Bosco Hogan: ‘On the stage I feel most alive’

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The actor, who is receiving a Special Tribute Award at the Irish Times Theatre Awards, on his early days at Radio Éireann and a ghostly encounter with WB Yeats

When Bosco Hogan was a young man, he hated school. He was constantly “at loggerheads with the teaching staff” at Terenure College, where daydreaming was punished with a “sound thrashing from the Dean of Discipline.” Hogan avoided beatings by heading off into the countryside instead of school every day. “I would cycle off into Meath and sit in a ditch, hiding, reading – poetry, novels, plays,” he recalls over tea in Pegeen’s Cafe in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre.

In the afternoon, he would hop back on his bike and return home as if nothing untoward had happened. When his parents realised their son had been mitching, they made an appointment with the principal, who reached a resolution with the young Hogan. The principal promised Hogan would be saved from corporal punishment and Hogan agreed to return to school, as long as they gave him a part in the school play.

He was duly cast in the role of Jessica in the Merchant of Venice, and in the following years played Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet and the eponymous tortured hero of Hamlet. From then on, he says, he had “absolutely no interest in doing anything else with my life.” Half a century later, Hogan is one of the most recognisable faces on the Irish stage, and his work across the decades is being recognised with a Special Tribute Award at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards on March 26th.

I knew there was nobody else backstage, but I said ‘come in’, and nobody did

—  Bosco Hogan

When Hogan left school, his parents persuaded him to train as a salesman. “I quickly realised it was not the life for me,” he says. He lived for the evenings, which he spent at The Lantern Theatre on Merrion Square, staging plays with the amateur drama company, and when he wasn’t starring, watching them instead. When his sister spotted an ad in the newspaper recruiting actors for Radio Éireann, “she said, ‘You should have a go at that,’ so I did, and the next thing I knew, I was a member of the Radio Éireann players.” Overnight, Hogan was a professional actor.


Hogan relates his two-year stint with the company with the incredulity of one who knows how precarious the contemporary life of an actor’s life is. “Can you imagine? We were 27 actors working in full-time employment. That was ‘RTÉ, supporting the arts.’ And it was a magnificent experience, a magnificent training. [On the radio] we did everything: anything that needed to be read – letters, novels, plays – came into our remit. It was tremendously interesting. I got to play roles I never could have played on stage or in front of an audience, because I was not the right shape or size.”

He remembers most vividly playing Billy Bunter, and disappointing an enthusiastic visitor to the studio on the top floor of the GPO when they realised the part was being played by a small, skinny man, not the “rather rotund” irascible schoolboy.

Acting through voice alone, Hogan says, was also a brilliant education. “It was essential to modulate your voice every time you had something new, and make it different from part to part, so one wasn’t instantly recognisable as oneself.” At home, he would listen avidly to the productions he has not been involved in, priding himself on his ability to recognise different actors, “but if there was a voice I couldn’t put a name to, I knew: that must be Tom Studley. He was a vocal genius and I learned a lot from him.”

‘Ice-cold waters’

In 1969, Hogan was invited to Paris with the Abbey Theatre players to star in a stage version of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, when the original actor (Niall Buggy) was told he was needed in Dublin. The tour marked the beginning of his involvement with the Abbey (and his relationship with actor Leslie Lalor, who would go on to become his wife). In the early 1970s he joined the Abbey Company, a much-coveted permanent position for an actor. But, he confesses, “I never really intended to stay.”

After four years, he “jumped into the ice-cold waters of freelancism and managed to survive.” He lived in London for several years, becoming a regular on radio and televised dramas with the BBC, as well as the 1977 ITV series Count Dracula, in which he starred as Jonathan Harker.

However, his ties to Ireland, and the Abbey remained strong, When he returned to Dublin, he took the lead role in Frank McGuinness’s landmark loyalist drama from 1985, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, a role Hogan regards as a career highlight. “I felt [the role of Pyper] might have been written for me. It wasn’t, but I felt like I was the right person to play it and it was the beginning of a very good and important friendship with Frank.”

When the politically sensitive play toured to the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Hogan recalls how “we were told there were certain gentleman in the audience on the first night, and if they didn’t like the play, they would close it down at the interval. Now these were not the kind of men you would argue with. But anyway, they gave it the seal of approval, and that is testament to the power of the play.” Hogan got to bookend his involvement with the play by playing Old Pyper at the Abbey in 2016, when the original actor was injured. “And I stepped in with alacrity. Ever since I had played Young Pyper, I had my eyes on Old Pyper as something I wanted to do: I knew him!”

Another major role that defined his work in the 1980s was the role of WB Yeats in Edward Callan’s I Am of Ireland, which he performed with harpist Gráinne Yeats, the poet’s daughter-in-law, all over the world, never more memorably than at the Peacock Theatre, where he is convinced the spirit of Yeats himself visited him on one challenging occasion. “I was rehearsing for a BBC radio play during the day at the time,” he recalls, “travelling every morning on a 6am flight to London for rehearsals, then flying back in time for [curtain-up]. I would drive in from the airport, and arrive around six and sleep in the car for half an hour before going in to get ready for the evening show.

I love all the technical things. In another life I might have been a carpenter, a spark, a stage manager

—  Bosco Hogan

“Well, it was Friday night after a week of this, and I was sitting in my dressing room getting ready to go on and I was absolutely exhausted. I thought, ‘I can’t do this tonight.’ There was a copy of Yeats’ New Poems on my dressing room table – a beautiful first edition with uncut pages that his son Michael had given me – and I was looking at it, thinking, ‘Willie, if you are around, I need your help now.’ Well, instantly there came three distinct knocks at the door” – he knocks on the table for effect. “I knew there was nobody else backstage, but I said ‘come in’, and nobody did, but the strange thing is, if WB had walked in at that moment I would not have been surprised. I would have said, ‘Thank God! You can do the show!’ Anyway, the result was I felt energised and ready to carry on.”

Although Hogan makes regular appearances with the Druid Theatre ensemble these days – he has just finished playing in Sonya Kelly’s wickedly funny The Last Return, which has been touring since last July, and will begin rehearsing for Druid’s new landmark staging of the Seán O’Casey trilogy in the coming weeks – Hogan’s association with the Abbey remains strong: he recently served a three-year term on the theatre’s board of directors as the first creative representative on the board. “I was able to bring an artistic perspective,” into the boardroom, he says.

‘Artistic process’

“My job was to point out that we are not running a biscuit factory, that the artistic process is an ever-changing shape-shifter of a thing and that the pressures brought to bear in a rehearsal room over a five- or six-week period are very different to what you might expect on the production floor of a factory, where the same thing will happen one year to the next. [As a theatre company] we work together for a certain number of weeks, at the end of which we have to produce a totally new product. It might look like another play or feel like another play but it’s something different.”

He enjoyed the practical experience of representing “actors among the suits” – just as he enjoys watching all aspects of a production take shape: “I love all the technical things. In another life I might have been a carpenter, a spark, a stage manager.” However, his heart is under the hot lights, performing in front of a live audience. “On the stage I feel most alive.”

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place [before an invited audience] on March 26th in TU Dublin Conservatoire

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer