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Black Tie International:
Milo O'Shea Gives a Fine 'Hebrew Lesson'
at The Irish Arts Centre


 
Milo O’Shea Gives a Fine ‘Hebrew Lesson’
at The Irish Arts’ Centre

 

Milo O'Shea
Milo O'Shea.  Photo by:  Gered Mankowitz
 
Dr. Art Hughes and Milo O'Shea

Dr. Art Hughes and Milo O'Shea

 
 

Who would believe it, a Hebrew lesson in an Irish theatre? But it is true, for on Thursday 23rd March at the Irish Arts Centre in New York City, a special function was held to honour veteran and renowned star of stage and screen, Irish actor Milo O’Shea, on occasion of his 80th birthday. Thespian O’Shea, a household name in Ireland, rose to prominence as a boy actor in Dublin and went on to play many roles on the Irish stage and screen during his long and distinguished career.

On the night I was able to share with our honourand, my fond early childhood memory of my late mother gathering us, as children, around her on the sofa in 1960s Belfast to watch Milo in Hugh Leonard’s television series Me Mammy. In addition to his nationwide fame in Ireland, Mr O’Shea has graced many stages in the West End of London and Broadway. Harold Pinter penned Night School for Milo on British television and his American television stints have included shows such as QB VII, Silent Song (Italia Award) and Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat. Throughout his many years as an actor, Mr O’Shea has been nominated twice for Tony Awards – firstly for his performance in Staircase alongside Eli Walach, and, secondly, for his part in Mass Appeal (which, incidentally, landed him a Drama League Award and the Outer Critics’ Circle Award).

Back, however, to The Hebrew Lesson which was a short 30 minute film produced in 1972 by Wolf Mankowitz, a dramatist, journalist, novelist and screenwriter. Son of a Russian-Jewish bookseller in East London, it is hardly surprising that Mankowitz should concern himself with Hebrew in this work (which he originally wrote as a play). What is of immense interest to an Irish audience is that the film is based in Cork in the 1920s at the time of the Irish War of Independence. A young IRA man, being pursued by the English Black and Tans, stumbles into an attic which has been converted into a synagogue. As if this is not bizarre enough, the young man interrupts the senior Jewish resident during the latter’s self-taught Irish lessons as he was involved in selling his wares in the Gaeltacht area of rural West Cork.

It has to be said that the Mankowitz’s screenplay was nothing short of magnificent although we are happy to report that Mr O’Shea’s did justice to this finely-crafted screenplay with what was a virtuoso performance. This film, hardly surprisingly, won an award at The Cork Film Festival although it has sadly been neglected ever since then. This screening was a coup for the Irish Arts Centre, and we are deeply indebted to Georganne Heller (a theatre producer, board member and stalwart at the Irish Arts Centre) who uncovered the film in an archive during a recent visit to London. The Hebrew Lesson deserves a wider airing – and probably some subtitles, as there are lines in Irish and Hebrew at various junctures in the script.

The film, and the work of Milo O’Shea, were warmly introduced on the night by Mr Niall Burgess, the Irish Consul for New York. After the screening – and, of course, a richly deserved standing ovation - Mr O’Shea addressed the audience in a memorable and moving speech. Congratulations, Milo on a long and illustrious innings and many happy returns.

Dr Art Hughes,

Fulbright Professor of Irish Language, NYU.

 

 

 

 

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