WHEN Irish actor Stanley McGeagh first came to Australia in 1986, he had no intention of staying. He was between shows, visiting family, gone almost before he’d arrived.
But his interest was piqued. Showing people the map of Australia and the few places he’d been, he saw how much more there was to see and applied to emigrate. He would travel round the continent, perhaps work to eke out his funds. Then again, he was 50. Too old to be granted a visa, he thought; too old to leave home. And then the visa came through.
Two exciting years of travel and work followed. He toured Australia, acting in Anything Goes, made friendships, got to know his Australian nephews and nieces. Cashed up, he took six months off to travel to America, Canada and to Ireland. Home again in Belfast, immersed in all things Irish, his Australian flirtation might easily have cooled.
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead,” quotes Stanley reflectively, “Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!”
His roots were sunk deep. One of five kids, he was born in Belfast during the war. His father was a shipwright. “Poor as church mice,” he says of his family. A German bomb made a direct hit on the house opposite and blew in the front of the McGeagh house. “My father was one of those who came to dig us out of the rubble.”
The family found refuge in Ballintoy, a tiny seaside hamlet on the north east coast of County Antrim. The place breathed fairies and ghosts. “We used to get our water from a spring in a cave at the bottom of the cliff. Sometimes when the tide rose, the hats of drowned sailors would wash up into the cave. I knew this because my cousin told me. Sometimes the ghosts of the sailors would wash up too.”
Should the cattle run at you, walking in the fields above the strand, you would be safe if you jumped onto the fairy fort. The life-saving secret of that little grassy mound was revealed to him by another cousin. “Ballintoy was where I became superstitious.”
Years later, studying accountancy at night classes, he asked himself a life-saving question of a different kind: What job can I do that I really enjoy?
“Well, there were two possibilities: rugby and theatre. I wasn’t going to make rugby league but I thought I had a chance as a semi-professional actor.” At the time there were only two theatres in Belfast: the Arts Theatre and the Lyric (which performed only Yeats’s plays). But he auditioned and was accepted in a drama school called the Northern Ireland Theatre Experiment. And his life was never the same again.
An actor proper, he went to London. “I had £5 in my pocket and a friend who had a bedsit.” He arrived on the Sunday and a week later started work in children’s theatre. Then he got his first season at Hastings, a summer season on the pier. That’s where he learnt to learn lines. “We’d do two plays a week. We’d open the current play on Thursday, and get the new script on Friday. While the others were out having a good time, I’d be locked away in my room sweating over my lines.” After that first season, memorising lines was never a problem.
It was rich and wonderful life, that of the working actor. They were a family. Today, he has no fear of going into a room with a crowd of people he doesn’t know. “You’d walk into a room of people you’d never met, and within a week we were a cohesive group of actors welded together with a common purpose. It was magic. This was my milieu; this is what I was born to do. It was even better than I had imagined.”
Before London, he’d known that he enjoyed acting. But here in this whirlwind of acting roles there was an amazing feeling of belonging and learning. Quite often you’d find the older hands offering sage advice. ”Try looking at it this way,” they’d say. Or “Have you thought of ...?” Advice offered for the good of the play as well as the actor.
And hard not to feel collegial when you shared the same cast list as John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde and Vanessa Redgrave, as he did in the film Oh What a Lovely War.
But it’s the moments of real connection with the audience that mean the most. “I love eliciting a response from an audience. They’re different every night. You play to your audience, gauge it, assess what will work and what won’t. When it works, it’s the most beautiful feeling.”
The very best of those moments occurred in 1964, when he was with Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East company touring “Oh What a Lovely War”. They were the first British theatre company to play Dresden since the war and the cast was deeply apprehensive about how the audience might react to the tone of the musical. This particular scene re-enacted that moment on Christmas Day 1914 when the troops simply stopped firing and the canons ceased pounding. The silence was vast, beyond belief. A lone voice rose up out of a German trench, instantly recognisable: “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). British voices joined in. Someone called out, “Bravo Fritz!” One by one, and then in increasing numbers, the troops came over the top and crossed into no man’s land.
"The moment when the first soldiers shook hands was spine-tingling,” says Stanley. “The whole theatre stood up and applauded.” A memory to hoard for one’s old age, you’d think.
Too many loyalties, too many memories, too much love. In the decision to stay or return to Australia, the Old Country would have to win.
Except that while he was back home in Ireland, he’d caught up with his Australian nephews and nieces and their sons and daughters. “They were doing that Australian thing of travelling. And I thought, I want to see those children grow up. I realised I had something to go back to.”
Back in Australia Stanley saw an ad for someone under 50 to share a Californian bungalow. Judy John answered the phone. After some preliminary conversation she asked, “How old are you?” There was the briefest pause before Stanley said, “Forty-eight.”
“I called in to see her and we got on like a house on fire. She had two dogs and a cat and she’s a mandolin player and an artist so the house was full of interesting things. But it was in South Road, Moorabbin, and I was looking for something a bit more rural. She was also a lot younger than me and that concerned me a bit. But that night she rang and said, ‘The place is yours if you want it’ so I moved in.”
Judy had had her own apprehensions. “When you take on a tenant in a small house, you have to be compatible – you’re going to be sharing your life. Then Stanley comes along. He’s a vegan! There go the nice meals! Then there were the other characteristics. Actor, beautifully spoken, expressive hand movements … He has to be gay, I thought.”
In that first visit, Stanley had said he’d had a small role in the film Gandhi. That Saturday night, the movie was on television. “It was only a cameo part but he was in it! But I’d made up my mind, anyway. He was just delightful. I knew instinctively that he was a good person.”
“I loved her sense of humour,” says Stanley. “She was so vivacious. We laughed a lot. I felt as if we’d been friends all my life.” Eventually, he confesses, “I evicted the dogs from off her bed and that was that.”
Around the time they were married, Judy developed chronic fatigue syndrome, a devastating illness for someone who packed so much into her life. That started them on an endless haul, looking for cures, a long, long journey of raised hopes, disappointments and depression.
The doctor advised spending time out of the city so they bought a house in Coronet Bay and eventually moved there full time.
Before he knew it, this urbane Irish actor found himself president of the Ratepayers Association, helping with the beach fair, raising funds for a games court, attending working bees, planting trees. It’s just what you do in this little coastal village “where you can strike up a conversation with strangers”.
Judy is playing the mandolin with her orchestra again. She and Stanley sometimes play guitar and mandolin together at Coronet Bay Unplugged. It’s in such moments that happiness can be measured. “When the song is going really well we look at each other and smile.”
The sense of belonging only really happened when they moved to the Bass Coast. It wasn’t that he began to feel like an Australian. “I feel more of a Gippslander. It’s to do with the landscape, the green hills, especially, but more than that, it’s the people. People look after each other here. A few years ago I was really homesick; I hadn’t felt able to leave Judy and hadn’t been home for 10 years. All our friends stepped in and looked after her. It’s amazing to feel supported by a whole community. It’s like everyone is your cousin.
“Here’s a way to put it,” he says. “I’ve become parochial.”