The death was announced yesterday (Tuesday) of the Mullagh-born stage and screen actor, TP McKenna, who died in London on Sunday night after a long battle with illness.
He was aged 81, and his funeral will take place in Mullagh, where the family have resided since the late 1700s, and where his wife, May, was laid to rest five years ago.
The TV and film actor was born in 1929, the son of a local auctioneer, and boarded at St Patrick’s school in Cavan. He did bank exams and began to work in Ulster Bank, in which one of his first assignments was to Trim.
He later recalled: “My first posting was in Granard and, after a year, I was moved to Trim and I spent a further year there. Trim had a good musical society and I was very active that year. When the bank decided to move me to Dublin, the people of Trim signed a petition asking the bank to leave me in Trim, as I was invaluable to the town and it’s amusements. The bank wrote back saying that they couldn’t stand in the way of the brilliant career that this young man had in front of him in the bank. So I moved to Dublin in the summer of 1950 to the bank’s Camden Street branch. Still, it was very nice of the people of Trim, all the same.”
But McKenna’s love was for the theatre. He began his professional theatre career at the tine Pike Theatre in Herbert Lane, Dublin, appearing in plays and revues. He later played a season with Anew McMaster’s Shakespearean Company at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.
In 1954, Godfrey Quigley invited him to join the newly formed Globe Theatre Company. McKenna appeared in diverse roles in many of the company’s productions at the Gas Company Theatre, Dun Laoghaire. In 1955 he joined the Abbey Theatre and spent eight years with them, appearing in many O’Casey plays and in the Irish pantomime and revues.
In 1958, with the opening of Ardmore Studios in Bray, McKenna was one of the fortunate actors who were signed up for minor roles in a series of films. His first film was as an IRA man in 'A Terrible Beauty’, starring Robert Mitchum.
Other film roles followed in quick succession as an anarchist in 'The Siege of Sydney Street’, 'Shake Hands with the Devil’, 'Freedom to Die’ and Brendan Behan’s 'The Quare Fellow’.
In London, Gemini Productions cast him in the leading role of 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe’ with Susan Hallinan as his wife. In 'Pull Down a Horseman’, he played Padraig Pearse in a play presented to commemorate the 1916 Rising.
Producers were impressed by McKenna’s work and he remained in London. He appeared as Cassius in Lindsay Anderson’s production of Julius Caesar. He followed this with the role of the preacher in George Bernard Shaw’s 'Too True to be Good’ at the Garrick Theatre.
Over the next two decades, McKenna was fortunate in being able to juggle stage and screen roles. He took the role of a priest in the screen adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s 'Girl with Green Eyes’. He also featured in Young Cassidy based on the life of playwright Sean O’Casey. Unfortunately, in 1964 McKenna missed out on a big part in David Lean’s production of 'Doctor Zhivago’.
In 1966, he was nominated as one of the 10 life members of the Abbey Theatre company who, according to the citation, “had given distinguished service to the Irish National Theatre” and who agreed to play as guest artists with the regular company from time to time.
He joined the Nottingham Playhouse for a season in 1968 appearing in 'Macbeth’, 'King John’, 'School for Scandal’ and 'The Seagull’. On his return to London, Linsay Andersen cast him in a leading role in 'The Contractor’ by David Storey. McKenna followed this with a Royal Shakespearean Company season at the Aldwych Theatre, including leading roles in James Joyce’s 'Exciles’ and Jean Genet’s 'The Balcony.’
McKenna regularly made guest appearances in plays and series for BBC and ITV, including 'Inspector Morse’ and 'Kavanagh, QC.’ Filmmakers also kept him in constant demand. In the 1970s, he appeared in such films as 'The Beast in the Cellar’, 'Perfect Friday’, 'Percy’, 'The Outsider’ and 'The Next Victim’.
McKenna was to appear in principal roles in Joseph Strick’s two films based on the novels of James Joyce 'Ulysses’ and 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ In 'Ulysses’ he played Buck Mulligan and in 'Portrait’ he appeared as Simon Dedalus.
TP McKenna was regularly cast in period films and featured in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade’ with Trevor Howard and 'Anne of the Thousand Days’ with Richard Burton.
He appeared as Major Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 'Straw Dogs’ with Dustin Hoffman that contained an orgy of rape, violence and arson. That same year, he co-starred again with Richard Burton in the violent thriller 'Villain.’ He also appeared in the screen version of 'All Creatures Great and Small’ and 'Britannia Hospital’ with Malcolm McDowell. He was a life-long friend of his fellow countyman, the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and gave an oration at his grave.
In recent years, McKenna concentrated more on film and television work rather than theatre. His later films include 'Jack the Ripper’, 'Valmont’, 'Red Scorpion’, 'Monarch’ and 'Waking the Dead’. Over his career, the Mullagh native made guest appearances in a number of series and films in Ireland, including 'The Ambassador’ and as a priest involved in a clerical scandal in RTE’s 'Fair City’ and as the Taoiseach in the thriller series 'Proof’.
In a statement this week, his family said: “As an actor he was unique, as a friend and colleague he was exceptional, as a father he was irreplaceable.”
Additional reporting: Niamh O’Farrell.