Niall Tóibín: The Man of Many Accents

Niall Toibin. Photo - RTÉ Press Office.

By Brian McCabe

Lovers of drama and comedy in Ireland will have noted, with sadness, the passing of that much loved actor Niall Tóibín.

Tóibín was born in 1929 on the southside of Cork city in Friar’s Walk, the sixth of seven children, born to Siobhán (née Ní Shúileabháin) and Seán Tóibín, who were both native Irish speakers.

Niall was therefore raised with Irish and would go on to use the language in his professional career, notably in the Bob Quinn film ‘Poitin’. His siblings included Siobhán, Tomás (a poet), Deaglán, Filmin, Góbnait and Colm.

As a child, Niall sang in the cathedral choir and in the Opera House in Cork. In his teens, he joined a drama society attached to the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League in the city. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in the famous ‘North Mon’ (North Monastery), after which he left his native Cork for a job in the Civil Service in Dublin in January 1947.

He worked initially as a civil service clerk in the Department of External Affairs, but was never destined for a life in bureaucracy. He started acting in the 1950s and went on to spend fourteen years with the Radio Éireann Players where his burgeoning talent was quickly recognised.

He became recognised early on for his uncanny performances in the part of Brendan Behan, the famous Dublin writer and playwright. He also soon came to feature in popular television series such as ‘The Irish R.M’ where he played the mischevious whipper-in of hounds – the well named “Slipper”. Toibin himself described the character as a schemer, advisor and trickster “lovable at a distance but odoriferous up close”. A truly memorable character.

From films such as ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and TV dramas such as ‘Bracken’ (a fore-runner of the much loved ‘Glenroe’)  in the 1970s, to ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Caught in a Free State’ in the 1980s, and parts in ‘Far and Away’ and ‘Ballykissangel’ in the 1990s and 2000s, Toibin’s entertainment career in television, film and theatre spanned well over four decades. He also played Dr Paul O’Callaghan in the first series of the Irish TV drama ‘The Clinic’ as well as high profile parts such as that of Judge Ballaugh (alongside stars such Kate Blanchett) in the film ‘Veronica Guerin’. He also, of course, continued to act regularly for the radio, including a guest appearance in the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Baldi’.

Described as an urbane Cork man with a “twinkle of mischief, a gutsy edge and a mellifluous voice”, his memoir, written in 1995, appropriately drew on the Shakespearean character of ‘Hamlet’ and was entitled “Smile and be a Villain”.

His long career encompassed both comedy and serious roles and he has been lauded for his skills ranging from his interpretations of Behan to his sell out solo tours across the country. An example of his amazing range can be found in the very different way he played the part of a priest – from the formidable Fr Frank MacAnally in ‘Ballykissangel’, to psychopathic Fr Geraldo in ‘Rat’, to a much gentler cleric in ‘Brideshead Revisited’.

His career was, rightly, studded with many awards. For example, in 1973 he won a Jacob’s Award for his performance in the RTÉ comedy series ‘If the Cap Fits’. In 2002, he won the Best Actor award at the Christian Film and Television Excellence awards ceremony in Dublin.

In 2005, he became one of the elite group of actors to have his hand prints cemented into the pavement outside the Gaiety Theatre – where he had appeared so often and which appearances he himself described as the highlights of his career.

In 2010, he received an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from University College Cork and in 2011 he was honoured with the Irish Film and Television Academy’s (IFTA) ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’. In 2015, he was honoured to be awarded the Freedom of Cork in recognition of his film, television and stage work.

Above all, though, Niall Toibin was a gifted raconteur, and he regularly entertained the nation at large on radio and TV shows such as the ‘Late Late Show’, including Gay Byrne’s very last show in 1999. We will all long treasure his incisive and hilarious takes on our national – and especially regional – characteristics, and who can forget his wonderful tour-de-force around our island featuring his unerring capture of the many accents from the “Cute Cork Hoor” to the “Mean Cavan Bastard”!