John Ultan Cowley, actor and animal welfare activist, dies on February 13, 1998, in Navan, County Meath. He is best known for his role as pater familias, Tom Riordan, in the long-running RTÉ Television drama series, The Riordans.
Cowley is born September 8, 1923 in Ardbraccan, Navan, County Meath, the third child of Patrick Cowley, a small farmer, and his wife Margaret. Educated at the local national school, he leaves at the age of thirteen to work on the family farm. He also works with a horse and cart drawing stones from a local quarry. He is an enthusiastic amateur actor and learns his trade in the fit-ups of the forties and fifties. Moving to England, he gets parts in television shows such as Z-Cars and No Hiding Place. During the 1950s and 60s, he is also very active in theatre, and has a long association with the Globe theatre company in Dún Laoghaire, which he joins in 1956. He also plays in the Abbey, Gate and Olympia theatres, travels Europe in 1960–61 with John Millington Synge‘s The Playboy of the Western World, and stars in the early Hugh Leonard play I Loved You Last Summer.
Cowley is best known for his portrayal of the bluff countryman Tom Riordan in RTÉ’s rural drama, The Riordans. First airing on January 4, 1965, it runs until May 28, 1979. One of RTÉ’s most successful programmes, it has a huge audience and a considerable social impact through its treatment of controversial topics such as divorce, contraception, and mixed marriages. When it ends in 1979 Cowley is bitterly disappointed and accuses RTÉ of throwing him on the scrap heap. After this he continues to work in theatre and has occasional appearances on screen, including a part in Jim Sheridan‘s The Field (1991) and the British espionage television series, The Avengers.
Cowley also writes poetry and a play, A Fool and His Money. His other hobbies include a passion for history (particularly the 1798 period), hurling, Gaelic football, boxing, and swimming. A patron and a founder member of the Irish Council Against Blood Sports in 1967, he is a leading opponent of hare coursing, popularising the cause through an appearance on The Late Late Show in 1967.
In 1953 Cowley marries Annie D’Alton, an actor who later appears with him in The Riordans, two years after the death of her first husband, the dramatist Louis D’Alton. They have one son.
Cowley dies in Navan on February 13, 1998. His wife precedes him in death in March 1983.