O'Dea, James Augustine (‘Jimmy’) (1899–1965), actor and comedian, was born 26 April 1899 at 11 Lower Bridge St., Dublin, over his parents’ toyshop in the historic but dilapidated Liberties. Both parents, twice-widowed James O'Dea and his third wife, Martha (née O'Gorman), former assistant to O'Dea's widowed sister who had willed him the shop, were from Kilkenny. Of their eight Dublin-born children, four sons (of whom James, or ‘Jim’, was the last) and two daughters survived. Four daughters of the previous marriages had moved away, while a son, Ciarán, remained at home. James O'Dea placed the toyshop under his wife's control while he earned his living, first at Henshaw's ironmongery in nearby Christchurch Place, and from 1896 at his own ironmongery at 21 Christchurch Place. Young Jim, diminutive and good-natured but unscholarly, attended a succession of schools: Holy Faith Convent, Dominick St.; Holy Faith boarding school, Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow; Belvedere College, Dublin; the Marist boarding school, Dundalk; back to Dublin at Blackrock College; and finally St Mary's College, Rathmines. In 1908 his father's business had relocated north of the Liffey to 162 Capel St., and the family to 21 Grosvenor Place, Rathmines.
Passion for the theatre inspired Jim O'Dea above all else. He joined the Kilronan Players, formed c.1917 by Capel St. friend and future politician Seán Lemass (qv). In that year they performed at the Father Mathew Hall, Church St., in T. C. Murray's (qv) ‘Maurice Harte’ and William Boyle's (qv) ‘The mineral workers’. O'Dea appeared in further productions and obtained small roles at the Abbey Theatre. His father declared he would sooner see him in a coffin than on the stage and arranged that he become an optician. Jim served his time with John Murray of Duke St., who tried to cure his insatiable dramatic appetite by quoting him the antiquated apprenticeship regulations against frequenting alehouses and theatres. O'Dea risked instant dismissal. Instead, Murray transferred him to his brother's practice in Edinburgh. Duly qualifying in 1921, James A. O'Dea opened his Dublin practice in South Frederick St., moving later to Nassau St., and transferring it to his sister Rita when he opted for the stage.
Edinburgh aside, he had remained firmly attached to Dublin's theatre world with parts at the short-lived Irish Theatre established by Edward Martyn (qv) at Hardwicke St., including a small role (1918) in Ibsen's ‘Enemy of the people’ and later (1920) as Firs in Chekhov's ‘The cherry orchard’. In November 1920 he was at the Abbey in Lord Dunsany's (qv) ‘The laughter of the gods’. In September 1921 he returned in ‘You never can tell’ by George Bernard Shaw (qv). Edging closer to becoming ‘Ireland's greatest comedian’ he filled the title role in John MacDonagh's contemporary political satire ‘The Irish Jew’ at the Empire (later Olympia) and Queen's Theatres (1921–3). In 1924 MacDonagh placed him in the pioneering Irish revue ‘Dublin tonight’. O'Dea marked time in straight theatre with the Kilronan Players and their comedy offshoot, the Sandabs. He was best man at Seán Lemass's wedding in 1924.
Comedy prevailed when O'Dea collaborated with Harry O'Donovan (qv), actor, producer, and scriptwriter. In 1927 they formed O'D Productions, an initially informal variety scriptwriting/performance company whose first production, ‘We're here’ (1928), was acclaimed at the Queen's and Olympia, as well as the Palace Theatre, Cork. At Christmas 1928 their first pantomime, ‘Sinbad the sailor’, played at the Olympia. O'Dea adopted the permanent stage name ‘Jimmy O'Dea’ and his leading female character, ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’, Dublin's most opinionated and resourceful street-trader, evolved from earlier ‘dame’ acts on which he and O'Donovan worked. With her eponymous comic anthem Biddy Mulligan became forever identified with O'Dea's variety stage persona.
If Biddy Mulligan won him popular fame and children's hero status in pantomime, silent cinema had discovered O'Dea in 1922. He starred in three films for the newly formed Irish Photo-Plays Ltd: ‘The Casey millions’, ‘Cruiskeen lawn’, and ‘Wicklow gold’ were directed in Ireland by John MacDonagh. O'Dea returned to the screen with British directors in the years 1935–9. By then his comedy stage career in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast had flourished as O'Donovan's (and MacDonagh's) scripts replaced traditional anglocentric humour and allusions with local and topical references, enhanced by O'Dea's notorious ad-libbing. In September 1930 his British career began, playing an Irish emigrant in ‘Micky breaks into America’ at the London Coliseum. Several film roles and much radio, e.g. ‘Irish half-hour’ and ‘Over to Mulligan's’ on BBC Home and Forces wartime and postwar programmes, extended his fame. In Ireland, while Maurice (qv) and Louis Elliman (qv) practically controlled variety theatre and film, O'Dea relied on these interests, especially their Queen's, Gaiety, and Royal Theatres, to outlast the contest between stage and screen. The Ellimans never failed O'Dea, literally to the day he died.
He had also acquired a permanent and seemingly ageless comedy partner in Maureen Potter (1925–2004), a female alter ego active with O'D Productions since the late 1930s. Boosted in these relationships and by Harry O'Donovan's loyalty, Jimmy O'Dea remained central to Irish comedy in the 1950s and early 1960s. As cinema closed some theatres and television threatened the rest, O'Dea overcame these dangers: perfectly cast in Hollywood by Walt Disney as leprechaun King Brian in Darby O'Gill and the little people (1959). He enthralled young children as the storyteller on fledgling Irish television's ‘Once upon a time’; he had broadcast on national radio since its inception in 1926.
O'Dea married first (1925) Bernadette, daughter of Dublin publican Bernard Fagan; after her death he married secondly (1959) Ursula, daughter of Edward and Josephine Doyle of Tara St., Dublin. Neither marriage produced children. Terminally ill in 1964, O'Dea resolved to fulfil his obligations before he died, leaving Dr Steevens’ Hospital over Christmas to attend a tribute to Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) and complete a Christmas television programme at his home, 75 Pembroke Road. Returning to hospital (after attending the Gaiety pantomime), he died 7 January 1965 with Louis Elliman in attendance. Much loved and widely mourned, he was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.