Hugh Leonard, Irish dramatist, television writer and essayist, is born in Dublin on November 9, 1926. In a career that spans 50 years, he writes nearly 30 full-length plays, 10 one-act plays, three volumes of essays, two autobiographies, three novels and numerous screenplays and teleplays, as well as writing a regular newspaper column.
After birth, Leonard is put up for adoption. Raised in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, by Nicholas and Margaret Keyes, he changes his name to John Keyes Byrne. For the rest of his life, despite the pen name of “Hugh Leonard” which he later adopts and becomes well known by, he invites close friends to call him “Jack.”
Leonard is educated at the Harold Boys’ National School, Dalkey, and Presentation College, Glasthule, winning a scholarship to the latter. He works as a civil servant for fourteen years. During that time he both acts in and writes plays for community theatre groups. His first play to be professionally produced is The Big Birthday, which is mounted by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1956. His career with the Abbey Theatre continues until 1994. After that his plays are produced regularly by Dublin’s theatres.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Leonard is the first major Irish writer to establish a reputation in television, writing extensively for television including original plays, comedies, thrillers and adaptations of classic novels for British television. He is commissioned by RTÉ to write Insurrection, a 50th anniversary dramatic reconstruction of the Easter Rising of 1916. His Silent Song, adapted for the BBC from a short story by Frank O’Connor, wins the Prix Italia in 1967. He writes the script for the RTÉ adaptation of Strumpet City by James Plunkett.
Three of Leonard’s plays have been presented on Broadway: The Au Pair Man (1973), which stars Charles Durning and Julie Harris, Da (1978) and A Life (1980). Of these, Da, which originates off-off-Broadway at the Hudson Guild theatre before transferring to the Morosco Theatre, is the most successful, running for 20 months and 697 performances, then touring the United States for ten months. It earns Leonard both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for Best Play. It is made into a film in 1988, starring Martin Sheen and Barnard Hughes, who reprises his Tony Award-winning Broadway performance.
Leonard writes two volumes of autobiography, Home Before Night (1979) and Out After Dark (1989). Some of his essays and journalism are collected in Leonard’s Last Book (1978) and A Peculiar People and Other Foibles (1979). In 1992 the Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard is published. Until 2006 he writes a humorous weekly column, “The Curmudgeon,” for the Irish Sunday Independent newspaper. He has a passion for cats and restaurants, and an abhorrence of broadcaster Gay Byrne.
Even after retiring as a Sunday Independent columnist, Leonard displays an acerbic humour. In an interview with Brendan O’Connor, he is asked if it galls him that Gay Byrne is now writing his old column. His reply is, “It would gall me more if he was any good at it.” He is a patron of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
In 1994, Leonard appears in a televised interview with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, an Irish political party associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He has long been an opponent of political violence and a critic of the IRA. However, on the show and afterwards he is criticised for being “sanctimonious and theatrical” towards Adams. At one point he refers to Sinn Féin as “dogs.”
Hugh Leonard – Odd Man In, a film on his life and work is shown on RTÉ in March 2009. Leonard’s final play, Magicality, is not performed during his lifetime. A rehearsed reading of the second act is staged at the Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre in June 2012.
Hugh Leonard dies after a long illness on February 12, 2009 in his hometown of Dalkey at the age of 82, leaving €1.5 million in his will.