Sunday 12 September 2010


St.Patrick's College, Cavan

Remembering St.Pat's ..

In September 1942 TP was sent as a boarder to St.Patrick's College, Cavan.  These are times he remembers with a mix of emotions.  The Second World War was in full swing and while the Irish Republic maintained a neutral stance it was still badly affected by food and fuel shortages.  The upshot of these for the young boarders was a meagre diet and freezing dormitories.

A sense of despondency .. 

There were other pressures too, as TP recalls: "If my father ever made a mistake it was that he made me feel that this was an enormous big deal and they were making great sacrifices.  I felt a great responsibility and collapsed under it. The end result was that I wouldn't study.  I spent my study periods reading poetry and English literature. I used to sit up in my room late at night looking out into the dark with a sense of despondency."

Despite that gloomy prognosis, St.Pat's would provide the introduction to a key figure in the development of this serious young man.  TP takes up the story:

Fr. Vincent Kennedy ..  

"Unquestionably, the biggest influence in my life was Father Vincent Kennedy.  Looking back, having met many, many eminent people, he was really one of the most sophisticated men I ever met.  He was a very stylish man.  He was small and dapper and everything he did was very graceful.  He had a rather lovely room in Saint Patrick's College, with a Bechstein piano and a very nice library.

Gilbert & Sullivan ..

"He used to produce operas.  I was a boy soprano.  My first appearance was in The Yeoman of the Guard.  I had an extraordinarily powerful boy sporano voice, something I inherited from my father.  When my voice broke, we used to go up to Father Vincents' room and he would play us a wide variety of music.  He would demonstrate the difference in structure between Beethoven and Chopin, for example, and the development of the piano as an instrument.

Following the Score ..

"This was very, very fascinating and unusual for a secondary school.  We would listen to the Proms on BBC in his room and follow it with the score.  He had a wonderful range as a classical pianist.  He could play the Grieg Concerto from memory and he had hundreds of scores as well.

Creme de la Creme ..

"We were the chosen few - just three or four of us - like Jean Brodie's creme de la creme.  We would knock on his door afer night prayer and if he was in a good mood he'd let us in.  We would have coffee and talk and he would play the piano.  If he was in a bad mood, he would just sit there and puff smoke in the air very elegantly.  I remember one Leitrim fellow saying to him, 'Are you bored, Father?'  There was a long pause.  'Haven't I the right to be bored in my own sitting-room?'  We had the good sense to get up and leave.

Anew McMaster as Othello
Meeting McMaster ..

"I had moved on from Gilbert & Sullivan and into drama: the plays of Louis D'Alton for example.  I had got the acting bug as young as the age of fifteen.  Anew McMaster was visiting Cavan and he had brought his usual repertoire of Shakespeare.  We saw Hamlet and Macbeth and Father Kennedy then brought us backstage to meet McMaster.  Myself and another chap decided to go down and talk to him in The Farnham Arms.  He was very nice and bought us tea.  He said, 'Don't be an actor, my dear boy, until you are absolutely sure there's nothing else in the world you can do.'

Saturday 11 September 2010


Small town boy, big time dreams ...

We live now in an age where just to want to be famous is regarded as a career goal in itself.

Imagine then a small town boy with big time dreams, in an utterly provincial Ireland, sleepily making its way into the second half of the 20th century. This was no breeding ground for would-be actors and TP, 'being a peasant at heart', as he would later say, realised that his dreams of a life on the stage would have to be shelved.  For the moment, at least.

A great future in it ...

What happened next bears little examination, but it does suggest  perhaps that things happen for a reason.  TP picks up the story:

"Before I left St.Pat's, one strange and amazing thing happened.  The vice president [headmaster] came into the class and said: 'The manager of the Ulster Bank in Cavan has written to me looking for young recruits for the bank. They need staff very badly and there's a great future in it.'

"We chatted about it among ourselves and three or four of the lads said it was a great idea. I laughed at them all as they went off to see the vice president. I went to the college chapel, genuflected and, without any rational process, turned and walked out the chapel door and back behind the last person into the vice-president's room."

Just for a year or two ...

"So I went to Belfast to the do the bank exams and, for good or ill, I was called to the bank at the end of May that year.  This came as an enormous relief to me.  I was going to use the bank for a year or two and then I would become an actor."

Little could TP have realised that those few steps into the vice-president's office were to lead to a six year career with the Ulster Bank.

Staff of an Ulster Bank branch c.1940s
Now in the fold of the Ulster Bank, TP was assigned to his first branch:  "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."

O'Connell Street, Dublin

The company of theatricals ..

When TP got to Dublin he wasted no time in immersing himself in Dublin's vibrant amateur dramatics scene including the Dublin Shakespeare Society and the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society with their ambitious Gilbert & Sullivan stagings at the Gaiety Theatre.

At times though, he was was perhaps becoming too absorbed in his thespian pursuits.

"Where's the BAG?!"

One of his regular assignments was to move large sums of cash by hand between branches in a canvas bag.  

Returning to his branch with what should have been one such sum he was greeted with a look of horror by the manager and his colleagues.  "The bag, McKenna! Where's the BAG?", they shrieked.

Well, he desperately thought, he'd last had it on the bus - on the seat beside him.  He'd rested it there while he used the time to learn some lines for his latest part, only he'd become so consumed in his task he nearly missed his stop.

That was when he'd shot off the bus ... without the bag!

Crashing out the branch doors he was away and up the street tearing after the bus and the bag.

Who knows what speed records he broke that day. 

An Inspector Calls ...

By 1954, TP was behind with his bank exams and one day, unannounced, an inspector arrived at the branch.  "You haven't done all the exams you should have been doing", he scolded TP, "... and I hear you've been mixing with a lot of theatricals and that's keeping your mind of your off your work. Well, we're going to transfer you to a country branch where you'll have nothing to do but think of your banking.'  The inspector carried on with propietorial zeal ... "You've a good career in banking.  We'll see that you get sorted out."

Getting 'sorted out' translated into a letter from Head Office a few days later confirming his transfer to Killeshandra.

Killeshandra: "Where you'll have nothing to do but think of your banking."
 TP was horrified.  "Killeshandra", he recalls ... " had one weekly bus in, one weekly bus out,  plus a creamery and a convent.  I couldn't face that and resigned."

"He'll starve, he'll starve ..."

TP's decision caused alarm all around. "Get his father on the line.  He'll starve, he'll starve!" declaimed his manager,  while at home he was hauled in front of a star chamber consisting of his father as judge and his cousin, Paddy O'Reilly, the State Solicitor for the county. 

They cajoled, they threatened, they pleaded, but TP was having none of it and he left them with his father's harshest tones ringing in his ears: "Don't you dare come back.  There'll be nothing left for you here".

"Still, I persisted," TP remembers, "... and it didn't deflect me."

Free At Last ... Almost

TP was on the very brink of leaving the bank, following his resignation, when the manager burst out of his office in a high state of alarm.

‘Mac, Mac!!’, he barked, ‘Commander Robbett, Mac?! He’s not got his money!!

Commander Robbett, a respected customer of the bank, was a retired submariner who lived in England but maintained a house in Dalkey. Each month he would have a fixed sum of £15 mailed to him by registered post, except that this time he had not received his envelope.

TP was completely taken aback, but he was swift to assure the manager that he had posted the envelope, just as he always did, from the Post Office in Harcourt Street. He’d only have to have them check the log of registered post and they’d have a copy of the receipt.

Quick as he could he tore across to Harcourt Street.

‘No, Sir … sorry, Sir. No record of registered post for that address,’ the Teller informed him as he closed the large, bound ledger. ‘Maybe you posted from another branch, Sir.’ He added.

That must be it, TP thought. Another branch? Yes, yes, Camden Street! Sometimes he’d go to the Post Office there.

And off he rushed back out into the street where the early Summer sunshine waited, mocking him with its gaiety.

At the Post Office in Camden Street though, another ledger was regretfully closed. ‘No, Sir. Sorry. No record … another branch possibly … Harcourt Street, perhaps?’.

TP’s bridges were thoroughly burnt. He was at a loss for any feasible explanation for where the money had got to and he could only make an ignominious return to the bank.

Well, all banks, small or large, lose sundry sums here and there, and in the normal course of events allowances would probably have been made for TP’s oversight, some kindly terms agreed. That would have been for certain, but for the fact that he had so firmly rejected the embrace of the Ulster Bank when he had given his notice.

Like a mistress spurned, no exception would be made by his employers in the face of such disloyalty. The errant sum, he was gravely informed, would be stopped out of his final salary cheque.

After six years service and with such an uncertain future ahead of him this final act of pettiness seemed like a cruel boot out the branch doors.

Some weeks on, towards the end of a late August day , and as had been widely prophesised (‘he’ll starve, he’ll starve …’), the fledgling actor was very much on his uppers with little more than fluff filling his trouser pockets.

Firmly fed up with his lot and tired of his digs, TP resolved to take himself out for a walk and a chance to think things through.

As he readied himself, for the first time in weeks, it seemed, a light rain began to fall. Undeterred, he reached for the back of the door where his raincoat had hung for most of the Summer and putting it on he felt something unfamiliar in the pocket.

Puzzled, he reached in with his hand and slowly retrieved what turned out to be a bundle of bank letters tied with clerical ribbon. At the top of it, a stout envelope addressed to ‘Commander Robbett’.

TP had taken the money for posting alright. He’d just forgotten to post it and there it had rested in the undisturbed raincoat.

Torn between near hysteria and relief, TP was by now in peals of laughter as he tore open the Commander’s letter and retrieved what was now his £15.

He wasn’t going to starve, not yet anyway, but richest of all, he and the bank were now, finally, quits.


TP's antidote to the dreary clerical duties of the Ulster Bank on Lower Camden Street was his active involvement in the city's amateur dramatic companies including the Dublin Shakespeare Society and The Rathmines & Rathgar Musical Society.
Rehearsal Hall of the
Rathmines & Rathgar
Musical Society

Young, handsome men were in short supply in the Dublin of those days so TP was much sought after and appreciated for the addition of his fine singing voice.  In the programme below we see TP cast as a regency fop by the name of Sir Amyas Wendell in the Ivor Novello musical, Perchance To Dream in 1954.

Note that he appears under the name of Ralph McKenna (his father's name) rather than his own name.  This was to ensure that his extra-curricular activities did not bring him into any dispute with his employers.

And two years before we see TP at The Olympia Theatre appearing in a production of new musical composed by his friend, Michael Coffey, The Green Valley.

Although shows like this and Perchance To Dream were performed by amateur companies they were staged to the highest professional standards in Dublin's largest theatres and often with professionals taking some of the principal roles.

In the case of The Green Valley the lead was taken by Cherry Lind, a noted singer and variety artist of the time.


"In the early '50s I used to be entertained on buses and in coffee shops by a young bank clerk who could fantastic imitations of Hilton Edwards, Michael MacLiammoir and the poet Patrick Kavanagh.  He not only could reproduce their voices but his face changed while he talked so that he seemed to resemble the people he was impersonating and his phenomenal memory enabled his to recall their actual dialogue with uncanny precision.  

When Kavanagh  saw the impersonation of himself he commented: "It was like looking at myself in the mirror after a hard night".

One night the young man confided to me that he was giving up impersonations and going to be an actor.  He felt it would be bad to keep on imitating people when he would be  addressing himself to the more serious task of creating characters on stage.

His name was T.P. McKenna"

(Ulick O'Connor, Sunday Independent, 4th March 1973)

This lead quote by Ulick O'Connor suitably introduces the process by which TP transformed himself into a straight, professional actor.

The Pike Theatre was a small, independent theatre company founded by Alan Simpson in 1953 with his wife Carolyn Swift in a Herbert Lane mews close to the Grand Canal.  Seating just 55 theatre-goers it was run as a private theatre club and presented the work of new writers, most famously of which was Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow  and the second English language production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

It was here in 1953 that TP would make his professional stage debut as John Buchannan in a production of Smoke and Summer by Tennessee Williams, supporting Maureen Toal and Milo O'Shea.

Irish Independent, 16th March 1954
However, somewhat more prominently he would make his mark as a revue artist of talent with a gift for mimicry in the Pike late-night summer revues presented as the Herbert Lane Follies.

The revue form has so long been discarded that it almost needs re-explaining.  Written by Carolyn Swift with music provided by George Hoddinott, the Follies were a collection of sketches and songs which were cleverly comic and touching on satire.

They were to prove highly popular in the stultifying environment of 1950s Dublin which was noted, resented even, for its all too provincial outlook.

Among TP's noted impersonations were those of the director Lennox Robinson and the poet Patrick Kavanagh.

Irish Independent, 4th August 1954

TP as Lennox Robinson in Further Follies
Irish Independent, 25th Jan 1955


Friday 10 September 2010


"We did five shows, each got a week of rehearsal and then straight on

to the stage. 'Louder and faster' was the only direction he gave us.  A year later I joined the Abbey company and had to come down about ten octaves.  But I'd not have missed McMaster for all the world."

That was TP's verdict on the brief, but vital, season he spent as part of the company of Anew McMaster when he played in five productions including the roles of Horatio in Hamlet, Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew and Albany in King Lear.

McMaster was an actor-manager in the grand 19th Century tradition and in the post-war years he was singly responsible for bringing the works of Shakespeare to the Irish in put-ups on fair greens or in draughty parish halls.

Certainly he had been key in lighting the spark of drama in the person of the young TP who had seen him perform in Cavan when he was a dreamy fifteen year old.

Thursday 12 August 2010


Following his departure from the bank, when TP bravely struck out on his mission to be a professional actor, he made the most of the friendships he'd found when cosying up to the city's actors in their favoured watering holes.

Milo O'Shea, in particular, had taken a liking to TP and made possible his introduction to the tiny Pike Theatre.  He had also become friendly with Godfrey Quigley who invited him to join the Globe Theatre Company which resided in a mini-theatre (not much bigger than The Pike) above the Gas Company showrooms in Dun Laoighaire; and he had also made his radio debut in the famous sponsored drama, The Kennedys of Castleross also directed by Quiqley.  However, financially, TP's great dream was full of holes, especially as the Globe was run on a profit-share basis based on lean box-office takings.

All in all, a year after having quit the bank he was bringing in no more than a quarter of his previous salary. "I was down to two pounds a week which was exactly my rent, so I had nothing to eat and I couldn't approach people at home for money," TP  would recall.

It was at this stage that our hero conspired to get himself into The Abbey Theatre Company [Ireland's national theatre] and calling on his family's political connections he contrived to gain an interview with the Abbey's managing director,  Ernest Blythe.

Ernest Blythe
Abbey's Managing Director
"I made a 'b' line for the Abbey and I used my political connections because I had an uncle who had been in the first government and I went to see Richard Mulchahy [Dail Minister] who knew my uncle and, one way or another, I got an interview with Blythe."

Blythe's first verdict was not encouraging:  "Aghh!  Your Irish is bloody awful [Abbey players were required to be fluent speakers of gaelic] ... and your nose is a bit too long!" But then he cast TP a glimmer of hope, "I suppose we could take you on for the Christmas show and see how you get on."

TP's formative years as an actor were spent with Ireland's national Theatre, The Abbey, between 1953 & 1962. 

During that time he undertook over seventy different roles working his way up from small walk on parts with a few lines to principal player and indeed when it came to the renowned Abbey pantos, 'matinee idol'.

The home of the company was the large Queens Theatre, the original Abbey having burnt down in 1951. At 900 hundred seats in what was then a very small city, it proved to be a difficult space to fill and so the repertoire of those days was broad with an over-reliance on light 'peasant comedies'.

Nonetheless, it was one such comedy which gave the young TP his first 'in' to the Abbey Company.  Sitting idly in his digs he was called to the phone.  Waiting to speaking to him was the Stage Manager at the Queens.  How soon could he be there, he was asked.  As soon as you need me, he replied.

It transpired that one of the resident actors had failed to return from a weekend break on time and TP was required to go on for the actor that night.  It was a fortuitous and lucky break and for the following eight years, without contract, TP stayed as a member of the Abbey Company learning and honing his craft until January 1963 when he left for London only to return to Dublin for occasional theatrical appearances.

TP & Eddie Golden in 'The Plough and the Stars'

"T.P. McKenna with his fine singing voice, gift for comedy, thick wavy hair and strong well-shaped legs was the ideal prince for a record breaking six pantos." (Vicent Dowling)

"All Blythe cared about were the Prionsas in the Geamaireacht [Gaelic pantomimes].  I hold the record. I played Prionsa six times to Ray McAnally's five."

Vincent Dowling & TP
'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

'A Light In The Sky'

TP with Aideen O'Kelly in the pantomime 'Muireann and the Prince'