Career Advice from John McColgan

For JOHN MCCOLGAN, co-creator of Riverdance, the curtain is just rising on another phase of his life and work, as he explains to ANNE HARRIS


John McColgan first saw Duffy’s circus aged 14 and of course “wanted to run away with all the girls in the spangly tights”. In a way he did. But before he and his wife Moya Doherty launched Riverdance, with its magnificent, glamorous hoofers, he had a career so brilliant it would be easy to think he was The Man Who Had All the Luck. And that might
be a mistake.

Riverdance is a household word, our wild and exotic Tir na nÓg export, but its creator is now 70 and making a name for himself as a photographer. Hardly surprising that after all that sound and fury, he would seek the qualities of stillness and light. Except that’s not what he is doing.

He says he is taking it easy, but I can scarcely scan the menu at Cliff Townhouse so full is his flow of dense and dazzling projects. We do eventually order but by then it has become clear that McColgan’s hunger is for knowledge. “When I want to do something, I hire the best in the field to teach me,” he says. There are photographic safaris in Montenegro, Namibia, Cuba and Iceland for the aurora borealis. “The best way to travel is to have a project”. There are black and white portraits of Irish writers, several documentaries and small theatrical productions, because he is “not going to do another long show again”. He is learning to ride western-style in Leitrim because he is a “closet cowboy”. He is getting a new motorbike (a closet Hell’s Angel?) And then there’s the circus.

It is clear that there are so many strings to his bow, it’s probably best to concentrate on the bow. What timber of humanity shaped this man of whom his peers say getting rich couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, one who has always stayed true to the rules of entertainment?

It all began around the time he saw the circus. From the age of 14 he worked. But this was no Penny Apples poverty narrative. He chose to work. “One day at school I got twelve lashes on the hand for Latin declension. My hands were so swollen, I couldn’t ride my bike for five days. I decided there and then to leave. The Christian Brothers came to the house and offered to educate me for free. But I wouldn’t go back.

My father didn’t speak to me for years. We passed each other in the hall.” His mother, who had eight younger children, was his solace and support. ‘“What will you do, a ghrá?’ she asked me. ‘I’ll work,’ I said.” And he did. “In factories, pubs and as a messenger boy.” And she was always there. “For all of us. She talked to us all the time: ‘How are you, a ghrá?’ He dreamed of the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, but it didn’t happen, despite a few acting parts while a messenger boy in Radio Éireann. That said, his rise in RTÉ to Head of Light Entertainment was testimony to his many talents.

His mother didn’t live to see Riverdance. “She died two months before it, and it was dedicated to her.” That was 20 years ago but still, over a nice lunch of Caesar salad and sea trout, his voice disappears as he repeats, “What will you do, a ghrá?’” Her influence pervaded everything: he really is The Man Who Loves Women. “In the early days of Tyrone productions, the late Joan Egan said ‘John, you know, you are going to have to hire a man at some stage.’ We were just beginning and we had nine women and no men. I love working with women. In my view they are superior to men.” 

Pinning him down for lunch was difficult because he was in China and Winnipeg with Heartbeat of Home and Riverdance. “Having one-to-one sessions with everybody. This has to be done because there is a sacred responsibility between the artist and the audience.” Everything he produces has magnetism and physical bravura, but popular culture is often underestimated. All theatre forms ultimately bring on the clowns. Laurence Olivier said it all when he described himself as a “born pub entertainer”. McColgan bemoans the “snobbery in theatre”. His pride in Riverdance is palpable. He sees it as a family, metaphorically and literally. “There have been 60 marriages and 40 children since it all began.”

He is a family man himself, delighting in his toddler granddaughter. His big regret is that: “I didn’t see enough of the children of my first marriage when they were young.” He is in philosophical mode. “In my 60s I did an awful lot, I was driven. The 70s are different. I want to give back.”

So where is the circus in this? “Circus has been around for 200 years. It’s the only form of entertainment where everybody works and they work 24-7. No day off.” Naturally, he’s making a documentary. With Gabriel Byrne. “Old man Duffy’s grandchildren are still there. Nineteen and 20-year-olds are taking over. It’s an amazing life.” John McColgan has come full circle. It’s good to know that the siren call of the girls in spangly tights which he heard all those years ago, and which led him on his marvellous showbusiness odyssey, has not faded. 

Anne Harris

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