by jdurney on October 25, 2013

A great night with Tom … but not a word of “Benjy”.

For the best part of two decades Naas-born actor Tom Hickey was a household name from his casting as “Benjy”, the farmer’s son, in RTE’s drama series the Riordans. The series became virtually compulsory Sunday night viewing in homes throughout the country with its razor-sharp characterisation of life on the land and in small town Ireland. From a cast that held an embarrassment of riches in terms of acting talent, the character of “Benjy” stood out as the rangy, likeable and somewhat put-upon son of the farm household who often found himself in a bind between his conservative upbringing and the liberating currents of 1960s Ireland. 
Thus it might have come as a surprise that in the course of a rare public interview in his home town earlier this month there was not a mention of “Benjy” from beginning to end. And yet in other ways the absence of the “Benjy” figure from the night was not the least surprising. For an actor of the versatility, depth and range of Hickey’s talents being pigeon-holed under one character heading is a fate to be avoided. He has acted some of the most profound and challenging parts in Irish theatre; has enthralled audiences as he strode the boards of the Abbey and the Gate; and has probed the deeper mysteries of the human condition in a variety of cinema roles where the comedic, the absurd and the tragic were among the emotions explored.
However none of that was the theme of his interview –although he showed a selection of film clips from his work as an introduction — which took place in the atmospheric interior of the former nun’s chapel in the former Mercy Convent in Naas, now the McAuley House centre. The venue was appropriate in that in Tom Hickey’s recollection his first encounter with theatre was in his real-life role as an altar boy in the early 1950s in Naas when the Parish Priest was the formidable Fr P. J. Doyle, a master of elaborate rituals of choir and liturgy. “It was my first theatre – I found myself picked for the choir where we had to sing what was known as the polyphonic liturgies — the stuff which was sung by the choir in the Sistine chapel," he recalled to his interviewer, local historian P.C. Behan (who, like all good interviewers, slipped into the background as his interviewee got into his stride). Tom Hickey’s immersion in liturgical drama was completed when he was also chosen to be an altar boy at the Easter ceremonies. “I enjoyed being an altar boy but it became a problem when I could not light the tall candles,” and with that the actor in him took over and he gave the audience a perfectly mimed recreation of lighting an imaginary altar of high candles.
While his years as an altar boy no doubt influenced his sensibility for liturgy it seemed as if there was drama of all kinds in the Naas of the late 1940s and 1950s. Recalling adventures with his child-hood pals he held his audience spellbound with a vivid description of one of their favourite amusements. He recalled how catapults were a big thing with young lads and nearby a farm worker known named Tommy Lysaght (which in Naas pronunciation became “Tommy Licence”) engineered a big catapult. Tom Hickey described the ensuing action with the same sense of drama as if he was commentating on a crucial free kick in an All-Ireland final. He recalled how all the young fellas watched as Tommy drew back on the string of the big catapult and then released the shot: “We watched as the stone soared into the stratosphere … and then appeared out of the heavens and banged on to the roof of Corcoran’s shed.” Mentioning GAA in metaphorical terms it is probably not generally known that Tom Hickey played inter-county football for Kildare based on his success with his local Naas GFC: “My time playing Gaelic is a treasured memory – they used to call me ‘the rabbit Hickey’ because I used to run through other fellows’ legs.”
However the prospect of a stellar sporting career with the Lilywhites gave way to the call of the theatre. Even that transition had its own plot-line. After finishing at school he went to work in the laboratory at Irish Ropes in Newbridge. While the physicist and the chemist there had hopes of him taking on a night course in science instead he enrolled in a theatre academy in Camden Street, taking the bus from Newbridge in the evenings to be exposed to legends of Irish theatre such as Ray McAnally, Charles Cassin and Nancy Manningham. He recalled that “I never told anybody that I was going to acting class as I thought the reaction would be ‘who does he think he is?’”  Such discretion served him well and before long he was picking up parts in professional theatre and soon got a call from RTE to play a role in a new rural drama being produced by the embryonic station. But that is a story for another night.
On the occasion of his first public interview in his home town, Tom Hickey, the actor, wanted to tell about the everyday dramas in his youth that shaped his acting sensibilities which would see him excel across theatre at its widest range on stage, film and television. And for that his audience on that night acclaimed … bravo.
Series no: 324.


P. C. Behan’s interview with Tom Hickey is the subject of Liam Kenny’s Looking Back article from the Leinster Leader of 26 March 2013

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