Theater News

The Pluck of the Irish

Brian d’Arcy James, Dearbhla Molloy, Brian Murray, Jerry O’Connell, Denis O’Hare, and Ciaran O’Reilly discuss Irish heritage and Irish theater.

Brian d'Arcy James
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Brian d’Arcy James
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, TheaterMania reached out to six renowned actors of Irish heritage – Brian d’Arcy James, Dearbhla Molloy, Brian Murray, Jerry O’Connell, Denis O’Hare, and Ciaran O’ Reilly — to discuss their relationship with being Irish, celebrating on March 17, and their love of Irish theater. Here’s what they had to tell us.

Brian d’Arcy James (Smash)
I was born in Michigan, so being Irish American is quite different than being Irish. Still, it was something I was always aware of. I have also spent a good deal of my career doing Irish plays, so I have a deep appreciation for Ireland’s legacy of great playwrights.

In 1994, I did an Irish accent onstage for the first time as Davey Boyd in Kenneth Branagh’s Public Enemy at the Irish Arts Center. It was set in Belfast and Branagh is from Northern Ireland, so I knew he’d want it right. I rented In the Name of the Father, and for three weeks I was eating, sleeping, and dreaming Daniel Day Lewis’ accent.

There are shades of different sounds from different regions, but I’ve always used that accent as my starting point. Of course, I’ve used various Irish accents in plays, such as one from County Galway for the role of Brendan in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. But I’ve never had to use one in a musical!

Dearbhla Molloy
(© Carol Rosegg)
Dearbhla Molloy
(© Carol Rosegg)

Dearbhla Molloy (Give Me Your Hand)
“In the days of my youth, my Dad took me into Dublin and placed me on his shoulders to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade. There were bands and organizations, but it was mostly about industry. Now, it’s mostly celebrated there because it’s a bank holiday and offices are closed.

When I’m onstage, that’s when I feel the Irish in me. It’s as if I’m walking in the footsteps of great Irish actors and, especially, the playwrights. When I was a child, we had O’Casey, Shaw, and Yeats. When I started in theater, Brian Friel came on the scene. He was very shy, introverted. At rehearsals, he’d be sitting in the shadows and if you asked a question about a character, he’d say, ‘Ach sure, I don’t know.’ But he knew of what he was writing. His favorite playwright was Chekhov, and in his work you can see how much Chekhov influenced him.

And 40 years later, he is still one of the most respected playwrights we have — along with writers like Conor McPherson, Frank McGuiness, and Martin McDonagh — because of the way he examines the personal conflicts of characters and reaches into the depths of their souls.

Brian Murray (Man and Superman)

I’m Irish by way of my parents. Mother was born in Drada in County Meath. Dad was Scotch Irish, born in Scotland. I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, so I’m Irish like a lot of Americans are Irish.

There are more Irish writers than you can shake a sheleighy at. I think practically every great play in the English language is by an Irish playwright. My personal association with Irish theater began in 1977 at the Public Theater when I did Ashes by David Rudkin and directed by Lynne Meadow. Then, the following year I portrayed Charlie Now opposite the wonderful Barnard Hughes in Hugh Leonard’s Da. These days, I do a lot of plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where I did Candida in 2010, and where I’m about to do Shaw’s Man and Superman next month.

I do enjoy wearing a wee bit of the green on St. Patrick’s Day. These days, I just spend it a lot quieter than I used to. However, this St. Patrick’s Day, I’m being honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Gingold Theatrical Group [aka Project Shaw], named in honor of Hermione Gingold.

Jerry O'Connell
(© Tristan Fuge)
Jerry O’Connell
(© Tristan Fuge)

Jerry O’Connell (Seminar)

The name’s O’Connell, but I’m half Irish, a quarter Italian, and a quarter Polish. However, I grew up in Chelsea in a home that celebrated the arts, and we lived around the corner from Irish Rep, so my brother Charlie and I saw a lot of their productions.

In 2001, I saw a more contemporary play that had regenerated my Irish roots and had a big influence on me, Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pocket, starring two fine Irish actors, Seán Campion and Conleth Hill at the same theater — the Golden — where I am now making my Broadway debut.

On St. Paddie’s Day, it seems everyone’s Irish. It’s hard not to catch the fever. So I’ll be at the parade and wearing something green. My friend from Seminar, Hamish Linklater, who’s Scottish, and I will probably be downing a few. But unlike in years past, I won’t be partying with friends after the parade, because we have a show that night. But I am going to talk my stage manager into letting me wear something green during the curtain call.

Denis O’Hare (An Iliad)
I was christened Denis Patrick Seamus O’Hare, which is about as Irish as you can get. However, I’m Irish by way of Kansas City and Southfield, Michigan. My grandfather was the first to come over. Still, I used to go to Ireland a lot when I was younger.

I’m a real Irishman, not a fake. Only fake Irishmen go to the parade — to get drunk and claim Irish ancestry. A real Irishman is supposed to go to church, but I don’t do that either. But the parade is not what the Irish are about. Being Irish is about valuing Irish culture, and the fact that we were screwed over by the British for thousands of years.

William Butler Yeats is my favorite poet, and Brian Friel is my favorite Irish playwright. However, I only had to do an Irish brogue once, in 1993, when I played Michael in Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at the Goodman Theatre and Arena Stage. It was a little tricky. I played it with a Northern Ireland accent, since he’s from County Donegal, and my family is from Clare.

Ciaran O'Reilly
(© Carol Rosegg)
Ciaran O’Reilly
(© Carol Rosegg)

Ciaran O’Reilly (Beyond the Horizon)
Growing up in Dublin, my images of St. Patrick’s Day were dank, wet, and cold; a few flitters of a band might march down a street. It was not a big deal at all. Later, they began to celebrate it bigger — doing things like painting the Liffey River green. There’s more beer consumed here on St. Patrick’s Day than over there. My first impression of St. Patrick’s Day here was that it was a day when everyone came out and celebrated a culture.

I grew up just nine miles from [actor] Brían F. O’Bryne, whom I’m related to through marriage. In 1989, I was marching on Fifth Avenue with the delegation from County Cavan in the pouring rain. There, behind us, and marching along soaked wet, was Brían and his brother Adrian. They had just arrived in America. I didn’t even know they were coming.

As for Irish theater, we all owe a lot to the hugely successful Dublin-born playwright, actor and manager Dion Boucicault. He was quite the innovator. For one thing, he wanted the ladies to attend his plays unburdened by their husbands, so he created matinees. After one of his three theaters burned down — sets, costumes, wigs and all — he invented the safety curtain. More importantly, playwrights are indebted to him because to protect the work of writers, he created the royalty system.