McAnally, Ray (1926–89), actor, was born 30 March 1926 in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, son of James William McAnally, bank manager, and Winifred McAnally (née Ward). He was educated at the national school in Moville, Co. Donegal, and St Eunan's College, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. From the age of six he was appearing in amateur theatricals and made his first professional appearance at the town hall, Malin Town, Donegal, in 1942 as a member of the Richard and Lilian Carrickford company in a play entitled ‘Strange house’. After briefly attending as a seminarian St Patrick's College, Maynooth, he studied at the Abbey Theatre's school of acting and became a member of its company in 1947. His roles included Davoren in ‘The shadow of a gunman’ by Sean O'Casey (qv), 1951; Darrell Blake in ‘The moon in the yellow river’ by Denis Johnston (qv), 1953; the title part in ‘The playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge (qv), 1957; and St Columba in Brian Friel's (qv) ‘The enemy within’ in August 1962, the first Friel play to be professionally produced at the Abbey. By the time McAnally decided to leave the company and freelance in 1963 he had appeared in over 150 plays and had also sung and danced in fifteen Abbey pantomimes and musicals. He was immensely versatile and had the reputation for being able to take on anything; his acting philosophy was prosaic: ‘five lines one week, King Lear the next’ (Times, 17 June 1989). His ability and contribution to the Abbey were recognised in 1966 when – together with nine other actors, including Siobhán McKenna (qv), Cyril Cusack (qv), Micheál MacLíammóir (qv), and Jack MacGowran (qv) – he was made a lifetime member of the theatre.
By this time he had begun to make a reputation in England. He had his West End debut (November 1962) opposite Susannah York in Edna O'Brien's first London play, ‘A cheap bunch of nice flowers’ (New Arts) and went on to play George for eighteen months in Edward Albee's ‘Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (Piccadilly, 1964), and in Chekhov's ‘The cherry orchard’ (Chichester, 1966). He continued to act in Ireland, and received ecstatic reviews for his performance of the volcanic Bull McCabe in the debut production of John B. Keane's (qv) ‘The field’, staged at the Olympia on 1 November 1965. The playwright said that McAnally ‘brought the cow dung to the part of the Bull – he looked a man who smelt of dung’ (Smith & Hickey, 168). Playgoers called it the ‘McAnally Field’ and his performance became the yardstick by which all others were measured. He took the title role in ‘Macbeth’, which opened in the Abbey on 26 September 1971, though the Irish Times then criticised his performance as inaudible. As UN commandant Frank Butler in Brian Friel's ‘Living quarters’ (March 1977) he and the play were also criticised, but its revival in the October theatre festival brought some critics to revise their earlier judgment. He appeared as the philosophical teacher, Hugh, in the Field Day Theatre Company's original production of Friel's Translations in 1982, playing opposite Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea. With his wife, the actress Ronnie Masterson, whom he married in 1951, he formed a theatre company, Old Quay Productions, which staged plays in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s, including John B. Keane's ‘Letters of a matchmaker’.
His television career took off when he moved to London. His versatility was such that unlike some of his contemporaries, he was never typecast in Irish parts – when he did come close to being typecast in the late 1960s, it was as a Cockney gangster. He took the title role in the 1968 Granada series ‘Spindoe’ about a south London crook. For ‘Man in a suitcase’ (1967), he was an American lawyer, and in ‘The mind of J. G. Reeder’ (Thames, 1971) he was a Chicago gangster. In the Hugh Leonard-scripted sitcom ‘Me mammy’ (BBC, 1969–71), starring Milo O'Shea (qv), he played a priest. His subtle, low-key style of acting made him a natural for the small screen.
McAnally had appeared in films since 1957, including She didn't say no!, Shake hands with the devil (1959), and Billy Budd (1962), but his big breaks came in the 1980s, the decade where he achieved international renown. He appeared in Neil Jordan's Angel (1982), and as the loyalist gunman in Alan Bleasdale's farce No surrender (1986). For this role and for that of the cardinal in the highly acclaimed The mission (1987), where he played a man torn between his instructions from Rome and his own conscience, he received the Evening Standard's ‘best actor’ award in 1987. The mission also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for best supporting actor; in the opinion of The Times his acting in the film outclassed that of Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons. Particularly memorable was a shot, after the closing credits, of McAnally gazing impassively into the camera. When asked, in a rare interview, what he was trying to convey to the audience with that look, he drily replied that it was his agent's phone number. He received two more BAFTAs for TV roles: one for the father in ‘A perfect spy’ (1988), based on the John Le Carré thriller, and one for his portrayal of a Labour prime minister in Channel Four's ‘A very British coup’ (1988). The Times lauded the latter's script but reserved special praise for McAnally's masterly performance; the Irish Times called it the performance of his life. His last screen performances were as the father of Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's award- winning My left foot (1989) and with Robert de Niro again in the remake of the Humphrey Bogart film We're no angels, which was released after McAnally's sudden death at home in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, on 16 June 1989. His unexpected death was the more regretted since he was at the height of his acting powers and had only lately begun to receive due acclaim. He had been signed to play Bull McCabe in Noel Pearson's film production of The field. He was survived by his wife and four children.
Brian Friel called him ‘one of the major Irish actors . . . one of the last survivors of a great period of Abbey actors’ (Ir. Times, 17 June 1989). A heavily built man, with light brown hair and an impassive gaze, he gave performances that were understated, deadpan, intelligent, subtle, and characterised by great emotional honesty; he was arguably the best Irish screen actor of his generation. Particularly skilled at conveying simmering violence and divided loyalties, he was also excellent, if under-used, in comedy. An intensely private man, he resisted playing the publicity game, his attitude to his fans being that ‘they pay to see you on stage or in the film or on television, but your private life and your family life are your own’ (ibid.).