Roach, Hal (1927–2012), comedian and writer, was born John Roach on 4 November 1927 at 88 Manor Street, in Waterford city centre, one of at least five children (three boys and two girls) of Thomas Roche, a labourer, and his wife Catherine (née Farrell). While attending school at the local Manor CBS, he was nicknamed 'Hal' after the Hollywood film director of the same name, for the resemblance he bore to the character Alfalfa in Roach's Our gang series. Aged 12, having won a talent contest as a boy soprano, he left school to work with a travelling variety show. He later recalled his tough upbringing in a poor family and that going on the road ensured there was one fewer mouth to feed at home. Initially he worked with a magician called the 'Great Bamboozalem', beginning a show-business career that spanned six decades.
Performing to local audiences in tents, barns and school halls across the country, Roach toured with the 'fit ups' during the 1940s, singing and performing magic and occasional comedy routines, until realising at the age of 16 that his true calling was comedy. Small and slight of build with his trademark dark spectacles, he was once described as an 'Hibernian Woody Allen' (Ulster Herald, 8 March 2012). On 3 September 1951, while still on the road and living out of a trailer at Barry's Field, Bray, Co. Wicklow, he married at St Michael's church, Inchicore, Mary Josephine Hughes, daughter of a local shopkeeper, connected with the Burdock family of Dublin fish-and-chip fame (Ir. Times, 22 July 1999). As the popularity of television grew during the 1960s, the fit ups began to disappear, and Roach concentrated more on Dublin's cabaret scene. Regular slots on RTÉ radio and television shows, such as Ranch house revels and What's my line, provided valuable publicity, and in 1965 he was support act for the Irish showband the Bachelors, when they played at the Adelphi Theatre in Dublin. By the end of the 1960s, Roach was making a significant impression, not only in Ireland, but also in England, where he supported such acts as Sarah Vaughan and Connie Francis.
In an age when swearing on stage and broad humour was becoming more acceptable, Roach was proud that his self-written material was suitable for all of the family, and took care to ensure that 'nuns and priests' and 'mums and dads' could come to his shows without feeling embarrassed (Ir. Examiner, 17 March 2001). His onstage appearance and style of delivery were unashamedly old school: smartly presented in tuxedo and bow tie, he told old-fashioned jokes that usually began with the words 'did you hear about …' or 'there was a fella …', such as: 'There was a fella with one eye called Casey. I don't know what the other one was called.' Like all comedians of the time, he had his own catchphrase, 'write it down, it's a good one', to which he reverted throughout his act. His delivery was sharp and polished, perhaps a little sharper than his material, which depicted the Irish as a hapless and gormless people who loved to laugh at themselves, something Roach often did himself to prompt a response from his audience. His act was sometimes dismissed by critics (particularly in Ireland) as stage-Irish hokum, but it held a refreshing innocence and charm for his many admirers, who preferred it to the increasingly earthy humour of most contemporary comedians.
Roach received his first real break in show business in 1965 when he was given the slot as resident comedian in the very popular Jury's Irish Cabaret at Jury's Hotel in Dublin. For a further twenty-six years he remained there, entering the Guinness book of records as the longest resident comedian in any single venue worldwide. Through the many visiting American tourists, the slot gave him exposure to the US market, and Roach honed his act appropriately to become Ireland's self-styled 'missionary of humour', spreading the word of Irish comedy abroad (Ir. Examiner, 17 March 2001). In the process, he won legions of transatlantic fans, who warmed to his depiction of loveable Irish stereotypes such as Murphy, Flanagan and Casey. He played his first US gig in 1970, and over the next two decades became a far bigger star in America than in his home country, prompting him to live most of the year in his Florida home, while returning to Ireland in the summers to do the Jury's Cabaret. He also starred alongside Maureen Potter (qv) in the 'Gaels of laughter' show that ran annually at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, throughout the 1970s.
Off stage, Roach was a private person and did not readily seek the company of others. He presented himself to the media as a dedicated family man, and loved the opportunity to talk about his children, particularly his son John who had Down syndrome and was a 'great source of joy' to the family (Ir. Press, 1 August 1972). In interviews Roach often spoke of his disappointment at the lack of recognition accorded in Ireland to his success in the US, Australia and South Africa (where he even had his own TV programmes). Admitting to feeling let down by his country, and particularly by his home town of Waterford, he blamed his meagre success in Ireland on RTÉ, which he claimed did not properly present his talents to Irish television audiences, favouring instead the more 'parochial bejapers and begorrah comedian' (Ir. Press, 1 August 1972). He put his success in America down to the fact that he could readily adapt his style to American audiences by tailoring his material and using the appropriate colloquialisms when necessary. He played many of the top venues in New York and Las Vegas, and counted among his many fans Frank Sinatra, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Ronald Reagan, the last being one of five US presidents for whom he performed. Roach's impression on Irish America was such that all his writings have been included in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Roach published more than ten books of jokes, including The unnecessary sayings of the Irish in conversation (1975) and Hal Roach's joke book for men only (women welcome) (1977). There were also over a dozen albums and DVDs, most notably King of blarney (1978) and We Irish talk like that (1982), both with the Rego Irish Records label.
Fifty years of performing in smoke-filled halls and theatres eventually took their toll on Roach's health, and in late 1990 he underwent surgery for lung cancer. A few years later he decided to leave Jury's Cabaret, as he disliked the changes being made to the show under new management. Refusing to allow ill health to set him back, he continued to work, and in 1998 was made grand marshal at the St Patrick's Day Parade in Washington, DC. In summer 1999 he collaborated with Bill O'Donovan, his original producer at Jury's, to perform 'An evening with Hal Roach' for a full season at the Regency Airport Hotel in Dublin. After a few more attempts to revive his career in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roach, who claimed in earlier interviews that he would never retire, gradually stepped back from the spotlight to spend his remaining years in the company of his wife and son. He was a keen gardener and loved to potter about his garden in the Dublin mountains, enjoying his horses and the wonderful views of Dublin Bay.
In later life he suffered from dementia. Early in 2012 he contracted pneumonia, leading to his death on 28 February 2012, aged 84, at St Joseph's Centre, a dedicated dementia-care facility, in Shankill, Co. Dublin. Survived by his wife and four children, he was buried in Glencullen cemetery. He had also fathered a child in April 1985 with Julie Cantwell, for which he accepted responsibility in 1988.