Actor known for Ballykissangel

Born: November 21, 1929

Died: November 13, 2019

NIALL Tóibín, who has died aged 89, was an Irish actor who was a household name in his home country through extensive work for the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, in radio and television. To audiences in Britain he was most well-known as Father Frank McAnally, the elder Irish Catholic priest in BBC One’s popular drama series Ballykissangel, which ran between 1996 and 2001.

Although the fish-out-of-water series – in which an English priest is assigned to a parish in rural Ireland – lost its original leads Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan after the third series in 1998, Tóibín remained on board for all six runs, one of the only main cast members to do so in the series, which drew ten million viewers every week at the height of its popularity.

Elsewhere, Toibin’s wider international profile came from a number of films which required Irish cast and locations. His first film role was in the 1969 Disney television adventure Guns in the Heather (released in Europe as The Secret of Boyne Castle), and the following year he had a small part as O’Keefe in David Lean’s penultimate dramatic film Ryan’s Daughter. In 1992 he was the father of Tom Cruise’s character Joseph Donnelly in Ron Howard’s blockbuster Far and Away, and in 2003 his last major screen role was as a judge in the Cate Blanchett-starring, Dublin-set crime thriller Veronica Guerin.

From parts in the very different but equally acclaimed dramas Brideshead Revisited (1981) and GBH by Alan Bleasdale (1991), to guests spots in popular series like Coronation Street, Boon, Minder and Casualty, Tóibín was a familiar character actor outside of Ireland. In his home country, however, he was performing royalty. A regular at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, his defining stage role was as the adult Brendan Behan in Borstal Boy, which he earned a Drama Desk Award for during the play’s acclaimed 1970 New York run; his final screen role was as a fictional elderly Behan, in the 2007 television movie Forgotten.

Tóibín’s other screen credits included the 1977 adaptation of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come; Poitín (1978), the first feature film shot entirely in Irish (Tóibín was a native speaker); the Irish drama Bracken (1980-82), as co-star to Gabriel Byrne; the Richard Burton-starring film Lovespell (1981); RTÉ’s drama Caught in a Free State (1983), about German spies in Ireland during the Second World War; and the Channel 4/RTÉ historical drama adaptation The Irish RM (1983-85).

Starting out singing in the church choir and performing at the Irish language drama society in his native city of Cork, Tóibín moved to Dublin in 1947 to become a civil service clerk, eventually giving this job up when he started performing with repertory company the Radio Éireann Players. He began working with RTÉ later in the 1950s, first in radio and then in television, although he continued to perform onstage.

Although Tóibín appeared as Pozzo alongside Peter O’Toole in Waiting for Godot at the Nottingham Playhouse, and with Albert Finney at the National Theatre in London, his favourite play to perform was Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which he did at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in 1974. In later life, he also originated a one-man show based on his own acting experiences.

Born in Cork in 1929, Niall Tóibín was one of seven children of Siobhán and Seán, a teacher. A recipient of the Freedom of the City of Cork and an Irish Film and Television Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, he was married to Judy from 1957 until her death in 2002, and the couple had five children and seven grandchildren.