary excellence in Ireland. She wrote an impressive thirteen cook books, was a founder member and Chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers Guild, edited the Irish Home Diary and wrote for the prestigious Food and Wine Magazine.

She also applied her culinary expertise when she appeared as a judge on TV3’s ‘The Great Irish Bake Off’. Her superb communication skills shone on that programme as she highlighted in a captivating way, how everyone can cook food to the highest standard by following simple, healthy tips and guidelines. Her message resonated with viewers, and many cafes, hotels, and restaurants took her culinary advice on board, to the benefit of diners and businesses alike.

Biddy’s achievements as a food author were notable, hailed equally by ordinary householders and professionals in the catering sector. Yet, throughout that second career phase of her life, scarcely a day passed without someone identifying Biddy as her TV alter ego.

People would stop her in the street, curiosity or puzzlement lighting up their features, or she’d see jaws dropping in the distance as little groups of pedestrians or drivers recognised ‘Maggie from The Riordan’s’.

Biddy spent the latter part of her life in Wexford, where she lived with her husband, Denis Latimer, who predeceased her in December 2016, and their son, Dairsie.
People who knew Biddy recall her as a deeply honest, straight-talking woman. “What you saw was what you got,” one friend remarked.

Among the tributes to Biddy was one from fellow food writer, Ross Golden-Bannon, who said: “Farewell Biddy White Lennon. I will miss your great wit and wisdom and your immense thoughtful kindnesses to me.” Broadcaster Norah Casey, in a tweet, referred to her as a “beautiful and passionate” person and a fearless advocate of quality food.

Many others echoed these sentiments and accolades. They emphasise that she was more than an actor and culinary expert. She went out of her way to help people, with advice or healing words, wherever she could, and was a strong believer in keeping an eye out for anyone who might be hurting in silence or needing a bit of moral support in bad times.

And she was a natural carer. She looked after Honor Moore, President of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, from 1999 until the day she died, shortly after her 90th birthday.

A great actor has left the stage of life. But the memory of Biddy White Lennon will live on in the hearts of those who knew her, who read her books, and all of us who sat glued to our TV sets all those years ago to watch ‘Maggie from The Riordan’s’.