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Scott R. Larson

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Miley (1945-2010)

If you were to mention to nearly any girl, 12 or under, in much of the western world, that Miley had died, you would send her into a paroxysm of anguish that her favorite (or former favorite) pop princess had expired.

But when this same bit of news was received last week by people in Ireland over a certain age, they immediately knew that the passing was not of a teeny-bopper idol but of a veteran character actor.

Mick Lally was arguably the most familiar actor’s face from decades of Irish TV broadcasting. He played the same character, Miley Byrne, for more than two decades. He first played Miley, a comic relief character, on Bracken, a soap starring Gabriel Byrne as a character who had been spun off from an earlier soap called The Riordans. After the end of Bracken’s brief run, in 1982, it was Lally’s character who was one of a pair that were spun off into yet another series, called Glenroe. That series ran from 1983 to 2001 and Miley became one of those characters so familiar to everyone in the country that he seemed to have become a real person. When people discussed the show, they certainly talked about him as if he were real and not a mere fictional creation. And Lally inhabited the role so completely that there seemed to be no separation between him and Miley. But, by all accounts, he was very different from the seemingly ubiquitous TV character, who was a bit of an innocent country bumpkin.

Playing a denizen of the countryside was presumably no stretch for the actor, as he was born, like my own better half, in County Mayo—specifically in the Irish-speaking community of Tourmakeady, along the shore of Lough Mask. The actor had a whole other career on the stage and was a co-founder (along with Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen) of Galway’s Druid theater company. Unlike such acting brethren as Gabriel Byrne and Brendan Gleeson, he never emigrated definitively to international or American features. But he did appear in a fair few movies filmed in Ireland, with his screen credit evolving from Micheál Ó Maolallaí to Michael Lally to Mick Lally.

He debuted as a garda (police) sergeant in the first Irish language feature Poitín, going on to roles in films like Neil Jordan’s first movie Angel (aka Danny Boy), Suri Krishnamma’s A Man of No Importance (with Albert Finney), John Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish and Pat O’Connor’s Circle of Friends (with Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver). He elicited appreciative audience cheers of recognition in a cameo as the chief examiner in the no-budget student film How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate. He played a priest in Lance Daly’s The Halo Effect, appeared as a horse seller in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (along with fellow Irishmen Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Kavanagh) and played another clergyman in Brian Kirk’s Middletown. One of his last roles was providing the voice for the master illuminator Aidan in the Oscar-nominated animated feature The Secret of Kells. Like seemingly every other actor in Ireland, Lally did a stint on the TV series Ballykissangel, appearing in eight episodes in 2001.

Lally’s final feature film seems to be the hard-to-watch faux documentary Snap, written and directed by Carmel Winters. And when I say “hard to watch,” you can take that to mean both uncomfortable for the viewer and, I suspect, difficult for people to actually locate and view. It’s the type of film that seems to exist to be seen only a film festivals, which is where I saw it two months, at the Galway Film Fleadh. Laying out its story in an elliptical way, doling out the characters’ histories bit by bit through supposedly found footage, the film chronicles a repeating pattern of child molestation from one generation to another. Scenes involving a teenage boy and an abducted child are particularly uncomfortable—not because of anything that actually happens but of the constant and pervasive sense that something awful is about to happen. But the hardest part to endure comes near the end when we hear a deceptively cheery audio track of an unspeakable act against a baby.

In the movie, Lally plays a drunk whom the main protagonist, Sandra (played by Aisling O’Sullivan), comes across at a chipper. For no apparent good reason, she brings him home and, well, proceeds to engage in activity that involves the two of them shedding their clothes. In Lally’s case, it is the sort of performance that demands to have the word “brave” stamped on it in mile-high letters. For a moment he stands there near the bed, leaving nothing to the imagination and exposing his sixtysomething body, with all its imperfections in the most unflattering light possible. If there was ever any risk that the sex scene would be in the least bit erotic, the sight of Lally’s body and his pitiful demeanor banish that notion from our minds completely.

My first reaction to the scene was that it was pointless and was included merely to be provocative. But when we get to the end of the film, we realize that it was actually a glaring clue about Sandra’s psychology and damage. Let’s just say that it’s not a coincidence that Lally’s character is old enough to be her father.

As I indicated above, most people—even within Ireland—will almost certainly never see that performance. They will always remember Mick Lally as Miley. But there is a certain irony in it that since one of the best stories about Lally that was remembered after his passing was an April Fool’s joke he participated in a quarter-century ago. On the main national morning news radio program, he announced his departure from Glenroe in protest of a new RTÉ policy to feature nude scenes.

And, if most Irish men and women, fondly remember Mick Lally for playing that one character, there will always been a somewhat smaller segment of the population that will primarily remember him for a long and distinguished career on the stage playing memorable characters created by J.M. Synge, John B. Keane, Brian Friel and others.

As Miley would say, well holy God!

-S.L., 9 September 2010

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