Hugh Leonard Obituary

by John Boland

Hugh Leonard was a notable dramatist and a very successful television scriptwriter, but he always saw himself as an outsider among his peers and was quick to take offence at perceived slights from critics or fellow playwrights. Indeed, in his long-running Sunday Independent column (and before that in Hibernia magazine), he was adept both at settling old scores and in making new enemies.

“A literary movement in Ireland,” he once quipped, “is two writers on speaking terms with each other.” He chuckled as he said it, though he was keenly aware of the personal truth behind the jibe, given that he always felt distant from, and wary of, most of his writing contemporaries. Indeed, although his plays brought him considerable popular and commercial success, he was never granted the esteem that was routinely enjoyed by Brian Friel and Tom Murphy.

This lack of critical recognition hurt him, and he expressed that hurt both in scornful private remarks about  many of his contemporaries and, somewhat less brutally, in his journalism. Indeed, even at the height of his fame, when his play Da won a Tony award for its Broadway production, he felt disregarded by the literary establishment in Ireland.

His insecurity could be traced back to an upbringing in which he never knew the identity of his natural parents – a childhood and boyhood memorably described in his superb 1979 memoir Home Before Night – and it found its expression in a social shyness that remained with him throughout his life. But he found confidence in writing and while working in the Land Commission, which he joined in 1945, he took part in amateur dramatics and through this discovered his vocation as a  playwright.

The Abbey Theatre staged The Big Birthday in 1956, but it wasn’t until the success of Madigan’s Lock (also for the Abbey) in 1958 that he acquired the confidence to leave the Civil Service and find more congenial work with Granada Television in Manchester. Stephen D, his adaptation of some of the stories from Joyce’s Dubliners, brought him both plaudits and offers from British television to adapt other classic works of literature.

He was extremely skilled at this – most notably in his adaptation of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City for RTE – but he was always touchy about the “second-hand” implications of the work. Indeed, when a famous Irish actor introduced him at a social gathering as “the finest literary adapter in the world,” he was so incensed that he stormed out of the room.

Very prolific (during the 1960s he wrote almost a play a year for the Dublin Theatre Festival), he achieved international celebrity in 1973 with Da, in which he evoked the adoptive father of  his Dalkey childhood, though A Life, which was premiered at the Abbey in 1980, is a subtler and more rigorous play – and much less prone to the easy jokes by which he was often tempted in his desire to please an audience.

Perhaps it was this need to go for the laugh (and the instant gratification it brings) that prevented most of his plays from being more than superior entertainments – the emotional and psychological depths of a Philadelphia, Here I Come or a Bailegangaire were beyond his range. A highly intelligent man, he probably knew that himself but the realisation wouldn’t have made him more benignly disposed to fellow practitioners whom he always regarded as hostile rivals.

And in a profession usually distinguished by its propensity for backslapping, he was bracingly forthright in articulating his spleen. Some of the targets were deserving of his disgust – at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular, he must be commended for his consistent and courageous attacks on the atrocities of  the IRA and the hypocrisy of its apologists. Other targets were well able to look after themselves – Charles Haughey, for instance, who was one of Leonard’s betes noires – while  ongoing feuds with the likes of Ulick O’Connor were so silly that they added to the gaiety of the nation, or at least that section of it which read his column.

He reserved a special derision for critics and I fell foul of him on a number of occasions, at one point being one of his nominations for Shit of the Year, though sadly I lost out to Haughey. Then periods would come when he’d solicit your company (you consented to meet him for a drink because his late wife, Paule, was a lovely person) until you wrote something that again outraged him, whereupon you were the subject of more vilification – even though he knew that journalists, given their access to newsprint, always had the last word.

At one stage, a well-known theatre impresario and myself joked about forming an Ex-Friends of Hugh Leonard Society, but we decided that, so many were the enmities he’d created, the society would be unmanageable. Anyway, the impresario was back in his good books by the following week.

In the last few years his column largely concerned his memories of boyhood and his love of old movies, as if the fight had finally gone out of him and he couldn’t be bothered making enemies anymore. But a selection of his best pieces would provide a quirky, cantankerous, occasionally cruel commentary on the Ireland of 1970s, 80s and 90s. His plays, too, offer a commentary on the morals and manners of the same Ireland, though expressed more gently. It will be interesting to see how many of them survive the test of time.

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