Following his tragically early death after a long battle with mental illness, the family and friends of actor Marc O’Shea gathered to pay tribute to his life. Ivan Little hears about the impact that the ‘viciously talented’ Belfast man had on all he met and the bursary being set up in his name.
It was a spine-tingling, show-stopping moment which left barely a dry eye in the house in Newcastle as award-winning Londonderry actress and singer Bronagh Gallagher sang a haunting tribute to her friend, Marc O’Shea, exactly a year after the Belfast actor took his own life.
The Commitments star dedicated her self-penned composition, Precious Soul, to her “precious wee soul” Marc, who had appeared with her in the cult movie You, Me And Marley, which was first screened exactly 25 years to the day before his tragic death.
Just a few yards from the church where they gathered 12 months earlier to mourn 44-year-old Marc’s death, they walked along a red carpet into a community centre to celebrate his life.
Scores of friends and family members, including Marc’s mother Moira, watched You, Me and Marley which, as well as Bronagh Gallagher, also starred Michael Liebmann and Cathy Brennan Bradley who were in Newcastle to pay emotional tributes to the actor who had struggled with severe depression for what were called a number of “difficult years” before his death.
There were tears of laughter as well as tears of sorrow as the actors told their stories about their “leader” on the production which was filmed in Manchester rather than “the still too dangerous” west Belfast back in 1992.
And Bronagh revealed that, even now, as many people recognise her from Marley as from her appearances in blockbusters like The Commitments and Pulp Fiction.
And she said: “Marc was a magnificent actor. He didn’t have a lot of dialogue in Marley yet he was able to say so much without words. He was our hero.”
Michael Liebmann said: “It was impossible not to be drawn to Marc with his smile, his laugh and he was full of life and song. He cheered me up every time I saw him.
“He’s a real loss to acting. He was special, he had a natural ability and he could shake people up.
Cathy Brennan Bradley said: “Marc was a very ‘real’ actor. I hadn’t seen You, Me and Marley for 20 years until Newcastle. And his performance still shines.”
Watching You, Me and Marley took the audience on a journey back to the dark days of a joyriding epidemic in west Belfast and the virtual war between the ‘hoods’ and the IRA.
Marc played the role of joyrider Sean O’Neill whose nickname was the Wart and who defied the Provisionals and the security forces who tried to halt his anti-social behaviour.
Sadly no-one was able to stop Marc from ending his life in September last year. And his family say they still miss him and his “cheeky” smile every day.
Friends of the actor have called for more action from the Government to tackle the scourge of suicide in Northern Ireland.
And a fundraising drive in Marc’s memory will have two beneficiaries.
The first is a bursary in his name, set up by his family who organised the tribute night in Newcastle.
Actor, writer and director Tony Devlin said the money that was raised would support a young person every year in pursuit of their dreams of making a career in the performing arts.
Part of the money collected through personal donations and online appeals will also go to the charity Aware NI, which is trying to help people like Marc who are suffering from depression.
Marc’s last message on social media before he was found dead at his home in Annesborough near Castlewellan talked of how he had battled with his demons.
He wrote: “As someone that suffers with mental health issues I think it’s disgusting how the Tories and their cronies are destroying what little mental health care there is left.”
Marc’s brother Michael said his family couldn’t escape the tragedy of his death. But he added: “We are determined not to allow it to define him. We know there was so much more to Marc than his end.”
Michael recalled how Marc unwittingly played a part in helping Hollywood star Colin Farrell to get his break into the movie world.
The then unknown Dubliner stepped into Marc’s shoes after he dropped out of the play In A Little World of Our Own by Rathcoole writer Gary Mitchell.
Marc had played the role of a young loyalist with learning difficulties in the first production of the play in Dublin.
But he was cast in another play that was going to America and Farrell took over his part for a run at the Donmar Warehouse in London where he was famously spotted by now disgraced movie star Kevin Spacey who lined up his first film in the States.
The rest is now movie history and had Marc wondering ‘what if’?
Michael Liebmann saw Marc and Farrell playing the same role. “And Marc was 50 times better,” he insisted.
In 2010 Marc, a fanatical Cliftonville supporter, portrayed loyalist Johnny Adair in a drama about the life of the late Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, played by Julie Walters.
His talent as an actor was first spotted at primary school in Belfast and nurtured by a teacher at Lagan College who was impressed by Marc’s ability to adopt the personas of characters when he was asked to read from a novel.
In his mid-teens he auditioned for a BBC radio play before he was picked to play the Wart in You, Me and Marley and one critic apparently likened Marc to a young James Cagney.
The drama brought instant recognition for Marc in the streets but friends said he never lost his humility.
But the story goes that he once saw an artist adding to the huge mural near the Duke of York pub and when he was told he was painting famous Belfast personalities Marc said “Why aren’t you putting me in it?”
The artist duly obliged and painted Marc peering over the shoulder of the Edge, the U2 guitarist. Marc. however never mentioned his place on the wall of fame to his family who only heard about it after his death.
Marc won several awards for his acting and was part of the cast of the Martin Lynch play Chronicles of Long Kesh, which received the best ensemble award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009.
However, Marc decided to give up acting hoping to find more stability away from the notoriously difficult, uncertain and demanding world of the theatre and films.
Michael said: “He worked in bars and hotels for periods here and there and talked about undertaking a social work degree for a time. But he never got the same satisfaction from anything else he ever did that he got from acting and the degree never happened.”
Michael said he believed Marc’s decision to quit acting was a turning point in his life. “Acting wasn’t a trade for Marc. It was a fundamental part of who he was.”
Marc, however, later found a new outlet for his talents in a summer drama school run by Roma Tomelty’s Centre Stage company where he was an enthusiastic and skilful tutor for dozens of youngsters whose devastation at his death was reflected in heart-breaking messages on social media.
Roma said Marc was part of Centre Stage for over 15 years as an actor, a teacher, a chef and a friend.
She added: “He was irascible, quarrelsome, hilarious, garrulous, volatile, loyal, entirely supportive and always, in spite of his small stature, conspicuous. A furnace of his kind of feisty energy could never be ignored.
“As an actor he was a triumph.”
Marc’s sister, Claire O’Shea, said her brother’s time at the summer schools was among the happiest periods of his life.
She said he “was a gentle, unassuming wee man with a big personality and a massive heart” who had appeared in films alongside the likes of Richard Harris, Brendan Gleason, Cillian Murphy and James Nesbitt.
His CV also included movies like Breakfast on Pluto, The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, This is the Sea and High Boot Benny.
Marc had also appeared in TV shows Give My Head Peace, The Bill and Heartbeat.
Claire said that the family wanted part of Marc’s legacy to be in helping other people.
She added: “We have chosen to support Aware NI because of the great work they do throughout Northern Ireland to help those unfortunate enough to find themselves suffering as Marc did. We are truly grateful for any support for the essential work of this great charity.”
For more details about donating to Marc O’Shea’s bursary and Aware NI go to www.gofundme.com/the-marc-o039shea-bursary-fund