Brian McCabe pays tribute to the late actor Tom Hickey who shone on stage and screen down the years. For many Ireland’s Own readers he will always be remembered for his popular portrayal of Benjy Riordan in the RTÉ soap opera The Riordans.
Tom Hickey, who died recently, was undoubtedly one of the titans of the modern Irish theatre and a master of all aspects of his craft (or vocation, as he preferred to call it) spanning stage, screen and television.
Leading the tributes to the much loved actor, President Michael D. Higgins described him as one of the greatest actors of his generation, and as leaving an indelible imprint on Irish theatre. Amongst his colleagues in the acting community, he was regarded as an artist of total commitment to performance, to his art and to his community.
Tom was, firstly, a Naas man, being born there in 1944. Locally, it is believed that he got his first acting lessons with one of the Christian brothers in Naas CBS during his secondary school years.
After school, he worked as a laboratory assistant in the famous “Irish Ropes” company in nearby Newbridge.
At this point young Tom would probably have been best known as an up and coming – and promising – young footballer. He quickly made his mark playing for the local club at minor, and later senior, level, and, in fact, soon rose to the dizzying heights of making the Kildare County team. Operating as a very speedy, and sure-footed forward, he made a number of successful appearances for the ‘Lilywhites’ in the late 1950s.
The stage, however, was always calling and he was regularly treading the boards with the Naas ‘Moat’ Players. Naas was a town with a long, and proud, theatrical tradition and in 1958 Tom appeared with the Moat troupe in the very first Kildare Drama Festival, in the play Paul Twyning.
Becoming even more serious about his drama, Tom signed up, in 1963, to the Deirdre O’Connell Studio in Dublin where he trained in the ‘Stanislavski’ system of acting. This was an acting style based on theatrical theory and the techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Art Theatre.
Just two years later, Tom landed a major role in a new drama series being produced for television by RTE. This series was, of course The Riordans, which quickly became one of the best known and best loved of RTE’s programmes.
For those of us who grew up in 1960s Ireland, it was ‘must watch’ viewing on Sunday evenings when, literally, everything stopped to tune in to that familiar music and opening credits.
In its faithful recreation of contemporary rural life, it soon topped the ratings and made household names of its stars, including Tom. So successful was the series that it was said that even farmers changed milking times for their cows in order to watch the programme, and at least one parish priest bowed to the inevitable and brought forward the time of Sunday ‘Devotions’ so as not to clash with it!
Tom played the part of “Benjy”, the son of prosperous farmer “Tom” (played by John Cowley) and “Mary” (played by Moira Deady) around whom the series revolved.
The rest of the family was made up of older brother “Michael” (played by Chris O’Neill) and girl friend (later wife) “Maggie” played by Biddy White Lennon. In his portrayal of the hard working – but often mischievous – son, Tom established a character which resonated with the devoted audience, and he soon became one of the most recognisable faces on Irish television. He was to continue in that role, in many interesting and varied storylines, for the next fourteen years.