The actor and artist, Joe Pilkington, who died in Galway on July 7th, aged 59, will always be associated with his role in The Riordan’s, the rural series which was one of RTE’s most popular programmes in the 1960s and 1970s. Playing Eamonn, the young Traveller who had a pregnant wife, it made him a household name all over Ireland. The writer of the series, Wesley Burrowes, remembers how he got the part. Originally he had appeared as an extra, a postman, in one of the programmes, so that when he presented himself for a proper role, the then producer, Shelagh Richards, was opposed to casting him. “He came in”, according to Burrowes, “heavily disguised, got the part and was in it thereafter for 16 years.”
Pat O’Connor, the film director, who was then working for RTE, remembers him as one of the most popular members of the cast. “He was a genuine eccentric, who followed his own drum beat,” he says. “But there was a genuine truthfulness in his nature that caught a particular type of Irish person. He had a marvellous appearance, a sort of chunky good looks, and the camera loved it. He wasn’t trying to impress anybody and he liked to get things done in a very casual way. He was a very subtle man, very difficult to pin down. I had great respect for him and I loved being in his company.”
He subsequently appeared in O’Connor’s much-acclaimed film of the William Trevor story The Ballroom of Romance together with Niall Toibin and John Kavanagh as the three ageing “lads” out for the night, asking the sad heroine, played by Brenda Flicker: “Will we take the floor, Bridie?”. Fricker, a close friend, speaks of him as “a complicated man, a jobbing actor and more than an actor. There were many sides to him that were not known to the public. He was a fisherman, a serious preservationist and a productive artist.” Though he never stopped acting, after The Riordan’s came to an end, he moved back to the West, where he had his roots and where his heart always lay.
There he worked for a time fishing professionally and honed his gifts as a photographer and a painter, selling his work privately rather than exhibiting. Living beside the lake in Oughterard, he could also indulge his passion for nature and his concerns for the environment.
Tom Hickey, his co-star for many years on The Riordan’s, remembers that back in the 1970s he had “what we would call then wild theories about the environment, but which are now widely held. He was a great fan of the book The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson before it was well known and I remember him expounding about using methane gas from cow dung.
We fell around laughing, but of course now it’s widely accepted. He was a mine of information about birds and trees and also about Celtic mythology. His paintings, first of all, tended to be naturalistic landscapes, but then he moved on to more way-out stuff like crucifixions with a female Christ. He was a man of remarkable originality.”
Joe Pilkington was born in Galway in 1940. His family came from Barna in Connemara, but he lived in Dublin from the age of six or seven , when his father, a jeweller, moved there with the family. He worked as a photographer – a life-long interest – after leaving school, but became interested in the theatre when taking pictures for productions at the old Gas Company theatre in Dun Laoghaire, directed by his cousin, the late Frank Bailey.
He took part in plays at most of the main Dublin theatres, including the Abbey, the Gate, the Gaiety and the Olympia. He also appeared in many films, the most recent of which were Durango and The American, made last year. Others included The Boxer, The Butcher Boy and A Man of No Importance, while he received enthusiastic reviews for his part in The Hanging Gale, the BBC series about the Great Famine.
He is survived by his wife, Fiona Fitzgerald, from whom he was separated, and by his two daughters, Sarah and Rachel, who are actors, and a son, Simon.
Joe Pilkington: born 1940; died July, 1999 and is buried in Kilcummin Cemetery, Oughterard