Lunch with Vincent O’Neill, Buffalo Irish Times

by Tim Bohen, Buffalo Irish Times
October 2017

Sitting in the back of Founding Fathers Pub, I waited for Vincent O’Neill who had agreed to get together to talk about the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s upcoming season. O’Neill breezed into the pub, sporting a dark blue blazer. He came over to the table and greeted me with a warm smile. He then placed his order for the daily special: a Pepper Jack Jerk Burger. As the waiter left, O’Neill turned to me: “Say that three times quickly. What a great sobriety test.” As I discovered throughout our time together, it is a love of language and the mesmerizing “magic of words” that makes this Irishman tick.

O’Neill, the co-founder and artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company (ICTC), is excited for the upcoming season, which, for the first time, is comprised entirely of comedies (both light and dark). He explained that a season of comedies made great sense given the current political climate in the US, in which people are yelling at each other. With characteristic Irish wit, he pointed out: “an Irish comedy is a tragedy in any other country.” He related Brendan Behan’s view that the secret of Irish writing is that “you soften them up with comedy, and then when they are weak and vulnerable, you punch them in the gut with a bit of tragedy.”

For those who might be worried about taking such a hit, I asked O’Neill which play he would recommend to someone who might be new to theater. Although each play offers something different, “The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson (March 2-25th, 2018) is “not to be missed.” It is a touching comedy about humanity and redemption for some down-and-out Dubliners. The season opens with Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” (September 15-October 8). In November, fans of best-selling Irish author, Maeve Binchy, will thoroughly enjoy Shay Linehan’s play “Minding Frankie,” which is based on Binchy’s novel by the same title (November 3-26). The winter months offer us W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife,” about the vicissitudes of married life in the 1920s (January 19-February 11, 2018), and “The “Awful Truth” by Arthur Richman, which was the inspiration for a movie by the same title starring Cary Grant (April 20-May 13, 2018). Finally, the season closes out with Oscar Wilde’s crowd-pleaser, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (June 1-24, 2018). If you are looking to laugh, this is the year to buy a season membership or try out the ICTC for the first time. You will not be disappointed.

After hearing about the upcoming season, we turned to talk about O’Neill’s life in Ireland before landing in Buffalo. He was raised in Sandycove, a Dublin suburb. His father, a dedicated civil servant, was the youngest of thirteen children born to a poor farmer from West Cork (Castletownbere). His mother (nee Casey) was raised in the inner city of Dublin. As a child Vincent was shy, which is why his parents sent him to drama school at the age of eight. But he started his career, after university at Trinity College in Dublin, teaching Spanish and French at a school run by the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. He quips, “One of the richest orders in Ireland.” He eventually came back to theater where he met French actor and mime Marcel Marceau, an encounter that was life-changing. He went on to act at the prestigious Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Once O’Neill had honed his craft, he was ready to strike out on his own.

O’Neill made his first visit to Buffalo in 1985 when he and his older brother, Chris, performed Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at the old Airways Hotel. He would eventually make Buffalo his home in December 1989. One year later he founded the Irish Classical Theatre with his late brother Chris, Josephine Hogan, and the late James Warde. Their first address was the Calumet building on Chippewa Street, which is where I enjoyed my first ICTC play, “Sea Marks,” starring O’Neill and Hogan. The year was 1993 and I was hooked. Ten years later, January 1999, ICTC moved to its current location, the Andrews Theatre on Main Street. In 27 years, ICTC has entertained tens of thousands of theatergoers, contributing significantly to the arts and culture in Buffalo.

O’Neill is grateful to the Irish-American community in Buffalo, which has warmly embraced the ICTC from the beginning. It was Larry Quinn who was instrumental in securing the location of their Main Street home, and Peter Andrews, a descendant of the Conners family, donated generously for their current theater, bearing their family name. Others such as Joe Crowley and Frank McGuire have been very generous supporters of the theater, and many members of their board of trustees are Irish Americans. O’Neill was also honored to be awarded the Buffalo Irish Center’s “Irishman of the Year” several years ago.

O’Neill feels good about the future of the ICTC. Each season presents him with the happy problem of having too many plays to choose from. “No country in the world [Ireland], per capita, has generated such a wealth of literature, especially dramatic literature.” The impressive Irish and Irish-American canon includes playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Eugene O’Neill and Brian Friel. Add to that contemporary playwrights such as Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, and Frank McGuiness, as well as emerging talents such as Bryan Delaney. “Scratch an Irishman and you’ll find a writer, you know.”

In fact, O’Neill is one of those writers. Aside from his many duties as artistic director of the ICTC, O’Neill is writing a play with his close friend and fellow countryman, Lawrence Shine, in which they are trying to capture the unique style of language of the residents of a particular neighborhood in Dublin. He is also writing a book on acting in which he hopes to share lessons he learned over the years. He loves teaching acting classes at the University of Buffalo. All of this while working on a performance of Yeats’ poems with Mary Ramsey and Joe Hassett.

As our time together was drawing to a close, I asked O’Neill what he’d be doing if he was not an actor.  Without hesitation he responds, “A writer.” At this point we had to check our parking meters. As we were leaving the bar walking towards our cars, he started talking about Yeats, his favorite poet, followed closely by Patrick Kavanagh. When I told him I’d heard of Kavanagh but not read his work, O’Neill’s Irish eyes lit up, “Oh Tim, you are in for a real adventure!” O’Neill’s love of language and belief in the magic of words is palpable. Partake in the magic and make this your first of many seasons at the Irish Classical Theatre.