Tom Hickey - A Eulogy from Alan Gilsenan
TOM HICKEY: WILL O’ THE WISP
“Go home, Hickey! Go home.” Tom loved that. He’d often recall hearing it yelled at him from the side-line after he had missed some tackle or other for the Kildare Minors. It was the sort of self-deprecating anecdote that he loved to tell.. It didn’t, of course, capture anything of the fleet-footed, young county footballer that he was but - no matter - there was a tragic drama to it, and a hint of the outsider figure that he would come to embody. It became one of those joyful catch-phrases that he used to intone in conversation or rehearsal, that he’d state repeatedly as sort of articles of faith, his philosophical mantras: “Keep her going, Patsy!” was a favourite, “What about the weaker brethren?”, “We-know-what-from-where” and “Go home, Hickey!”
It has a different meaning today, of course. But it seems completely right that we have all returned here with him - in person & out there in the virtual ether. To his beloved Kildare. To a sense of home. Within reach of Naas, just across the fields from Punchestown Racecourse. Home. Family.
Now, strictly-speaking, I’m not sure one could exactly describe Tom Hickey as ‘a family man”. That might seem a little pedestrian, a little conservative.. But he loved his many, many families - all those interwoven chains of connection that he cared about so much.. And love is a word that has often been used about Tom in recent days. “I loved Tom Hickey”, grown men of a certain age - who you’d think would know better - would say to me without a hint of embarrassment. “I loved Tom Hickey” And Tom Hickey loved us too. He was one of the first men ever to give me a hug. Regularly. Pulling you into the warmth of that awful fur-lined brown leather flying jacket that he wore on special occasions, which meant everyday. He hugged his friends and told us he loved us - and this long before it was fashionable, or even obligatory.
But here is his heartland. Here, Tom is playing on his home ground. Amongst the Hickey family and the wider Kildare clan. His GAA family too. The Lilywhites. He’d often say: “The Lilywhites are playing on Sunday”. As a boy, his siblings remember him with a book in his hands, often reading about films and plays, writing and putting on sketches - hoping against hope to get chosen for the Parish Concert down at the local cinema in Naas. Later - alongside the likes of Hal Roach and Joe Lynch - he began to tread the amateur boards. The great Tomas MacAnna even singled him out for praise at the tender age of sixteen as part of the wonderfully named Naas Table Tennis & Dramatic Group. And not for his table tennis flair either. But the Hickey family were always proud of him. Bursting with pride. Still are..
Now, for a long time, Tom Hickey tried to be sensible. Got a good job with Irish Ropes in Newbridge. Worked as a lighting technician and then a cameraman in RTE - a pensionable job, no less, and one that might even get you a few tickets to the Late Late Show. But Hickey had other dreams.. From early on, he’d travel up to Dublin in the evenings for acting lessons at the Brendan Smith Academy and then, later, found his second family in The Focus Theatre. This was a wondrous, mythical sort of place. Not just a place but more of an idea. A philosophy, a sister-and-brotherhood of theatre types. Shape-shifters. The Studio and all that it might become.. Deirdre & Mary-Elizabeth and all the rest, bless them.. There, he learnt his craft and found his true vocation. He learned that acting required real work, hard graft and deep attention. The lead pencil and rubber were never far from the sacred script. And then - but only then - after the hard slog, might one find the transcendent moment.
There was a bit of madness too, to be sure. Divine madness. Later, during rehearsals for Tom Murphy’s sublime The Gigli Concert, Godfrey Quigley once said to him: “Tom.. In our profession, there are two types of madmen - the divine and pathological. Avoid the latter”. He loved that. The Focus seemed full of these divinely mad creatures - yes, and probably a few pathological ones too but that’s no matter.. For there, he found true friends amongst this Focus family.. Sabina and Joan and others too numerous to mention here - for I’m afraid of forgetting someone precious.. But these were deep friendships. Lifelong bonds. In the years to come, he would remain true to the Focus, and its unquenchable spirit, always.
And then, along came Benjy Riordan, driving a Massey Ferguson tractor. Tom Hickey had it made. Fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams. Bigger than the Angelus itself - forgive me, Father Comer. Fourteen great years. Nothing could be bigger than Benjy.. And that was another kind of family too - The Riordans of Leestown - both imagined and real. He loved them all - that iconic cast of actors. I remember once being in a night-club in Cork many years ago with Tom - don’t ask - when the DJ announced that Benjy was in the house. It was as if Beyonce herself had just sashayed in…
I’ve heard people say that later Tom struggled to shake off the character of Benjy, to establish himself as a so-called “serious actor”. But it seems to me that there is a thread there - that the very rootedness of The Riordans, its earthy connection to the real lives of ordinary Irish people - was something that he brought from his beginnings here in Kildare to the Riordans and onwards into his later magisterial work in the theatre and onscreen. In the plays of Tom McIntyre, of course, “the good doctor” and Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Marina Carr, Michael Harding, Bernard Farrell, Neil Donnelly - to name but a few - and in the work of so many new writers in which he had so much belief.. For Tom was a sort of teacher too, a mentor to so many - including myself.
Much of what came next we know. We witnessed it all with a sort of growing wonder. Entranced, moved, challenged, transfixed. Occasionally perplexed. Many of his colleagues and friends have spoken better than I about those times, about his stellar performances. Even the critics - bless them - loved him (mostly). I remember the great British critic Michael Billington, coming running - huffing and puffing down a railway platform in Edinburgh - Mr Hickey! Mr Hickey! - simply to tell Tom how wonderful he was in The Great Hunger.
But Tom’s ability to conjure up magic is perhaps best encapsulated by his performance in the closing minutes of the premiere performance of The Gigli Concert, directed by Patrick Mason. Tom’s physical and emotional performance was - quite literally - an act of sheer theatrical transcendence. Having actually sung an operatic aria like Gigli, Tom leaves the stage with Murphy’s lines, gently spoken, sending us back, as the curtain falls, to what passes for the real world,: “Do not mind the pigsty, Benimillo.. mankind still has a delicate ear.. that’s it.. that’s it.. sing on forever…”
But there were laughs aplenty too. (Hold on now, Alan - I hear Tom whispering in my ear - this is all now getting a bit serious and sanctimonious). For Tom loved also to act the eejit - to entertain, to play the showman, the Puck-ish provocateur, the anarchic spirit. He especially enjoyed the laughter and fun after the first night curtain went down. All those late nights at the Trocadero (thank you, Roberto.. thank you). For all this - and all of those people - were like a big family to him too…
To be honest, we were all part of his largest family. For we were the audience, of course. [Captured so wryly by Paul Durcan in his poem, What Shall I Wear, Darling, to the Great Hunger?] We were they.. Those audiences, sitting there - alone with ourselves, and together - in the hushed darkness of the auditorium. We watched him closely. He moved us and challenged us. Then surprised us. For mostly, Tom, as an actor, didn’t play it safe - didn’t play to the gallery, although he could do that too from time to time - but mostly, he confronted uncomfortable truths, questioned our very way of seeing the world, called all our easy assumptions into question. And, mostly, we responded to seeing this new truth about ourselves. Because Tom - and, particularly, in his later work - was speaking to us. To our private selves. Touching upon something deep within his audience: the wounded, the fragile, the broken, “the hurt mind” as he and MacIntyre so often called it.
Afterwards, the audiences would flock to him. Grateful. And Tom would always greet them with a friendly smile and a gracious ear. He loved all that. The chat, the photos, the autographs.. [the “your mother’s second cousin in Ballyheigue was related to my uncle godfather’s neighbour in Thurles” sort of thing.] And - sometimes, amongst the noisy first-night crowd - there would be quiet confidences shared, about things brought up in the play, whispered to him. Because Tom Hickey understood things.. Tom Hickey understood us.
In later times, the audiences necessarily retreated somewhat as Tom found himself in a new family - the Parkinson’s family. But I never heard him complain about the disease - to be honest - although he must have found it hugely difficult.. But he embraced it all, shared his story and raised awareness - never shied away from the tough reality of it all. And he kept going, always wanted to work.. Shepherded by two trusted friends - Ken Hartnett and the beauteous Deirdre O’Meara - Tom toured the country relentlessly with The Gallant John Joe - a one-man play that seemed a distillation of everything that he had done.
In recent times, as his health declined, Tom would often ask me: Are we working on something? Are we doing the Beckett thing again? We’ll go again.. A few plays and a collection of Beckett poems were always by his side, along with the ever-present pencil. There was always work to be done.. Theatre work. Once, visiting him in St James Hospital - in the Patrick Kavanagh Ward, I was charmed to note - after he had an operation in different sort of theatre, I found him still in an anaesthetic twilight. Looking around the ward, he whispered to me: “I’m glad you came in because this show is going completely off the rails.. They’re all doing whatever the hell they want.. You need to have stern word with them.”
But - before lockdown sadly cut us all off from him and each other - there was always a close family of friends visiting him. One never knew quite who you’d meet in the corridor. Many of them are here with us today but it would be remiss not to mention Pat O’Connor, his brother-in-arms, his dear friend, marooned across the Atlantic by Covid. Missing him terribly.
I can hear Tom in my ear again: “You’re going to have to wrap this up now very soon, Alan.. You're veering dangerously close to Country & Western sentimentality now..”
There is one more little family that I have to mention. The beautiful, kind soul that Tom always referred to - with deep love and respect - as “the wife separate”. Jeanne Hickey who died last summer, not far from Tom, on the other side of the Orwell Nursing Home. And, of course, Tom and Jeanne’s only son. Lee Hickey. Now Lee - Tom would often tell me, proud as punch - is doing very well at the film editing. I know, I’d reply, very well - knowing this to be something of an understatement. And, later, Lee was a great man to get things done - always connecting things somehow - the blinking DVD, hook up the Sky Box, fix the bloody printer - Lee was the man, then and now. And he certainly is.. The only child is now a man. But it hasn’t been easy - these recent times. Losing Jeanne and now Tom. And - from afar - I have watched Lee with wonder and admiration and huge appreciation.
When I was a teenager, my mother once summoned me to a front window because Benjy was coming down Raglan Road. We watched, with a kind of awe, Tom Hickey - a real-life star - walking down Raglan Road. And this became a daily occurrence. Tom Hickey. Wheeling a buggy with a little boy called Lee in it around the triangle - down Clyde Road, up Elgin and back down Raglan Road again. Repeat, as Beckett might say. For some reason, this is the image I cherish the most.. In my memory, Tom looked young and handsome and proud as punch. Without a care in the whole wide world. Sometimes, I imagine that if I returned to Raglan Road today, Tom would be wheeling that buggy still.
Go home, Tom Hickey. Go home. You’ll be missed. You were deeply loved in this world. As I trust you will be in the next.. And we were blessed by your presence.
Yesterday, I asked Tom’s brother Kieran what sort of Gaelic footballer was Tom? How would he describe him on the pitch? “He had something..” he said, “He was fast anyway, even though he was slight. He’d a great sense of timing too.. He could just glide through things..” Then he paused for a moment and said: “Sort of will o’ the wisp”.
“Will o’ the wisp”. I liked that phrase and thought Tom might like it too. There’s a bit of poetry to it. And a mystery too. A bit of what he might term the “we know not what from why”. A sense of some elusive, phosphorescence light shimmering out there magically in the darkness. That burns brightly and beautifully and then - mysteriously - seems to disappear. But, somehow, you just sense that it is still out there somewhere. Looking back at us. Shining still. If you just look long enough.
6th May, 2021