By Noel Coogan
Fifty years ago this month one of the Ireland’s best-loved entertainers passed away with the death in Dublin on January 7th, 1965 of the very popular actor and comedian Jimmy O’Dea at the age of 65.
The future star was born in Lower Bridge Street in the south of Dublin’s inner city on April 26th, 1899. Jimmy’s mother Martha ran a small toy shop to supplement the earnings of her husband James, who worked as an ironmonger. Both parents came from Co Kilkenny.
The family later moved to Capel Street, closer to the centre of the capital, and at the time of the 1911 census Jimmy’s father was 61 and the mother age was listed as 43. James junior’s first place of learning was O’Connell School on the northside’s Richmond Street where he was a classmate of future Taoiseach Sean Lemass.
Jimmy O’Dea received secondary education at Blackrock College and Belvedere College and he developed an interest in acting from an early age. After qualifying as an optician in Edinburgh, he returned to Dublin at the age of 21 to set up a business.
He also started to take part in amateur dramatic production with the Kilronan Players and eventually passed on the business to sister Rita. Jimmy took to the stage on a full-time basis in 1927 and the following year he gained international acclaim for his part in How We Are and in December of 1928 he starred in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor.
Jimmy went on his first British tour in 1927 but felt his career was at a crossroads until a chance meeting on a Dublin street with Harry O’Donovan led to a very successful partnership which lasted for many years. The alliance was sealed by a handshake and bottles of stout in a nearby hostelry.
The pair had to scrape together enough money in order to put on their first show in April, 1928. That took place in the Queen’s Theatre and the audience liked the initial offering of Here We Are so much that the duo went on to put on two shows per year, first in the Olympia and then in the Gaiety, for two decades.
Jimmy O’Dea is most fondly remembered by older followers of the entertainment scene for his role as Biddy Mulligan, a Dublin street vendor. He first donned female attire for the first time when playing the part of a landlady in a stage script entitled Our Visitors. The song Biddy Mulligan the Pride of the Coombe was written by Seamas Kavanagh in 1930 and was a big hit for O’Dea long before the Top Ten and Top Twenty days.
As well as the song, a number of Biddy Mulligan sketches were released as records. They included Biddy Mulligan on the Tram, Biddy Mulligan in Court, Mrs Mulligan Nearly Wins the Sweep, Biddy Mulligan Casts Her Vote and Biddy Mulligan at the Racecourse as well as other short pieces with Harry O’Donovan like The Last Drink and Sixpence Each Way.
As well as Harry O’Donovan, Jimmy performed with other legendary Dublin actors like Maureen Potter, Cecil Sheridan, Danny Cummins, Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack and David Kelly. Although small in stature, only 5ft 4ins in height, James Augustine O’Dea, to give him his full title, was a giant of the Irish entertainment scene.
As well as his stage work, Jimmy made his mark in films and on radio and television. His involvement with films began in 1922 and fast forward to the late fifties when The Rising of the Moon (1957) and Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) proved popular with Irish cinema audiences.
The Rising of the Moon was an Irish anthology directed by John Ford and consisted of three episodes set in this country. The movie also featured Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, John Cowley and Maureen Potter.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People was a Walt Disney production about a wily Irishman’s battle of wits with a leprechaun and starred English actor Albert Sharpe with Janet Munroe and future James Bond hero Sean Connery. Jimmy O’Dea played the part of King Brian.
O’Dea was very popular with Radio Eireann listeners and in the years before homes had televisions his Christmas Day shows were looked forward to with keen anticipation. It was a similar story for a few years after Telefis Eireann started broadcasting at the end of 1961 with the O’Dea’s Your Man series proving popular in 1964.
Jimmy married Ursula Doyle, a theatrical impresario, in September, 1959 with Sean Lemass the best man and Maureen Potter the bridesmaid. Back in 1924 O’Dea had been best man at Lemass’s wedding.
The popular comedian passed away in Dr Steeven’s Hospital and was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery with the Taoiseach of the time delivering the graveside oration. The departure of a wonderful entertainer was lamented in Dublin and further afield half a century ago this month.