DES KEOGH regards himself as a “very conventional” Catholic, a trait which would not be regarded as common to his acting profession. Sunday, for him, is the day to go to Mass, and he has never felt any qualms about making a point of this, even to the extent of asking directors to start rehearsals at 11.0 so that he could fulfil his duty. “This only happened in America,” he points out, “but it caused surprise with other members of the cast.”
Des, 70 in February, is regarded as one of the mainstays of light entertainment in Ireland over the past 40 plus years – but he would prefer it were not so.
This tall, rangy native of Birr, a loyal parishioner of Holy Cross, Dundrum, since 1967, has been a star of stage, screen, radio and TV ever since he quit his job in Guinness in 1963 to dedicate his life to acting. Most of his Irish fans remember him for the many revues he performed with Rosaleen Linehan, but he has found this association with comedy a hindrance to his ambitions. “It’s difficult to be accepted as a serious actor, and that was the thing I most wanted to do - and still do,” he explained.
However, his versatility has seen to it that he has rarely been out of work. “One reason was radio,” he recalled. “In 1968 I started ‘Music for Middlebrows’ which was to run for 13 weeks but that turned into 32 years. Then I was asked to do a programme on Lyric FM for three years. I was also able to do cabaret and after dinner entertainment if I was not working in theatre.”
However, Des has no doubt as to which is his favourite medium. “It has to be theatre, because I’ve done more of that all my life. I don’t think anything can be as satisfying.”
His initiation into acting came during his schooldays at Glenstal where he remembers playing Lady Bracknell in the Importance of Being Ernest when he was 17. He joined DramSoc at UCD while collecting a BA in French and German, and continued in a semi-professional role at the Eblana during law studies which led to him being called to the Bar.
UCD was packed with acting talent during his time there, and he remembers performing alongside the Linehans (Rosaleen and Fergus), Lelia Doolin, Kate Binchy, Frank Kelly and Anne O’Dwyer. “That probably delayed me settling down to a nine to five job,” he remarked.
When he finally took up a position with Guinness, they sent him to Belfast, but ten months there was enough to convince him that he wasn’t cut out for a desk job and he resigned. At the time, the fledgling RTE TV were auditioning for people who would introduce their programmes from Monday to Friday. Des was selected to present the Wednesday night programmes, and again he was in good company, for among the other presenters were Terry Wogan, Frank Hall and John O’Donoghue.
It was while introducing a programme that he met his wife, Geraldine O’Grady. “She was the leader of the symphony orchestra and I used go to all the concerts, but she hadn’t played for a year because she had been run down by a car in Rome. This was her first engagement after that,” he recalled.
Des was obviously a quick worker because six weeks later they were engaged, and they married three months after that in August 1965. “Neither of us stopped to think,” he quipped.
“When we got married I was changing tack to more acting than presenting, and when we came back from our honeymoon I had a play in the Eblana at £8 a week and that was all I had lined up.”
They celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary in August, and their only child, Oonagh, was married in their local parish church, Holy Cross, Dundrum, in 1998. Oonagh, who lives in Limerick, has since presented Des and Geraldine with two grandchildren, Ruadhan (4) and Aoibhin (2).
The Memorare is a prayer Des uses regularly, but he has no favourite saint, unlike his wife, who is a great devotee of St Rita. Des also has a fondness for Gregorian chant, emanating from his schooldays with the Benedictines.
For many years he was a reader at Sunday Mass in Holy Cross – and he also enjoyed reading the Passion on Good Friday – but his stint at Lyric FM, which meant an early train to Limerick on Sundays, put paid to that – for the moment anyway.
So many memories, so many roles.... has he a favourite? “There are a few I could mention, and the first is the one I’m doing at the moment, which I adapted from the writings of John B Keane – John Bosco McLane, The Lovehungry Farmer. I enjoy doing it as much as any one I’ve done.”
Des has good reason to be fond of this character, for he opened his one-man show off Broadway at the beginning of 2003, the New York Times critic came to see it and gave it a great review. As a result, it took off for six weeks in a small theatre, and he had to go back for a further two months to a bigger theatre. He toured Ireland in January and February and then brought it to the Edinburgh Festival. He is touring it again at present, with a run planned for the Andrews Lane theatre in May.
Does it not get boring repeating the same lines, night after night? “It would be a drag if it was boring, but if you have your heart and soul in it, it doesn’t. In this, you have the wonderful rich language of John B – I love roaring out those rich passages of John B’s language.”
America has been good to Des, for it is there that he has been able to play the serious roles which his profile in Ireland denied him. In the last 12 to 15 years he has acted in plays by Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness and Sean O’Casey and also American plays. “I have done work there that I wouldn’t have been asked to do here, and that has meant a lot to me.”
He also added another string to his bow working with his late brother-in-law Frank Patterson. “Frank asked me would I be interested in doing compere and comedian for his shows and I did quite a lot of work with him, in places like Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, and became quite proficient as a stand-up.”
Such a busy life isn’t without its interruptions, and three years ago – he remembers the date, 9/1, ten days before 9/11 – he had a bypass operation after a routine check had detected something irregular with his heartbeat. Of course, in true theatrical fashion, the show must go on, so six weeks later Des resumed his radio programme, and the following January he was doing eight performances a week in a New York production of John B Keane’s Matchmaker.
And the secret of his success? “I’m very grateful that we – Geraldine and I – are doing something that we love and that we’re still as enthusiastic as ever,” he declares without hesitation.
It’s a recipe that some of our more cynical younger Thespians should note.