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Adrian Dunbar: I jumped at the chance to do a tribute to Seamus Heaney

Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar tells Ivan Little why he was so keen to lend his voice to the esteemed poet's work at the Clandeboye Festival this weekend.

If variety is the spice of life, Adrian Dunbar may just have found the recipe for longevity. For the Enniskillen man is a much in-demand stage actor, a regular performer on the small and big screens, a director, writer, narrator and maker of documentaries, a sometime musician and an unofficial ambassador for all things Fermanagh.

In what little spare time he does have, Adrian has also been a fervent campaigner against fracking in his native county and neighbouring Leitrim, where he has a home.

And that's where he's been taking a well-earned break away from the many demands on his talents, but it has to be said that his mind hasn't been completely off the job.

Fresh from a hugely successful festival homage to Samuel Beckett at the recent Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen, Adrian is now readying himself for a tribute to another Nobel Laureate and literary giant, the sadly departed Seamus Heaney.

But this will be no po-faced and sombre remembrance of a much-missed legend. Far from it. For as part of the Clandeboye Festival tomorrow afternoon Adrian will be lending his instantly recognisable voice to animations of Heaney's work.

Five Fables Live at the Clandeboye Estate, just outside Bangor, will be doing exactly what it says on the itinerary.

"It's a really nice project," says Adrian. "Seamus Heaney had a great interest in Scottish poetry and he translated the poems of a 15th Century poet called Robert Henryson who wrote animal fables in old Scots.

"A production company animated the stories for the BBC and got the remarkable Billy Connolly to do the voiceovers and (festival founder and director) Barry Douglas composed the music. But tomorrow, Barry and players from Camerata Ireland will play the score live alongside a screening of the animations and I will be reading the stories live."

By coincidence Adrian – whose films include The Crying Game, The General and the Josef Locke biopic Hear My Song, which he co-wrote – did the links for the TV animations and already knew the poems well.

"So when I was approached by the Clandeboye Festival I was able to say 'Yes' straight away."

The 56-year-old was a huge admirer of Heaney and he says: "I wouldn't describe myself as a friend, more of an acquaintance but it is a massive thrill to be associated with any of his work."

Again, by chance, Adrian happened to be at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast last year when news broke of the poet's death and he started off a round of applause to the great man beside a bust of him in the building.

It also fell to Adrian to lead the tributes to his acting mentor Jimmy Ellis at his funeral earlier this year when he recounted hilarious and touching stories about the east Belfast man and read a poem which his friend had written.

Adrian had never worked with 86-year-old Belfast actor JJ Murphy, who died earlier this month, but was often in his company in the old York Hotel in Botanic Avenue which was a meeting place for revered Belfast actors of generations past like Joe McPartland and Michael Duffy. They're all gone now but Adrian cherishes his memories of them.

However, his recent portrayal of Brendan Behan in Brendan at the Chelsea was up there with the best of the great and the good at the Lyric. And the play went down well during a run in New York too. Adrian believes that Behan's contribution to the literary heritage of Ireland has been vastly undervalued.

And keeping the Behan connection alive, Adrian is currently in the throes of making a documentary for RTE with a Belfast production company about the Dublin writer, re-appraising the man and his work.

"It's going to be a good piece. We have found new archive material and that will be worth a watch," says Adrian, who is also looking forward to returning to Belfast in the new year for more filming work, only this time in front of the camera, on a third season of the gripping police drama Line of Duty.

The first series was shot in Birmingham but the second one was filmed in Belfast, which doubled up as a city in England. The third series is coming back here and Adrian can hardly wait to recreate the role of Superintendent Ted Hastings.

"He's a great character in a great show," he says. "And it's also excellent for Belfast and will mean work for a lot of people."

Adrian also played a police officer in a recent one-off TV comedy called Walter. The least said about the critics reviews the better, perhaps, although they were more critical of the writing than of Adrian. It was a rare blip for Adrian, whose career is very definitely in the ascendancy.

And his involvement in the Beckett Festival in Enniskillen has been a major personal and professional fillup for him. He still clearly has to pinch himself to believe that his hometown has made such a mark on the international cultural landscape.

He says: "It really is a special festival. The quality and the way it is curated by director Sean Doran are really exceptional.

"We had a Yiddish Waiting for Godot which I found in New York; we had a wonderful Godot from France and the music line-up was also impressive, drawing people from Britain, North America, Europe and even further afield."

The festival, which celebrates the fact that Beckett was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, has certainly helped to put the town on the map. The broadsheets sent reviewers, including Mark Lawson, to the town and there were also writers from the New York Times, Le Monde from France and Bild and Der Spiegel from Germany.

Lawson wrote: "For the past three years an international Beckett festival has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing massacre at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 1987."

Although Lawson was amused by barber shops offering Beckett haircuts he did get across exactly the sort of message about Enniskillen and the festival that Adrian and his colleagues were trying to promote.

For his part, Adrian directed a 1982 Beckett piece called Catastrophe featuring local actors Frank McCusker, Orla Charlton and Dylan Quinn.

At the time of writing Beckett dedicated the 20 minute play to the then imprisoned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, and the Czech ambassador to Britain Michael Zantovsky, who wrote a biography of the writer, was at the Happy Days Festival.

But to call the production of Catastrophe a surprise would do a disservice to the word. For the play wasn't staged in a conventional theatre like the Ardhowen, in Enniskillen.

Instead the audience were bussed on a veritable magical mystery tour to an old Methodist church at Pubble, several miles outside Enniskillen, where the actors were waiting to perform.

Adrian's pride in Fermanagh is unmistakable as he relives the highs of Happy Days. But his passion was also demonstrated as he took part in a recent rally against fracking in the county.

He urged politicians to be brave and to show leadership to say 'No' to the plans to explore for shale gas in Fermanagh – a move which has since been rejected by Environment Minister at Stormont Mark H Durkan, much to the delight of demonstrators.

And Adrian has also been buoyed by news from Mr Durkan that he is giving planning approval to build two film studios in Belfast.

"That is wonderful news," he says "Belfast has many advantages for the filmmakers, one of which is the existence of an airport right in the middle of the city. You can fly in and out really quickly, which is handy for the TV and film people, plus there are loads of good hotels. It's a magnificent time for Belfast."

The highest profile production in Belfast has, of course, been the HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones. And the pulling power of the global hit never ceases to amaze Adrian.

"My wife (Anna Nygh) is Australian so we go to visit relatives there regularly and it doesn't matter which way I go, via Singapore or Hong Kong, we will go into the city and see posters on the sides of buses or on billboards for Game of Thrones. It is worldwide."

As yet, however, Adrian hasn't been approached to play a role in Thrones. "I think a lot of people might be available for that," he laughs, adding that he has no immediate plans to revive his musical career. For a time he had his own band called Adie and the Jonahs, who recorded an album of what one critic called "old style Irish country".

"I don't have time for that now," says Adrian "It's hard to keep all the boys together anyway. But I might get my head around it again."

He's on record as saying that he's an avid fan of Arsenal Football Club. But golf isn't his bag. Though he doesn't play the game, he's a fan of Rory McIlroy.

"I am seriously proud of him. It's unbelievable. You just have to take your hat off to the kid. He has just stepped out ahead of the rest of them.

"It's a wee bit like having George Best back again, isn't it?"

  • Five Fables Live takes place at the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, tomorrow at 12pm. For details, visit

Four of Adrian's best ...

  • The Crying Game (1992) – while fellow Ulsterman Stephen Rea stole the show as the IRA gunman in Neil Jordan's Troubles drama, Dunbar provided a memorable turn as his commander
  • Hear My Song (1991) – the name of Irish tenor Josef Locke was brought to a new generation following this critically-acclaimed comedy drama, in which Adrian played a luckless nightclub owner attempting to revive his fortunes by finding and booking the one time singing sensationThe Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008) – Adrian took on the role of priest Fr Philip Connolly alongside Ciaran McMenamin in this tale of the eponymous cannibal convict in colonial-era Australia
  • Line of Duty (2012-2014) – the gritty drama saw Adrian take on the role of anti-corruption officer Ted Hastings (left), whose dedication to the rule of law and his work is tested as his unit is mired in a number of murder investigations

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