Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 04 Jun 2010

                                                                                                                                                 OLLSCOIL  na  hÉIREANN


















PROFESSOR DES MACHALE, Associate Professor of Mathematics, School of Mathematics in University College Cork on 4 June 2010, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Arts, honoris causa, on NIALL TÓIBÍN






A Sheánsailéir, a Uachtarán, a mhuintir na hOllscoile agus a dhaoine uaisle,



Chancellor, President, Colleagues, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,






When the famous escapologist and illusionist, Harry Houdini, appeared on the stage of the Cork Opera House, he introduced his act as follows:



Ladies and gentlemen, I will now perform a trick so complex and devious, that it will fool all of the people of Cork City, and half the people of Macroom.






To-day I would like to introduce to you a man who is respected, admired and loved by all of the people of Cork, and that includes Macroom, and indeed by all of the people of Ireland and those beyond our shores.






Niall Tóibín was born on the Southside of Cork City in Friars’ Walk, on November 21st 1929, but he is a Northsider by adoption, disposition, conviction, and upbringing. By my calculations, that birth date makes him eighty years of age, but as you can see, he is rather well preserved, and doesn’t look a day over seventy—nine. Niall’s father, Sean Tóibín, gaeilgoir, author and Renaissance man, was born in Passage West, and his parents came from Waterford and West Cork. Sean Tóibín was the author of two delightful books — Blatha an Bhoitrin and Troscan na mBanta, on wayside and meadowland flowers, both written in the Irish language.






Niall’s mother, from whom it appears he inherited his magnificent sense of humour, was a Kerrywoman, from Beaufort near Killarney. She was Siobhán Ni Shúileabháin, or Han Sullivan to her friends.






It comes as no surprise therefore, that Niall Tóibín, steeped in the Irish language since infancy, has always been a great lover and speaker of our native tongue. His sketch in which he portrays a CIA agent intimately conversant with the Donegal, Connemara, and Dingle dialects of the Irish language is both hilariously accurate and devastatingly funny. And for those few internationally who might still have difficulty pronouncing his name, his website has a phonetic rendition as follows:



NIALL, as in KNEEL,(K-N-E-E-L); TOE, as in the foot appendage, (T-O-E); and BEAN, as in the vegetable (B-E-A-N). The temptation to label him as Ireland’s Mister Bean is almost irresistible!






After a glittering educational career at the North Mon, Niall took the Civil Service clerical officers’ examination and was called to Dublin in 1947 as a civil servant. But soon the call of the theatre proved too strong and after several amateur bilingual successes, including pantomime and semi-professional work on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, he joined the Radio Éireann Repertory Company as a full-time actor.






Over the past fifty years, Niall Tóibín has become one of our foremost actors, appearing regularly on stage, television, and film, both in Ireland and internationally, in a range of parts of immense breadth. His soft mellow voice, which has never lost its Cork origins, is familiar to all of us as narrator, voiceover, and commentator.






I am not really qualified to comment on the undoubted merits of Niall Tóibín’s extensive dramatic achievements, but I would like to single out a few of his performances that have special memories for me. I was a postgraduate student at the University of Keele in the English Midlands, when one afternoon a coach pulled up beside me and someone said “We are going to the Nottingham Playhouse to see a play by an Irish playwright, and we have a spare ticket. Do you want to come?” “Who is he?” I asked. “Samuel Beckett”, I was told, “And he’s great gas - you’ll love him”. Now this was 1971, and to my shame I had never heard of Beckett before this, but, ever eager for adventure, I jumped on board the coach. That evening was superb; it was Waiting for Godot with Peter O’Toole and Donal McCann as the tramps, and Niall Tóibín as Pozzo. For me it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the works of Samuel Beckett. When an actor is on stage, he has no idea who is in the audience, and what effect he might have on those who see and hear him.






And who can forget Niall Tóibín’s portrayal of Brendan Behan in Borstal Boy? The physical resemblance is literally staggering and the accent so realistic that one has to pinch oneself to be reminded that it is not the bould Brendan in person on  stage. Niall Tóibín has also appeared in over thirty full-length feature films which have brought him international recognition and fame. He was Joe, the man who refused to die, in Far and Away; he was the shifty O’Keefe in Ryan’s Daughter, and in Eat the Peach, I loved him as the Yank who had never been to America. His range of roles and parts is almost unbelievable, and yet he is quite believable in every part he plays - from John B. Keane’s The Field in Moscow, to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, The Ballroom of Romance, Bracken, and Bob Quinn’s Poitin -  versatile does not even begin to describe him. I bet that when Murphy’s Stroke, about a bunch of Irishmen who took the bookies to the cleaners, was being cast, Niall was the first and last choice for the lead.






The list of serious writers he has interpreted on stage is an impressive one too—Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill, Tom Kilroy, and Hugh Leonard, for example, and he showed he could mix it with the big boys internationally when he portrayed Father MacKay in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in the company of Claire Bloom, Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons and Laurence  Olivier. He has also played a more down to earth priest, Father MacAnally in Ballykissangel. I think Niall Tóibín would have made a lovely priest in real life, though of course he would have been a bishop or maybe even the first Irish pope by now if he had chose that career path. Mind you, it is not too late yet for him to follow in the footsteps of our own Monsignor Alfred O’Rahilly.






Of course, to keep body and soul together, Niall has lent his talents to popular television sagas and series, most notably The Clinic, Stay Lucky, Bracken, and the aforementioned Ballykissangel, for example. Ironically, this is the way many great actors achieve public acclaim and recognition.






I freely admit that when Dr. Declan Kennedy and I jointly nominated Niall Tóibín for a Doctorate in Arts, Honoris Causa, it was not just his serious dramatic accomplishments we had in mind, impressive as they may be. In an area where I can claim some little expertise, I declare that Niall Tóibín is the finest comedian that this country has ever produced. As a standup, he is without parallel and leaves the alternatives trailing in his wake. His LP/CD Alive and Kicking, which I have played endlessly, is for me the essence of Cork and indeed Irish comedy. Sadly, our national broadcaster RTE has never really done justice to his comic talents, though I do remember one glorious scene from a series of Mr. T, advertising a perfume with the unlikely name of Langours, which shows him dancing through the countryside in slow motion advising viewers to “Get Langours To-Day”.



Niall’s powers of mimicry and his range of Irish accents are incomparable in both languages. I come from the West of Ireland, but I never really realized what a Mayo or Galway accent sounded like until I heard him take it off.



  In the bog below Belmullet, in the counta of Mayo.



That is the way we natives speak up there, and Niall Tóibín renders a one hundred per cent accurate reproduction. If you want to hear the full range of Irish accents, North, South, East, and West, listen to his superb parody of The Four Farrellys.






The range and versatility of Niall’s comedy are little short of amazing. His portrayal of  Slipper , for example, in the much loved television series The Irish RM, is that of the quintessential Irish rogue as seen through Anglo-Irish eyes. I am certain that Somerville and Ross would have heartily approved.






Humour and comedy are in my opinion the most difficult of the art forms, and if you do not believe that, try standing up sometime in front of an audience to make them laugh, especially if they have paid to hear you. My perspective is that the joke is the ultimate art form and a person who invents an original joke form is as worthy of credit as Mozart, Rembrandt, or Shakespeare. Niall Tóibín has almost singlehandedly invented the Cavanman Joke, and in honour of his conferring to-day I would like to present him with a new Cavanman joke that I have composed, for his exclusive use. Of course I cannot do the accent anything as well as he can, but here goes:



  A Cavanman arrived home unexpectedly one lunchtime to find a plumber’s van parked outside his house. He exclaimed, “I hope to God the wife is havin’ an affair”.






Some of you will be aware of our Cummings Library of Humour here at UCC, one of the largest such special collections in the world, consisting of over 15,000 items including books, magazines, videotapes, and compact discs, housed in the Boole Library. Needless to say, the works of Niall Tóibín have pride of place there.






I believe that Niall Tóibín has never been doctored before, but he has received many awards in his long career. These include a CFT Excellence Award, a Jacob’s Award, a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award on Broadway, and the Sunday Independent Irish Life Special Award. But to-day’s award is from his own people in his home town and surely the Freedom of Cork City cannot be far behind.






There are many, many other aspects of Niall Tóibín that time does not allow me to elaborate on, but which I feel should be mentioned, if only briefly. There was his long and happy marriage to his beloved wife Judy, who is sadly no longer with us. He is a good family man, delighting in his children and grandchildren, whom we welcome here to-day. There is his surprisingly good golf handicap, the subject of a recent article in the Irish Times. He does an immense deal of work for charity in a quiet and unobtrusive way, but never seeks the limelight for his generosity and kindness.






Now, when I hear pieces like you have just heard from me, I must admit that I feel suspicious - is the man a paragon of all the virtues, without blemish or fault? So I set myself the task of finding some little flaw in his character, some example to show he is human like the rest of us. I had to search long and hard, but find one I did; a minor flaw admittedly, but a flaw nevertheless. In Niall’s riveting autobiography, Smile and Be a Villain, published in 1995, written from the heart and certainly not ghosted like many showbiz autobiographies, and a cracking read which I can thoroughly recommend to you (where was I?) yes in Chapter Four, page 50, there occurs the following sentence:



   Of all school subjects, Mathematics in all its torturing manifestations, was of no interest to me - a complete blank.






Dear, o dear, o dear, bang goes my life’s work in the day job. But then Niall Tóibín is in good company. Another great Irish wit, Oscar Wilde, has written



  There is only one subject unfit for human conversation over breakfast, and that is mathematics.






Niall Tóibín, we admire you for your dramatic talents, envy you for your sense of humour, and love you for your warmth and humanity.



A cairde gaoil, is mor an onor domsa an cheim seo a bhronnadh ar Niall Tóibín, ard- fhear, ard-aisteoir, ard-fhear greann, agus ard-Chorcaioch.






Praehonorabilis cancellarie, totaque universitas:



Praesento vobis hunc meum filium quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Artibus, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.


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