Eamon Kelly

Eamon Kelly

Dictionary of Irish biography :

Kelly, Éamon (1914–2001), actor and storyteller, was born 30 March 1914 at his grandparents’ house in the Gneeveguilla–Rathmore region of east Kerry, near the Cork border, eldest of eight children of Edmund (‘Ned’) Kelly, local carpenter-builder, and Johanna Kelly (née Cashman). Within six months his family acquired a council house in nearby Carrigeen, Glenflesk, close to the Paps, legendary twin mountains identified with the Celtic goddess Dana in the ancient cultural landscape of Sliabh Luachra. This environment imbued Éamon (known, like his father, as ‘Ned ’) with a peculiarly regional persona and speech pattern which informed his later career as a rural character actor. Delayed by illness in attending national school until 1921, he left aged 14 for an apprenticeship in his father’s business, where he also studied stonemasonry.

Kelly’s childhood had been spared direct experience of the revolutionary violence which made his neighbourhood one of Ireland’s most dangerous in the troubles of 1919–23. In peacetime the family home was a ‘rambling house’ where Ned absorbed the folklore and the mannerisms of visiting neighbours. His father and mother contrasted respectively in silence and loquaciousness, attributes he reproduced in subsequent character portrayals. Instructed by his father in both woodwork and farming practice, Kelly began his formal technical education in carpentry in Killarney before leaving to train as a woodwork teacher at Bolton St. College, Dublin, on a scholarship won in 1938. During further study at the National College of Art, Kildare St., he began to take an interest in music and theatre.

In 1940–51 Ned Kelly, now called ‘Éamon’ owing to the vocational teacher’s moral obligation to promote Irish, taught technical drawing at Listowel on returning to Co. Kerry. Early in the Emergency of 1939–45 he enlisted in the LDF military reserve, but gained dispensation on grounds of continuing study. Joining the Listowel Drama Group as actor and administrator, he inherited the position of producer from Bryan MacMahon (qv), the local playwright, whom Kelly admired. In 1951 he married local actress Maura O’Sullivan, daughter of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and his wife Nora Aherne of Listowel, whom he had met while playing Christy Mahon in ‘The playboy of the western world’ by John Millington Synge (qv). She had played Pegeen Mike in the same production. They moved to Dublin in 1952, living first at Mountshannon Road, Rialto, before relocating to 18 St Brendan’s Drive, Coolock, a modest house where they remained for life. Both joined the Radio Éireann Players in 1952, giving national exposure to Éamon’s captivating voice and precise Munster accent.

Although coming late into acting, the former teacher was still under 40 when he adopted the dramatic identity of an even older man, preserving the essence of rural Ireland’s passing traditions, natural history, and folklore. Almost by chance, he was cast by Radio Éireann in the role of storyteller or seanchaí, the title by which he would become recognised (and frequently mimicked) among listeners who may never have known his name. Kelly featured on popular shows beginning with ‘Take the floor’, hosted by Denis Fitzgibbon (qv), renowned as ‘Din Joe’, legendary presenter of Irish dancing on the radio but also of other traditional entertainment, including storytelling. The seanchaístruck a chord even with urban listeners, few of whom were far removed from his rural story world, complete with Homeric digressions and insertions of Gaelic epithets and wisdom. Some tales were new but many came directly from the oral tradition of Sliabh Luachra. Kelly later had his own show, appropriately named ‘The rambling house’. Growing fame was leavened by mundane voiceover duties. Kelly was 50 before he took up professional stage acting in 1964. He began in the role of near-silent S. B. O’Donnell (a performance partly modelled on his own father) in the Gaiety Theatre festival production by Hilton Edwards (qv) of Brian Friel’s ‘Philadelphia, here I come!’ In 1966 Kelly was nominated for a Tony and received a New York Critics’ Award for best supporting actor, following the play’s Broadway run as part of an American tour. A British tour followed in 1967.

On national television (Telefis Éireann, founded 1961), his first appearance had been in ‘The weaver’s grave’, directed by Christopher Fitz-Simon, leading to further acting roles, most memorably as the elderly, now hatted seanchaí of radio days, made visible as the generic countryman of gravitas, wit, and modest nobility. Although his seanchaí role overshadowed all others in the public mind, Kelly’s many stage appearances and occasional film parts read impressively, especially since he joined the Abbey Theatre company in 1967 and played in ‘An béal bocht’ by Flann O’Brien (qv) in the Abbey’s sister house, the Peacock. From there he crossed international boundaries in terms of drama and distance with acclaimed performances in every medium from the 1960s until retirement in 1998 aged 84.

Kelly travelled to Moscow and New York and acted intermittently with other Irish companies including Field Day and the Irish Theatre Company, often playing opposite his wife. He mastered most of the leading Irish plays and received a series of civic, dramatic, and academic honours between 1984 (Kerry Person of the Year) and 1991 (Gradam Amharclann na Mainistreach). His one-man shows included, most popularly, ‘In my father’s time’, later published as a book title in a series that arose from his acting. In 1995 and 1998 (the year he retired after playing Marina Carr’s ‘The bog of cats’) he published two works of semi-autobiography and folk memory, The apprentice and The journeyman, in his unique voice and style. Rarely moved to anger, he erupted famously during a public meeting at the Abbey in 1994 when he revealed his miniscule company pension to dampen the myth of actors’ opulent lifestyles. Éamon Kelly died in Dublin 24 October 2001, aged 87, survived by his wife, two sons and daughter; he was buried in Balgriffin cemetery. He was commemorated as seanchaí by Don Cronin’s seated statue in Gneeveguilla.

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